1 Year, 100 Movies: #16 Sunset Boulevard (1950)

sunset boulevard_poster_03

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, I will watch all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year- and will complete a goal on my 2013 Manifesto. Come along on the ride with me- oh, and please pass the popcorn!

“Sunset Boulevard”  is an artistic achievement that portrays the degradation of a former silent Hollywood movie star, and the opportunism of a young out-of-work and down on his luck Hollywood writer.

The film begins with the death of our protagonist, Joe Gillis (William Holden), and is narrated by him as well. We then go back in time to when our story starts, Joe is a Hollywood writer struggling to make ends meet. He is trying to avoid men who are attempting to take his car (as he’s missed the last three payments) and hides out in a seemingly empty garage on Sunset Boulevard. It turns out he’s hidden his car in the garage of an old silent movie star’s Hollywood mansion- the alluring Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). He is drawn in by his desire for the comforts that wealth can bring him- and stays to be the ghost writer for her terrible script that she is writing for her triumphant return to the screen. Norma is desperate to hold onto her former glory. We get the sense that she is about to break- giving way to her growing paranoia and insanity.

Joe keeps running into Betty (Nancy Olson), a young reader who wants to rework one of Joe’s old scripts. Betty wants Joe’s help with the rewrite, but Joe turns her down at first, comfortable with his new life. However she has underlined the stifling dreariness of his relationship with Norma, and so Joe changes his mind, and begins writing with Betty in the evenings, after Norma has gone to bed. Soon Norma finds out and threatens Betty over the phone. When Joe realizes that his affair with Norma has been exposed, he invites Betty over to Norma’s house. Joe explains his situation and his relationship with Norma. Betty pleads with him, and he eventually decides to leave Norma. Consumed with passion, saying ‘no one leaves a star’- Norma cannot handle the deserting, and shoots Joe as he crosses the lawn. Fatally wounded, he falls into the pool. Now Norma descends fully into madness. Surrounded by police and press, Norma believes that she is on the set of DeMille’s new movie. Max offers her a little comfort by playing along with her delusion.

Norma’s slow descent down the staircase as she is being taken in- as if she is acting out a scene in a film, is incredible. This scene works on so many levels, from Norma’s assertion that this is her life, nothing else, and her reference to those “wonderful people out there in the dark” and that famous line, “Alright Mr. Demille, I’m ready for my close-up” to Max’s misty-eyed stare as he watches a woman, who he has loved for years, implode. She owns this film- Holden and the others are fantastic as well, but Swanson is the heart and soul.

The timing of this film was incredible, as the director Billy Wilder was able to tell his story of the lost actors from the silent era with recognizable silent giants themselves like Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson, Cecil B. DeMille, and Gloria Swanson herself. Wilder was able to go a step further in blurring the line between fiction and reality. Since Swanson had been a successful actress earlier in life, Wilder was able to surround her in the film with images and trinkets from her glory days. Wilder also gives the role of Max Von Mayerling, Norma’s butler, former director and ex-husband, to Erich Von Stroheim, a silent film director, who had directed Swanson in “Queen Kelly” in 1932. A movie about movies was nothing new in 1950, but what was remarkable was the ability to draw from the past- using familiar faces from the silver screen- and the references to current actors and directors of the day. It was incredible because Gloria Swanson could have been Norma Desmond.

In my humble, non-professional, average movie-goer opinion this movie earns:



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