“Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California. It’s about five o’clock in the morning. That’s the Homicide Squad, complete with detectives and newspapermen. A murder has been reported from one of those great big houses in the ten-thousand block. You’ll read about it in the late editions, I’m sure. You’ll get it over your radio and see it on television because an old-time star is involved–one of the biggest. But before you hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion–before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it–maybe you’d like to hear the facts, the whole truth. If so, you’ve come to the right party.”
Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a struggling screenwriter. He hasn’t been able to land a contract for a film in quite some time, and he is behind in his bills. While this starving writer is attempting to outrun some repo men in his beloved car, he gets a flat tire and is forced to pull into the driveway of a home on Sunset Boulevard.
The setting gives this film its title: Sunset Boulevard (1950). It was directed by Billy Wilder; in fact, Wilder co-wrote the story (originally titled “A Can of Beans”) with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr., and what superb writing it is. This was the last film that Wilder and Brackett collaborated on, and clearly the two were able to create magic: the film won numerous Oscars and Academy Award nominations. The dialogue in the film reads like a well-written novel.
Although narrated from the afterlife by Joe the starving artist, the main focus of the film is a forgotten silent film star: Norma Desmond, played by the powerful Gloria Swanson, herself a legendary silent film star. The part was perfect for Swanson, who had experienced a similar career shift as silent films turned to “talkies.” Many other real-life silent film-era stars make appearances in this film as Norma’s friends, including Buster Keaton and Anna Q. Nilsson; even director Cecil B. DeMille makes an appearance as himself.
When Joe accidentally arrives at the dilapidated mansion on Sunset, he assumes it is uninhabited because of its poor condition: “It was a great big white elephant of a place: the kind crazy movie people built in the crazy 20s. A neglected house gets an unhappy look. This one had it in spades. It was like that old woman in Great Expectations: that Miss Havisham and her rotting wedding dress and her torn veil, taking it out on the world because she’d been given the go-by.” Indeed, Norma is quite similar to the reclusive and proud Miss Havisham. Both women live in lonely and decaying homes; both were jilted–one by a fiance, the other by her fans. When Joe first meets Norma, she mistakes him for a casket-maker. Her pet chimp has died, and she means to bury him in her backyard. This isn’t the only unusual happening in this bizarre home on Sunset…
Before he leaves, Joe realizes that he recognizes the curious woman: “Wait a minute, hadn’t I seen you before? … You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”
“I am big!” she insists. “It’s the pictures that got small.”
The only other inhabitant of the once great estate is the faithful (and slightly creepy) butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim, yet another real-life silent film era actor and director). Joe believes him to be crazy as well, as Max clearly worships the woman: “She was the greatest of them all; you wouldn’t know. You’re too young. In one week, she received 17,000 fan letters. Men bribed her hairdresser to get a lock of her hair. And there was a maharajah who came all the way from India to get one of her silk stockings. He later strangled himself with it.” Max is an incredibly loyal employee, and we discover why later in the film. He caters to Norma’s every whim and protects her from potential pain. It’s more than loyalty that drives Max: it’s guilt and, ultimately, love.
Joe and Norma begin a relationship as writing “partners” when she hires him to edit a screenplay she has written. Joe knows immediately that the screenplay will not be successful, but he needs the money, and she has plenty of it to spare. Norma is determined to make a return to the big screen, and she plans to star in the film. She is desperate for Joe’s help: “She sat coiled up like a watch spring, her cigarette planted in a curious holder. I could sense her eyes on me from behind those dark glasses, defying me not to like what I read, or maybe begging me to in her own proud way to like it; it meant so much to her.”
After Joe agrees to help her, she becomes very demanding and possessive. She insists that Joe live in her house while they are working together. Although she pays many of his debts for him, she rarely provides him with cash, making him completely dependent upon her for purchases. She buys him a lavish new wardrobe, expensive watches, and accessories. She denies him his own transportation by allowing his car to be repossessed, insisting that Max can chauffeur them in her luxury vintage car. In return, Joe is not only an editor to her screenplay, but a companion to her in her loneliness. She insists that they watch her old films for hours: “They were always her pictures. That’s all she wanted to see.”
Norma’s desperation for fame drives her to be not only delusional, but also suicidal. Max explains that there are no locks in the home, as it is too dangerous to allow Norma to lock herself away: “Madame has moments of melancholy. There have been some attempts at suicide. We have to be very careful: no sleeping pills, no razor blades; we shut off the gas in Madame’s bedroom.” When Joe goes out to a party on New Year’s and leaves Norma at home, her desperation overcomes her, and Max informs Joe that she has taken a razor to her wrists. It is at this point, perhaps out of guilt, that Joe begins a romantic relationship with her.
Joe quits writing his own screenplays, and although the arrangement is rather suffocating, he seems to become fairly content in his pampered lifestyle; that is, until he begins working on a new film with twenty-two-year-old Betty (Nancy Olson). Betty is the fiance of one of Joe’s friends, and she works in the film industry as a reader. Although she has worked her way up to this position, she is dissatisfied with it, and wants to become a writer herself. The two begin to secretly work on a screenplay together, and naturally, a romantic relationship develops.
When Norma discovers the relationship, she destroys it by calling Betty and explaining the nature of her own relationship with Joe. After the incident, Joe has had enough of the pampered lifestyle. As he attempts to leave her, Norma shoots him three times with the gun that she had recently purchased to end her own life. Authorities find his body floating face down in Norma’s swimming pool. It may seem strange, but I felt more sympathy for Norma in this case than her victim; there’s no doubt in my mind that she would successfully plead insanity in a trial.
The story was so successful and moving that it was adapted into a musical and performed in London and on Broadway. A score was written for the musical by none other than the incredible Andrew Lloyd Webber, and although the show received seven Tony Awards, it ended its run in 1997.
This behind-the-scenes story of an aging and forgotten star, once worshiped by so many, is a sometimes acerbic, witty, and biting satire of Hollywood. But there is also something inherently nostalgic and moving about Sunset Boulevard that makes it an appropriate subject for this series. Although I can’t say that this film made me cry, its dark themes of failure and loneliness allow it to be classified as a wonderfully maudlin piece, for despite her narcissism and snobbery, Norma’s heartbreaking desperation to be loved once more surely must pull at the heartstrings of even the most cynical viewer.