Sunset Blvd. (United States, 1950)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

1950 was a very good year for movies that took a look behind the showbiz scene. Both Sunset Blvd. (films) and All About Eve (theater) collected their share of Oscar nominations, with Eve beating out Sunset in the key Best Picture category. However, although I believe that Joseph L. Mankiewicz's picture features more biting dialogue and a performance to top all performances by Bette Davis, Sunset Blvd. is probably a slightly better all-around film. The subject matter is a little more compelling, Billy Wilder's direction is superior, the pacing is tighter, and there's a lot more going on.

In more than fifty years, only two pictures have offered such an uncompromising look behind Hollywood's red drapery: Sunset Blvd. and The Player. When the former film debuted in 1950, it was viewed as the product of a cynical director, but, for Billy Wilder, cynicism equates to reality. Sunset Blvd. is not an attack on Hollywood, but neither is it a love letter. It shows the movie business for what it is – an industry in which people are disposable commodities and where using others becomes second nature. What looks like a shining fantasy land from a distance comes across as a den of backstabbing, deceit, and cruelty up close. Many in Hollywood were upset with Wilder's bleak and black portrayal of the studios – not because it was a fabrication, but because it put the truth up on a screen for everyone to see.

One could argue that Wilder was the perfect man to tell this tale. At the time of Sunset Blvd.'s release, his career was in ascent, but he was still something of an outsider. Wilder's roots were in German cinema, and he only came to America because of Hitler's rise to power. By the time he co-wrote and directed Sunset Blvd., he had been in Hollywood long enough to understand how things worked, and was respected enough that the film's tell-all approach did not destroy his career (although more than one studio executive was furious with him at the time).

The opening scenes of Sunset Blvd. are some of the most famous in motion picture history. After the opening credits, the camera follows motorcycles and police cars as they pull up to a Beverly Hills mansion where a body floats face-down in a pool. Referring to the sad tale of the dead man, a voiceover narrator promises, "Before you hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion, before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you'd like to hear the facts, the whole truth." For the next 100 minutes, he tells it.

Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a B-movie writer who can't find enough work to keep his head above water. When repossessors arrive to take away his car, he leads them on a merry chase that ends with him pulling off the road and turning into the driveway of a crumbling old mansion on Sunset Boulevard. At first, Joe thinks the relic is deserted. After all, the swimming pool is empty, the tennis court is in disrepair, and the ostentatious house is well past its prime. But, upon further investigation, he discovers that it is inhabited by silent movie queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who is attended by her stoic, faithful butler, Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). Her only other companion, a chimpanzee, has just died. Norma, once an audience favorite, has been out of the spotlight for more than two decades, and now her sanity teeters on the brink.

Joe's first impulse is to extricate himself from the situation quickly, but, when he senses there's money to be made, he devises a plan. Norma has a script she is readying to take to Cecil B. De Mille, but Joe can see at a glance that it's a disaster. For a fee, he offers to doctor it. With thoughts of a comeback firing her imagination, Norma agrees. But Joe's plans to take the screenplay back to his apartment are aborted when Norma insists that he move in with her. She views him as a suitable replacement for her deceased monkey. (Although Max sees him as more of a stray dog.) Soon, Joe is living the life of a kept man – a gigolo who has his every need cared for. It's an existence he is comfortable with until Norma's demands upon his time and person become too extreme. He realizes he needs a way out when he finds himself attracted to a young would-be screenwriter, Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), who wants to co-write a script with him. But the moment the jealous Norma fears she may lose him, she resorts to a drastic, and melodramatic, action.

Originally, Wilder planned a much different opening for Sunset Blvd. The film was to have started in a morgue, with Joe's corpse, freshly recovered from the swimming pool, holding a conversation with the other bodies around him. Eventually, he would start telling the story, relating it to his lifeless companions. However, when a test audience erupted in derisive laughter during this sequence, Wilder re-shot the opening, eliminating everything in the morgue. In the final version, Joe's narration is directed not at other bodies, but at the film's viewers.

When Sunset Blvd. was first released, it was considered to offer a darkly cynical view of the world in general and show business in particular. In today's climate, it seems prophetic. Considering the public's fascination with celebrity murderers (obvious examples: O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake), much of what is depicted in Sunset Blvd. has an unmistakable ring of truth, in some ways making it more accessible and relevant than when it was released. While it's true that digging into the dirt surrounding movie stars has always been an American pastime, it has become an obsession in recent years. Nothing is more satisfying, it sometimes seems, than a fallen icon.

Gloria Swanson earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Norma Desmond, but she wasn't the filmmakers' first (or even second) choice for the role. Wilder initially approached, and was rebuffed by, Mae West. He then went to Mary Pickford, but her demands for control caused him to turn away. Finally, he approached Swanson, who accepted. A huge star during the silent era, Swanson had been largely absent for the screen for 16 years when Wilder offered her the part (although she had a role in a 1941 film called Father Takes a Wife). In many ways, Norma is a distorted reflection of Swanson, although Swanson's lengthy screen absence was not spent in a lonely isolation that pushed her to the brink of madness.

