I have seen thirteen films directed by Billy Wilder, plus one that he co-wrote, and it's that one that he co-wrote that I'm tempted to write about today. However, I think too much of the success of "Ninotchka" was really due to its director Ernst Lubitsch, and it doesn't seem right to call it a Billy Wilder film. So Greta Garbo will have to wait her turn. Today, let's talk about Norma Desmond.
"Sunset Boulevard" was made in 1950, roughly fifty years after the advent of commercial cinema and twenty years after the end of the silent era. Hollywood had been long established as the center of the filmmaking world, and countless stars had risen and fallen in its glow. And even then, the town was notorious for having a very short memory. In the opening frames of "Sunset Boulevard," we're led to believe that we'll be watching a film noir about an unfortunate young screenwriter named Joe Gillis (William Holden), but in truth the film is an examination of a particularly dark corner of Hollywood, embodied in the form of a forgotten silent film star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).
Swanson's performance as Norma is legendary. The exaggerated mannerisms, reminiscent of silent film acting, make her seem larger than life, while also lending an eerie otherworldliness to her presence. Her rage and desperation are displayed in ways that would be outsized for a different character, but not for one whose whole life is shaped by her almost instinctual desire to perform. It was no accident that Billy Wilder and his collaborators sought out real silent film actresses for the role, and settled on Swanson, one of the leading lights of her day. In her hands Norma is a magnificent manifestation of the dark side of show business, a cruel reminder that fame and fortune can be fleeting, and that Hollywood is a dark and empty place when the spotlight moves on to someone else.
If you haven't seen "Sunset Boulevard" in a while, it's easy to forget that Norma isn't the only character in the picture and the grand melodrama of her madness is tempered with a lot of Wilder's best humorous dialogue and wit. Joe Gillis is an incurable snark, who delivers countless zingers against the Hollywood system that must have echoed Wilder's own sentiments. Norma is prone to exotic extravagances like a pet chimp, whose funeral we witness early in the film. There are many striking moments, like the New Year's celebration, where the mood is a strange mixture of camp and tragedy, verging on horror. These are the ones that tend stick in my mind, because they seem to be daring the audience to react, but refuse to tell you how or what to feel. The film can be watched as a pitch-black comedy or a bizarre, bitter tragedy, or both at once.
"Sunset Boulevard" is still startling today for the depth of its cynicism and the darkness of its subject matter. Paramount was doubtful about the commercial prospects of the picture, convinced that no one would want to see such a negative portrayal of Hollywood. Before Billy Wilder, the film industry was not in the habit of encouraging self-examination. And yet "Sunset Boulevard" was a success, and an enduring and influential one at that. I think what helped it connect with audiences was how authentic it felt. Norma Desmond was mostly caricature, but one rooted in a truth that is still rarely acknowledged - silver screen immortality isn't all it's cracked up to be. And Hollywood, even at its darkest, is a place of endless fascination for many. Who wouldn't want a chance to peek into the parts we don't normally get to see?
And to the delight of me and my fellow film nuts, everywhere in the "Sunset Boulevard" are nods to and echoes of a Hollywood that most people had forgotten by 1950, from Buster Keaton at Norma's card table to recycled props from the silent "Phantom of the Opera." The most famous reference was of course Max, Norma's faithful servant, played by the once celebrated silent film director Erich von Stroheim, who transitioned to an acting career in the 30s. Von Stroheim even directed Gloria Swanson in a silent film, the unfinished "Queen Kelly," which Norma plays brief clips from for Joe.
So in its own twisted way, "Sunset Boulevard" is a paean to Old Hollywood, much like "The Artist," which is currently playing in the theater across the street. But while "The Artist" is a fairy tale, that finds a way to give its has-been silent actor a second chance, in film noir there are no happy endings, and Billy Wilder surely knew that when he set one in the heart of Hollywood. Thanks to his daring, Norma Desmond is an icon of film, and Gloria Swanson will never be forgotten again.