June 05, 2007
Sunset Blvd. (1950)
The city of Hollywood, California, as the historical center of the American movie industry, has been a place of fantasies and fascinations since the first film producers decided to move there in 1913. Most of this almost supernatural mystique that has impregnated the city since those days was a direct result of the economic bonanza of the "Roaring Twenties" and the creation of the "star system", imposed by the major film studios in the early years Hollywood's Golden Age. The myths and legends of classic Hollywood would soon be exported to the world, and became an enormous influence for an Austrian young writer named Samuel "Billy" Wilder. Wilder would later move to America after the rise of the Nazi regime, and started a promising career at Hollywood, the very place of his dreams of youth. The opulence and decadence of the city inspired Wilder to write and direct a legendary movie in 1950: "Sunset Boulevard".
"Sunset Boulevard" is the story of two persons, writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) and former silent-film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), whose lives will coincide on Sunset Blvd. and will never be the same again. As a scriptwriter, Gillis has not been lucky for a while, and finally finds himself hunted by two repossession agents who expect him to pay for his car. In his attempt to flee, Gillis hides his car in an apparently abandoned mansion on Sunset Boulevard. However, the mansion is not deserted, and inside he mets the owner, the legendary film star Norma Desmond, who has faded into obscurity after the arrival of sound movies. After she discovers Gillis is a writer, she offers to hire him so he can help her with a script she has been writing for her comeback to cinema. Gillis accepts, thinking it's an easy way to earn fast money, but soon he'll discover that nothing comes off that easily, specially on Sunset Blvd.
While the movie is definitely Wilder's brainchild, the script was written with the help of his usual collaborator, Charles Brackett; and former film critic D.M. Marshman Jr., who was hired by Wilder and Brackett to help them develop the plot. The story follows the classic film noir pattern, but soon it is obvious that this movie goes beyond any genre conventions as it adds touches of horror, drama and black comedy in the most unmerciful critique to the decadence of Hollywood's Golden Age. The way the writers develop the characters is simply perfect in all its cynic realism, as while the characters are not without a touch of grotesque, they still look and feel so real that just enhance the horror and tragedy of this twisted tale about the dark side of Hollywood. Filled with fascinating characters, carefully placed details and a wonderful tale of madness, the script for "Sunset Blvd." is definitely one of the finest ever written.
As if writing a monumental screenplay wasn't enough, Wilder also excels as a director in this masterpiece, bringing his script to life in a haunting and beautiful way. Just like he did 6 years before with "Double Indemnity", once again Wilder reinvents the film noir genre thanks to the amazing cinematography by John F. Seitz, who captures the darkness of Norma Desmond's life with his heavily atmospheric film noir photography. His care for details and references to old Hollywood extend beyond his screenplay and populate the film in more than one way (the inspired use of cameos by real former silent-film stars for example), adding a great amount of authenticity and realism to the movie. Finally, the performances he managed to get from his main cast are simply some of the best done in an American movie.
Many has already been said about the outstanding performance done by Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, but I can't help but commenting on the extraordinary level of perfection she achieved on her role. In her eerily autobiographical character (Desmond's past resembled Swanson's career in some ways), Swanson transforms herself in the vivid incarnation of the twisted mirror image of Hollywood's life, creating a larger than life character that gave her a much deserved praise. In his breakthrough role, William Holden makes an excellent subtle and witty counterpart to Swanson's over-the-top character, and despite facing extraordinary actors in this wild ride through Hollywood, he never disappoints and proves to be up to the challenge. Finally, legendary director Erich Von Stroheim appears as Norma's stoic butler, and adds a haunting aura of dignity to the movie with the powerful presence of his acting.
Despite being a powerful criticism to the studio system and a brutal deconstruction of the Hollywood myths, "Sunset Blvd." is also a fond love letter to the movies that resulted from it, and specially to the artists behind them (The cameos by director Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson are a testament of this); as while tragic and pathetic, there is a certain sweetness and humanity in the characters that makes this set of old Hollywood ghouls to be so charming despite their madness. While not without flaws (Nancy Olson's performance feels uninspired when compared to the rest of the cast), "Sunset Blvd." is one of those movies that truly deserves its status as "classic", as thanks to Wilder's direction and the cast's performances, it reaches the closest a film can be to perfection.
Time magazine described the film as the story of "Hollywood at its worst told by Hollywood at its best", and that's probably the best way to describe the haunting story of Norma Desmond in "Sunset Blvd.". Like the famous street that gives the movie its name, Billy Wilder's "Sunset Blvd." has developed a powerful mystique around it, but that's just because in the course of its destruction of Hollywood's illusions, the movie made them even more real.
Buy "Sunset Blvd." (1950)