Billy Wilder is undisputedly one of the greatest American writer-directors. It’s probably important to get that out of the way up front, since this here is Classic Week, and it’s understood that we’re working with films and creators that have stood the test of time. In fact, there’s a certain liberty that comes with discussing a man who’s made immeasurable contributions to the movies, most notably the fact that we can look at his body of work as a whole. Wilder never stuck with just one milieu, but he made undeniable classics in every genre in which he worked: Double Indemnity is one of the best American noirs; Ace in the Hole was an indictment of the media years ahead of its time, and only now seeing a fit release through the (nearly) always reliable Criterion Collection; Some Like It Hot is one of the great American comedies; Sabrina is one the classic romances; etc., etc. But even among Wilder’s towering contributions to the field, there’s something special about Sunset Blvd., a pointed, sad, noirish look at Hollywood and Los Angeles that could only come from someone steeped in the business and still in love with it, despite its flaws.
Before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you’d like to hear the facts, the whole truth…
Sunset Blvd. came out in 1950, and it’s fitting that the film seems to perch on the apex of the 20th century, scraping up everything that had come before and funneling it through the already dying golden age of Hollywood to create a parable that would be just as relevant and true today if someone had the balls to make a movie like this one. The whole thing comes barreling out of the screen at the viewer, taking in the “SUNSET BLVD.” painted on a curb before sliding down the street in a kinetic burst uncommon in films of the era. Wilder’s earlier Double Indemnity opened with its (anti-)hero already wounded, but Sunset Blvd. opens up with narrator Joe Gilles (William Holden) — minor spoiler here, but who cares — already dead and floating face down in a swimming pool behind “one of those great big houses in the ten-thousand block.” Setting up the end of the film and then following with a two-hour flashback wasn’t a new trick — Orson Welles used it to great effect in Citizen Kane — but it’s to Wilder’s everlasting credit that the rest of the film didn’t coast on a false suspense cooked up by the in medias res feel of the opening, but instead went on to craft a lengthy, nuanced portrait of the dead man and the characters that roamed through the final days of his life. Wilder co-wrote the screenplay with D.M. Marshman, Jr., and Charles Brackett, with whom Wilder collaborated on 13 films, including The Lost Weekend.
The script unspools with the graceful economy of scenes Wilder often brought to his films: Gilles is a screenwriter who hasn’t sold a script in a while and needs quick cash to pay off the creditors who have come by and threatened to repossess his car. So he heads over to Paramount, where another unsuccessful pitch meeting establishes both his bad luck and inability to connect with the business as well as introducing Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), an impossibly naïve and ambitious young woman who writes coverages for the studio but dreams of becoming a screenwriter herself. Wilder is completely at home spinning a story about the filmmaking process itself, but he also never panders to the viewer; even almost 60 years on, in an age when it seems everyone is well-versed in the ins and outs of production, the film feels like a legitimate glimpse at what it must have been like to grind out rent money by churning out spec scripts for a major studio. Gilles’ meeting with the Paramount head further establishes the film’s sardonic tone and dry wit; this isn’t a satire, but a dark comedy. Holden wears Gilles like a bad suit, all angles and nervous tics and emotional defenses against a job and life that are mercilessly beating him down. You can see from the outset that Gilles feels something for Betty, or at least for the idea of her, but we’ve also seen him floating in his own blood, and know this won’t end well for anyone.
“I sure turned into an interesting driveway…”
Sunset Blvd. just keeps unfolding like the perfect script Gilles could never manage to sell: After driving around town, hoping to collect some cash from friends who owe him, Gilles catches the attention of the collectors who are looking for his car, and he winds up blowing a flat and ditching it at what appears to be an empty mansion on Sunset — in that damned old ten-thousand block — after which he explores the house and finds it (a) occupied, and (b) occupied by a crazy person. The mansion Gilles stumbles into belongs to Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a faded movie star whose career took a nose dive when talkies were introduced, and it’s here the Wilder’s film really takes wing. Sunset Blvd. is executed with an almost flawless verisimilitude, starting with Swanson herself, whose film career tanked when movies brought in sound and whose tenacious, wild-eyed turn in Sunset Blvd. marked a career comeback. Norma recoils at the term, telling Gilles: “I hate that word. It is a return, a return to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting them.” Norma’s talking about her spec script for Salome, the kind of biblical epic she used to make with Cecil B. DeMille, and she hires Gilles on the spot to punch it up and help her sell it. Gilles, hard up for cash and not above taking advantage of a rich older woman if it’ll help him out of a jam — Wilder’s men are awfully consistent in their shamelessness — agrees to the plan. Before he knows it, his things have been moved to Norma’s guest house by her butler/manservant, Max (Erich von Stroheim), another genius bit of casting: Von Stroheim was an actor and director in the silent era whose career had also slowed considerably by the time Sunset Blvd. came along. It’s the same thing as making a movie in 2025 and casting John Hughes as your chauffeur: The actor’s actual backstory only served to enhance the uneasy reality of the film.
