Sunset Blvd is one of the greatest, most quotable films about the movie industry, but it’s no love letter. It’s a bitter look at what happens to fallen stars and those who never made it when the business turns their backs of them. Down on his luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), stumbles upon a mansion who has clearly seen better days. He quickly becomes immersed in the world of former queen of the silent era, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who initially hires him to help her with a new screenplay which will bring on her return to the screen but eventually turns him into her lover with gifts and guilt. As Norma continues to wound her web around Joe, the more he pulls away and tries to return to his life before Norma.
This is a film about pride and its dangers. Norma has shut out the entire world in order to spare a blow to her pride. We never learn exactly why Norma failed to make the transition to talkies. Maybe it’s important but it makes ones wonder. Many silent stars lost their careers when sound came to film due to the quality of their voices. Pola Negri was briefly considered for the role of Negri but was passed over for the same reason her career stalled, her accent made her incredibly hard to understand. However, while Swanson’s Desmond has an exaggerated way of speaking, one would think it would be a great fit for talkies. Perhaps Desmond’s pride was the reason her career abruptly ended. Perhaps it was a refusal to change her way, to embrace the new innovations to film, was what forced Norma into exile. She could have had it all, but denied herself everything in order to protect her pride.
Joe also has an issue with pride. He describes Norma with such pitying disgust, laughing at her script, looking down on her lifestyle, but it’s hard to figure out where his feeling of superiority comes from. When we meet him he has only had minor success as a screenwriter and has resigned to writing whatever tripe he thinks is most likely to sell. He tells himself the business is a joke and that’s the only way to shield his own ego. What he seems to respond to the most in Norma is her hope that her star will rise again. He can’t believe that can happen because in doing so he has the face his own failings as a writer.
This is one of the most authentic Hollywood films. Much effort was made to present a true Hollywood. Schwab’s Pharmacy was real life popular meeting spot for those in the industry. The film Norma watches was a real film starring a young Gloria Swanson directed by Erich von Stroheim who plays Max in the film. De Mille plays himself and calls Norma by the real nickname he used for Swanson when they worked together. Silent film stars like Buster Keaton play themselves as part of Norma’s bridge club which Joe calls “the wax figures”. This is an unflattering portrait of the film industry, showing how the business chews people up and spits them out. Allowing them to feel infallible then throwing them away. Watching Norma’s descent, I am reminded of the many celebrities who cracked due to the overwhelming disconnect with reality fame brings.
Really one of the best films about filmmaking and should be seen by anyone who appreciates iconic performances. Billy Wilder really is on of the greats as his exposes all of Hollywood’s warts.