Since 1998, I have been maintaining a list of movies that I wanted to see. Sometimes these are all-time classics that passed me by, sometimes they’re genre classics that interest me. The list grows regularly and is currently more than 1300 movies long. Fogs has gone through and hand-picked several classic films for me to “fast-track” and review here. This is one of those films.
Like The French Connection, last week’s review, Sunset Blvd. first came to my attention from the AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list. They had it at #12, certainly high praise. But I didn’t add it to my watch list at that time. I was just out of high school, just getting into movies, and it would have taken more than just “a movie about a crazy old lady” to catch my interest at the time. Over the years, my tastes have matured some, and I’ve kept hearing about Sunset Blvd., eventually adding it to the list. Thankfully so, as Billy Wilder’s film shows that a movie about a crazy old lady can be more, much more, than it appears at first glance.
The protagonist of the film, and intermittent narrator, is Joe Gillis (William Holden), a failing Hollywood screenwriter. He hasn’t had sold a script in months, and is on the verge of losing everything he owns and moving back to Ohio. One day, when on the run from creditors attempting to repossess his car, he drives into an old abandoned mansion… which proves to not be so abandoned. This is the home Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), famed star of the silver screen’s silent era. Living alone with her servant Max (played by former director Erich von Stroheim), Ms. Desmond lives the life of a recluse. The advent of the talkies has long since pushed out the silent film stars, and Desmond is no exception — though when she gets to ranting about it, she ironically shows that if she had stuck around, she might indeed have been a great star in the era of sound as well.
Joe is immediately put ill at ease by the surroundings. The house is a mausoleum, dedicated to Desmond’s lost fame. She has portraits of herself everywhere, and watches old movies of herself. But she is no longer content to rest on her laurels; she wants to mount a return (emphatically not a “comeback”) based on a screenplay she’s written. It just needs some finishing work. She is struck by the opportunity. She has plenty of money, but needs a professional screenwriter. Joe’s a screenwriter who needs money. And so begins an unlikely partnership.
It may not sound like much of a premise (at least, not if one is a teenager, as I was when I first heard of it), but the psychological drama that plays out makes Sunset Blvd. powerful viewing. It has been said that a rich person is never crazy, they’re merely “eccentric”; but if money is the only thing separating craziness from eccentricity, than an eccentric individual is every bit as disturbed as a crazy one, isn’t she? And the more madness that Norma Desmond displays, the greater Gloria Swanson’s acting becomes. She gets more and more unhinged as the film goes on, but the progression is so natural that the audience is never left feeling that the transition is unbelievable, even as the revelations become increasingly surprising.
Meanwhile, the surrounding cast — and, like many starlets, it can be said that the whole thing revolves around Desmond — highlight and amplify this downward spiral with their own roles. When the audience is shown that Hollywood’s old guard, including Cecil B. DeMille as himself, still know and love Norma Desmond, it doesn’t serve as a hope spot so much as a reminder of just how far she’s truly fallen. For one moment the audience sees Norma as she was, and the effect is to put a spotlight on what she’s become. Her servant Max gradually shades from loyal retainer to active enabler of her self-obsessive insanity.
And as for Joe himself, he goes from an everyman that the audience is meant to relate to, to a tragic figure who evokes feelings of fear, pride, and mild revulsion simultaneously. This is largely brought about through the side character of Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a fellow writer whom Joe works with. Betty’s liveliness brings Joe’s increasing isolation as Norma’s “kept man” into stark contrast. The two women are cast in a struggle that seems like a metaphor for Joe’s very soul, and what makes the film truly disturbing is how easily and gradually the slide towards darkness is presented. While every instinct of both Joe and the audience is to avoid Norma right from the beginning, that initial decision to stay and listen makes each little step to follow that much easier.
As powerful as a psychological thriller can be, Sunset Blvd. is a masterful film crafted around a deeply unsettling central figure. It also shows the dark side of Hollywood and fame, and the perception of the disposable star. (It provides a certain relief nowadays to be able to see somebody like Helen Mirren continuing to get roles, even starring in action films and thrillers.) With the film also providing some classic quotes (“I am big; it’s the pictures that got small”), Sunset Blvd. is easily a masterpiece of film noir.
Morgan R. Lewis writes about other classic (and just plain old) films at his own blog Morgan on Media.