In a typical noir setup, Gilles constantly narrates the story, and Wilder’s words flow like pure honey. The voice-over isn’t just a complement to the story, but it’s driving force and the very thing that guides its haunted, wistful, shambling tone. Surveying Norma’s ruined palace, Gilles narrates: “The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis, out of beat with the world, crumbling apart in slow motion.” Gilles becomes a kept man, working for Norma during the day and putting up with her awkward advances, while at night he begins to sneak off to work with Betty on another screenplay. The whole story is completely Hollywood, which gives it an undeniable edge over any other setting; no one would find the film as lurid and engrossing if it were set in, I don’t know, the shoe retail industry in Paramus.
Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along….
Not to belabor the obvious, but Sunset Blvd. is ultimately a tale of Los Angeles, a big, sprawling, ravenous beast of a city that’s long since lost count of the carcasses of the young, the lustful, and the unfortunate. Wilder’s look at Hollywood is a disheartening one, made all the more real for the actual appearances of its former and then-popular names. Norma’s weekly bridge game features some of her silent-era contemporaries, including Buster Keaton — looking sad-eyed but complacent as he plays cards — and H.B. Warner, who played Jesus in DeMille’s 1927 The King of Kings. DeMille also plays himself in a pivotal role in Sunset Blvd., waffling between his latent devotion to his one-time star and his reluctance to tie himself down to her. Norma visits DeMille to pitch him on Salome in a scene shot on the sets DeMille was actually using at the time to film Samson and Delilah. So, just to recap: Wilder’s movie had a scene between an aging star and her old director, played by an actual aging star and her actual old director, shot on sets the director was using in real life to make an actual film that had yet to be released. It’s damn near dizzying.
DeMille (in the film) knows that Norma isn’t ready for any kind of comeback or return or whatever she wants to call it; the world has moved on, but she hasn’t taken any notice, sitting up in her broken castle, surrounded by her old photos and movies, secure in her knowledge that she’s still embraced by legions of fans. Norma is living a lie, but unwilling and largely unable to see it. Gilles is actually going through the same kind of crisis: He’s growing increasingly tired of trying his hand at screenwriting, and gives away the rights to one his of his stories to Betty because he just can’t bring himself to care much about it. In the same way, he doesn’t admit to himself until it’s too late that Norma has feelings for him, and what’s more, that he’s been passively trading on them in order to live a secure life, detached from all reality up in her mansion. All of Wilder’s characters are living two lives and lazily unaware of it; there’s almost nothing more L.A. than that.
Sunset Blvd. was nominated for 11 Oscars and won three: for set design, Franz Waxman’s pulsing score, and the screenplay from Wilder, Brackett, and Marshman. But it got shut out of the major races, which went more for All About Eve and omitted Wilder’s dark masterpiece (though The Third Man, Father of the Bride, In a Lonely Place and The Asphalt Jungle were also denied major awards; if nothing else, 1950 was a hell of a year for movies). Perhaps it’s because the movie simply cast too dark and fierce a look at its own culture, or perhaps it’s because then, as now, some movies manage to capture the momentum and snatch a majority of the nominations and victories. But frankly, the awards don’t matter (not that they ever do). Sunset Blvd. remains a pitch-black look at fame, madness, and the spiritual toll taken by ambition, greed, and loneliness. The film was advertised on posters and in trailers with the tagline “A Hollywood Story.” I guess that says it all.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.When Pictures Were Big
Film Reviews | August 28, 2007 | Comments ()