Sunset Boulevard isn’t only Billy Wilder at his finest but the film is easily the best film ever made about Hollywood in cinematic history.
The fate of Joe Gillis (William Holden) is doomed from the start. Upon flashing back, we later learn how he came to be in this most unfortunate situation. It turns out that Joe is having the worst luck as a screenwriter. He was unsuccessful in Sheldrake (Fred Clark) on a story. Script reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) has some thoughts of her own on the script, not knowing that Joe is listening in. Joe’s awful luck also leads him to what he believes is a deserted mansion (Ron Howard voice: It’s not). A voice calls out from inside the house so Joe quickly goes inside. Joe realizes that she’s silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). This is where she delivers the now-iconic line: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
Norma to asks Joe to help her with a script when she learns he’s a screenwriter. Joe makes the best of a bad situation while reluctantly moving into the mansion. Norma is in no state to resume an acting career. The silent star already has one suicide attempt under her belt and slices her wrists on New Year’s when Joe is at another party. In a strange turn of events, Joe runs into Betty once more. This won’t be the last time.
The iconic Paramount scene leads Joe to reunite with Betty. More on the Paramount scene in a moment. Without this reunion, he certainly could have had a different fate. Would Norma have killed Joe if he didn’t collaborate with Betty on a screenplay? I think it is honestly hard to say.
The four key players all want to get ahead in their career. Norma wants the glory whereas Max (Erich von Stroheim) would like to direct again. Joe and Betty both want to make it as screenwriters. All four performers received Oscar nominations. Sadly, they would all lose and become the second of three films to be nominated in all four acting categories and lose. William Holden–who was cast after Montgomery Clift decided to leave the role–would later win an Oscar for Stalag 17 but one could also see this as the Academy making up for Sunset Boulevard.
One of the best scenes in the film is Desmond’s return to the Paramount lot. It soon becomes devastating when you realize why DeMille’s assistant was calling her. Everybody heads towards the film star when she gets the spotlight while sitting in Stage 18. In a strange sense of irony, DeMille considered Nancy Olson for the role of Delilah in Samson and Delilah. Hedy Lamarr gets the role and Olson appears in Sunset Boulevard as a script reader.
The final scene is also one of the best parts about the film. Swanson delivers a crushing monologue in front of the newsreel cameras. The actress also closes out the film with a frequently quoted line: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
There’s some sort of irony in watching former director Erich von Stroheim acting as a butler and Norma’s former husband. I say this because he directed Queen Kelly, the 1932 silent film that Norma and Joe watch in the screening room. The filmmaker’s directing career would never be the same.
This film could not work without cinematographer John F. Seitz. His contributions are on a scale equivalent to Double Indemnity. The pool scene is now iconic–an episode of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.LD. pays homage to the opening.
The film most notably contains elements of film noir but at other times, it certainly feels like more than just a single genre. There are elements of both drama and comedy. I’ll let you decide for yourself but it’s certainly more than noir. But hey, the film doesn’t open with talking corpses in the morgue!
While I haven’t seen All About Eve yet, Sunset Boulevard is on a list of films that include Network, All The President’s Men, The Dark Knight, etc. in with regards to being among the greatest films in cinema history to not take home Best Picture. It’s perhaps the best representation of classic Hollywood and the future of the industry.
DIRECTOR: Billy Wilder
SCREENWRITERS: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D.M. Marshman Jr.
CAST: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough, Jack Webb, Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, H. B. Warner, and Franklyn Farnum