Sunset Boulevard- Revisiting a Gothic Hollywood Tale

Now that the world is slightly more intact, I figured it was time to coerce my girlfriend into seeing an old classic with me. We’d been together nine months and were yet to go to a movie theater together, which as one may imagine, is incredibly rare for me. The film was Sunset Boulevard, playing in a matinee last Sunday at the Raleigh Rialto, one of the best places in my area to take in old classics and art-house films. 

My lovely girlfriend had never seen a film dated before 1980, and I was looking to change that. I asked her what she thought thereafter, and was pleased to hear her go on about the various character complexities and its commentary on what certain treatments of both coddling and manipulation can do in both achieving and stunting psychological and personal growth as people age. A psychology major, it’s no surprise that she and others watch movies like Sunset to heighten perspective on the human condition. 

I’d seen Sunset Boulevard a lifetime ago (college) and relished in the thought of seeing it again, hoping for not only a refresher for this article but for the noir-style melodrama and deceitful sensibilities of old Hollywood “pictures.” And as someone who loves creative writing, especially in the realm of the screen, a well-told story about the act of screenwriting is a great way to spend a couple of hours. 

As anyone should as they grow older and rewatch classics, I got more out of this experience with Billy Wilder’s masterpiece than when I was a college sophomore. I knew it to be a drama told with the narration and wit of an old noir, but I’d completely forgotten just how funny and disturbing the whole ordeal was. Gloria Swanson doing a Chaplinesque dance, sporting a face mustache and twirling a cane, encapsulated all of this. 

Taking place in the cinematic sweet-spot between the “talkies” and New Hollywood, William Holden plays a screenwriter (Joe Gillis) whose idea-well is bone-dry. He pitches a baseball idea, which is immediately rejected by a young reader (Nancy Olson) who Gillis takes an immediate liking to, admiring her upfront nature about the trite stories he’s churning out in recent years. We learn early on that Gillis doesn’t seem to perceive cinema as a higher art form, maintaining that the aura of Joyce and Mailer are simply never captured on-screen. 

Later, when moving his car so as to avoid having it towed away, he is chased by two gangsters, and, in a deus ex machina moment, drives not only onto Sunset Blvd but into the driveway of Norma Desmond, a faded icon of the silent screen that I’d imagine in 1950 was all-too-familiar to Los Angeles audiences. One of the first “new” things I noticed on this re-watch was the mansion which she lived in. 

Sunset Boulevard isn’t a ghost movie but it may as well be. It never fully commits to horror or gothicism but undeniably flirts with it. The manor where our Hollywood has-been resides is decrepit and dusty, housing an ego past its expiration date and fame that had passed on long ago. The echoes of a wailing ghost are replaced here with the moans of Norma Desmond, played wonderfully by Gloria Swanson, and these moans are all about the same thing: a triumphant return to the silver screen. And she’s going to do it her way- with little dialog, saying she can do all the emotions with her face, wrapped up in an overwritten screenplay, a supposed star-vehicle where she plays an actual princess; a script that even our hack antihero thinks is an indulgent waste, one that’ll never get made. 

Desmond fancies herself as one of the finest people that monolithic filmmaker Cecil B. Demille had ever worked with, despite having not seen him (socially or professionally) in a number of years. As Gillis reads her script, he finds a way to manipulate her into some money and a place to stay, offering to doctor her work. The delusional Desmond sees her comeback film in the near future now, and in this a game of dual manipulation begins. 

Both Gillis and Desmond have gravitational pulls on each other, but both the audience and Gillis himself soon realize that the pull Desmond has over him is just a bit stronger. Gillis continues to live in luxury, in a house scattered with headshots and portraits of Desmond, not a single one of them with anyone else. He eventually becomes a reluctant lover to her as well, kissing her during a suicidal bout of hers. 

But I think the saddest story of Sunset Boulevard is that of Max von Mayerling, played by Eric Von Stroheim. We see him first as a monotonous butler, someone rough-around-the-edges but we can tell has a backstory where he was perhaps much softer. Such suspicions come to fruition when he tells Gillis that he was not only the man who discovered Desmond’s abilities at sixteen, for he was once a major director, but he was also her first husband. Von Mayerling is the product of someone hopelessly lovesick to the point of degrading himself and stripping away his prospective career in the name of maintaining the near-psychotic notions of fame in the woman he loves. I don’t think any “romance” in cinema will be this pathetic until one of Shelley Winters’ in Night of the Hunter or Lolita

As mentioned, the comedy is there, and it’s as black as coal. It’s not just Desmond parading around (pretending to be someone who merged into the talkies, no less), but an unsubtle commentary on people of generations past who manage to glide through their lives’ second half on dated reputations, convinced their heyday isn’t over yet. The rise of the talkies erased a lot of prospective actors and actresses from the radar of many new filmmakers. They can’t all be Marlene Dietrich. Desmond speaks in a consistently dramatic tone, where we can’t ever truly decipher whether she is feigning a “Golden-Age” style voice, or if its the natural voice that very well erased her from cinematic history. This is made all-the-more humorous when one learns that Gloria Swanson herself was a silent film star, once upon a time.

I feel that many of the best period pieces are ones that not only act as snapshot portraits of the time when they take place, but make relevant comments on how those forgotten times properly parallel our own. Sunset is no period piece, but its ideas about the silent era becoming a rapidly-forgotten dream can be seen as even more relevant in our ever-chaotic 2021, where here in the Information Age we constantly see a change in trends and technology that nobody, even this mid-20s reviewer, would be able to keep up. At the time of this writing, I can’t remember not having a smartphone, even though they’re still in their infant years and could very well be replaced very soon.

It’s these kinds of seemingly oblique musings and juxtapositions to our lives in any time or place that make classics what they are. Few endings rival that of Sunset Boulevard (spoilers ahead), with a woman who has finally snapped not only going to prison, but having had allowed her delusions to seep into her surface-level consciousness, truly believing that the news cameras are shooting her next “picture.” And nobody does an ending like this better than Wilder did in the Golden Age. If I ever rank his works in order of favoritism, I know it’ll be a difficult process choosing this over Double Indemnity or vice-versa. And to think I still haven’t seen The Apartment.

-JCE, 2021

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