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Movie Reviews

Sunset Boulevard



Released: 1950

Directed By: Billy Wilder

Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson

Certificate: PG


Reviewed By: Jason Coyle

The director Billy Wilder made Sunset Boulevard in 1950. This would have been a little over 20 years after the end of the silent era. This gives the film an authentic feel as it is quite plausible that a silent era film star would still be around dreaming about a comeback and an audience that has long since disappeared. The film tells the story of a once silent movie star called Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who lives in a crumbling mansion with her loyal servant Max (Eric von Stroheim) and her relationship to aHollywood screenwriter called Joe Gillis (William Holden). She has written some ideas for a comeback film and hires Joe to write the screenplay. But this is no ordinary relationship and it is the surrounding comedies, tragedies and delusions around this relationship that is the strength of the film. It is a film about decay and delusion, dreams and dramas, lies and meditations on the cruelty of theHollywood dream.


The opening to Sunset Boulevard is quite revealing in terms of how the audience relates to the medium. The idea that the star of the film is dead and is narrating the story is a sensational device for 1950. Indeed it would be considered a relatively daring concept in a modernHollywoodenslaved to convention. In performance terms it is a voiceover performance from beyond the grave. It is very interesting to watch the film as told in flashback and see Joe Gillis walking around alive but knowing the voiceover is not.


There is a scene at the beginning when we meet Norma for the first time. Both she and Max both believe Joe Gillis is a funeral director. He is ushered into the inner sanctum where a small coffin is laid out. There is a tension in the scene as it implies that there is a child in the coffin. In trueHollywoodabsurdist fashion it turns out to be a chimp. Norma is performing here already. It is the artifice of the mourner whilst standing in a crumbling mausoleum. Joe doesn’t know it yet but he is auditioning for the role of replacement pet for Norma This is also where we first meet Max performing the first of many roles. He is in turn loyal servant, former husband, butler, driver and writer of the fan letters she receives. He is performing these roles which in turn keep alive the hope that Norma will return to films again. As Norma says to Joe when he says that she used to be a big star, ‘I am a big star, it is the pictures that got small’.


There are scenes of a reflexive nature throughout this film. Film history and story collide throughout the narrative. One of the most extraordinary scenes happens when Norma shows Joe a reel of one of her older films. This scene blurs the line significantly between reality and fiction, between Hollywoodand life, between actress and performance. The film she shows to Joe is a real film called Queen Kelly (von Stronheim, USA, 1931) which starred Swanson but was never released. The Queen Kelly was the last silent film ever directed by von Stronheim. There is something really sad and terrifying watching Swanson as Desmond viewing a film in which Swanson starred in real life and which von Stronheim directed.


When Norma visitsParamountpictures to see Cecil B. DeMille she truly believes that she will be making movies again. Not recognised by the young security guard at the gate she is affronted. It is only when an older guard sees her that she is allowed to pass through. She says of the young guard that ‘without me, you wouldn’t have any job, because without me, there wouldn’t be any Paramount Studios’. This has become the delusion for Norma, undoubtedly a star from the silent era, she still believes she is a star at the studio, still believes that a meeting with DeMille will fix everything. DeMille who feels sorry for her, tries to let her down gently, explaining to her that the system has changed. But he never quite manages to say no to her: such is the affection he still has for Norma. In the studio she sits in DeMille’s chair and one of the older electricians recognises her. He swings the spotlight onto her and suddenly she is in the spotlight on aHollywoodstage again. It is at this point that Norma Desmond slips fatally over to almost full delusion. There is no going back after being under lights again on a DeMille set. It sets up everything that follows.


It is the climax of Sunset Boulevard that perhaps is its most revealing aspect. When Joe decides to leave Norma she follows him out of the house and shoots him. He falls into the pool, dies and says in that laconic voiceover ‘here we are back where we came in’. Norma is arrested at her home. She is sitting at the dressing table staring into the mirror. The police surround her and keep asking her questions which she doesn’t answer. It is only when one of them mentions that the cameras are here that she suddenly comes alive. Although they are news cameras they use this as a ruse to get Norma to leave her room. Max goes downstairs to make sure the lights and cameras are ready. It is at this point that reality and unreality, dreams and nightmares, performance and madness all become blurred. Norma thinks that she is doing a scene from her film Salome with DeMille. Max is directing for the last time the love of his life. There is also the dreadful sadness of watching von Stronheim acting as director in a scene from a non existent film. The fact that he hasn’t directed in so long blurs the line between Max and von Stronheim. It is a terrifying and tragic scene.


Norma comes down the stairs in this kind of awful slow motion. It is stagey and showy. This is Norma taking her time, enjoying the spotlight for what is surely the last time. However we can see that in that spotlight is where her mind will reside forevermore. She gets to the bottom of the stairs and breaks off from the scene she is playing and asks DeMille can she say a few words. It is here that the film turns its glare on the audience ‘the wonderful people out there in the dark’. The look that Norma gives the camera just before she comes in for her close up seems to say that it is our fault. That it is the audience who build the stars up and then discard them when they are too old or when technologies change. As Norma moves in closer towards the camera the image starts to blur. It is this image, the dissolving of Norma Desmond into permanent madness that is perhaps the image that lingers most in the mind.

I am huge film fan, Hollywood but increasingly world cinema. I also have a blog devoted only to Irish film:

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