Norma is always giving a performance. Her life has become a melodrama and, if only in her own mind, she is always in front of an audience. In many ways, her everyday mannerisms represent a grotesque parody of silent movie acting, and that's what Swanson brings to the part. It's a difficult role, because it requires not only lengthy scenes of grandiose, over-the-top work, but occasional moments of quiet intensity during Norma's rare times of lucidity. There's an arrogance in the performance to rival that of Bette Davis in All About Eve, but, on a fundamental level, the characters (and thus the performances) are very different. Swanson displays for us a portrait of a woman losing her mind.

In another case of art imitating life, Norma's former director-turned-butler is played by Erich von Stroheim, who directed Swanson in Queen Kelly, the film that ruined his career behind the camera. When that film was shot in 1929, Swanson (who was a producer as well as the star) fired Stroheim midway through the production. The rift between them lasted many years, although it was patched up before Sunset Blvd., and scenes from Queen Kelly are used during this movie to depict Norma as a starlet. Stroheim's performance is at times chilling, with an subtle sense of menace underlying his unflappable calm. There is no doubting, however, Max's complete devotion to Norma.

As with Swanson, William Holden was not the director's first choice. Montgomery Clift was signed, but he breached his contract weeks before shooting was to start. After an abortive attempt to get Fred MacMurray, Wilder went with Holden, who wasn't much of a "name" at the time. Holden hadn't had a big role since 1939's Golden Boy, and some in Hollywood considered him to be a has-been. With his natural screen presence and sardonic, self-deprecating wit, Holden is a perfect match for Joe Gillis. He makes this character, who is saddled with some obvious moral flaws, into a likable protagonist. Sunset Blvd. rejuvenated Holden's career. He went on to make two other films with Wilder (Stalag 17 and Sabrina) on his way to becoming an A-list player.

The final major role, Betty Schaefer, went to newcomer Nancy Olson, who was appearing in only her second film. Wilder wanted a "fresh face," and that's what he got. Olson presents Betty as naïve but determined – not yet jaded by Hollywood and willfully ignorant of how Joe manages to live without an income. For Joe, Betty represents the temptation of purity and sweetness – the path out of the state of decay into which he has entered. In the end, he does what's best for her by letting her go, but she proves to be the catalyst that leads to the film's final tragedy.

Sunset Blvd. features a number of well-known faces in small roles. Cecil B. De Mille plays a slightly "softened" version of himself. (De Mille was widely known as a tyrant, but, as portrayed here, he comes across as paternal. When Norma visits him during a film shoot, he does his best to let her down gently.) Silent film stars Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner have cameos as Norma's card-playing friends (unkindly dubbed "The Waxworks" by Joe). And gossip columnist Hedda Hopper plays herself, front-and-center for Norma's final performance.

The film's final scene, with a completely deranged Norma descending a staircase in front of newsreel cameras, is simultaneously macabre, comic, and sad. She is once again in the spotlight, even if she is unable to comprehend why, and Max, who is positioning the cameras, is directing her for one final time. (She is as unaware of his presence as she is of everyone else's. She thinks she's playing "Salome" for De Mille, and is ready for her close-up.)

From a technical standpoint, Sunset Blvd. is not a ground-breaking film, but Wilder uses the film's visual elements to good effect. Norma's mansion is shown in all of its crumbling, gothic glory. The "fish's eye" shot of Joe in the pool is memorable. And there's even a short car chase – a distinct departure for Wilder, who was not known for filming action sequences. Franz Waxman's score represents the perfect musical accompaniment.

Technology saved Sunset Blvd., which was fully restored for its 2002 DVD reissue. With the original nitrate negatives nowhere to be found, restorers Barry Allen and Steve Elkin had to work with 35 mm interpositives from 1952, which were in bad condition. The painstaking effort not only resulted in a nearly flawless DVD version, but ensured that Sunset Blvd. will not be lost, like so many other films, to the inevitable progression of entropy.

Sunset Blvd. is considered by some to be a black satire, by others to be film noir, and by others as a character-centered drama. To an extent, all of these categorizations are correct, since elements of the three are present in the text. What everyone can agree upon, however, is that this is the greatest film about Hollywood ever put on celluloid by Hollywood. The script shines with biting observations and memorable lines. (Who can ever forget the exchange between Joe and Norma, when he observes, "You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big." She bitterly retorts: "I am big. It's the pictures that got small.") The acting is flawless, with each actor fully inhabiting the skin of his or her character. And the camera work and music are effortlessly wed to the project's other aspects. Sunset Blvd. represents the center stone in Billy Wilder's glittering cinematic tiara.

Sunset Blvd. (United States, 1950)

Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Jack Webb
Screenplay: Charles Brackett, D.M. Marshman Jr., Billy Wilder
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Music: Franz Waxman
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Ranked #40 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1