It’s a Scene Right Down on Sunset Boulevard
Despite Louis B. Mayer’s comments to Billy Wilder that “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you!” – I feel Sunset Boulevard enhanced the Hollywood mythos. Who knows what Norma Desmonds may have existed; crazed celebrity lunatics living in their run-down ghostly mansions in the Hollywood area, not just back then but in the decades which have followed. However, the film also makes you feel sentimental for the silent era, that something really was lost when Hollywood made the transition to sound.
Gloria Swanson’s role as Norma Desmond is my favourite female performance of all time. Overblown, over the top, flamboyant, fantastic! A performance which could have been unintentionally comical (ala John Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe) but her insanity can be taken completely seriously; same goes for her butler Maxilillian played by Erich von Stroheim. In many ways she is that character, as Gloria Swanson has even said so herself; just looks at her reactions to watching her own pictures. Desmond is a character whose relevance for the modern world has not been lost, in an age when people are obsessed with celebrity, youth, and beauty more than ever. Likewise, Cecil B. deMille’s performance feels entirely genuine, as if two old friends have just met for the first time in years.
I also find the dynamic shared between William Holden and Gloria Swanson to be of fascination; an older woman seducing a much younger man who eventually gives into her when in classic Hollywood films it was often the other way around. It’s clear from their actions as the film progresses the two characters are likely sleeping with each other, such as Joe happily flaunting his shirtless body in front of Norma by the poolside and she even starts drying him with a towel; there is a bit of Mrs. Robinson to her.
Sunset Boulevard is possibly the most quotable film of its genre, although none its lines have become as famous in the pop culture lexicon as a film like say Casablanca, in which everyone knows its famous quotes whether or not they’ve seen the film or are even interested in classic cinema. Yet among circles of classic Hollywood fans, Sunset Boulevard is one of the most widely quoted films in discussions. Joe Gillis (William Holden) narrates the film despite his character being dead but it still works in an otherworldly way, like he’s narrating from the afterlife. Holden holds an ideal narration voice to showcase Billy Wilder’s ability to turn exposition into poetry. Likewise, Buster Keaton’s appearance may be my favourite celebrity film cameo ever; there’s something about his reaction when playing poker (“pass!”).
For as cynical a film as Sunset Boulevard is, ultimately it is a movie for movie lovers. Particularly the scene in which Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) tells Joe Gillis of how there is no shame working behind the camera while walking through the empty back stages of Paramount Studios at night as she tells him about her childhood spending time on studio back lots, is very life-affirming. It’s such a beautiful and romantic scene; it’s easy why these two were paired in several films together. Olson’s character is the opposite of Norma Desmond, humble and down to Earth, not concerned with her looks or fame and fortune; and unlike Norma she can actually write movie scripts.
Say goodbye to Hollywood, say goodbye my baby.