Made four short years after Frank Capra’s life-affirming It’s a Wonderful Life, Billy Wilder’s masterful noir, Sunset Boulevard, is Hollywood at its darkest. It absolutely revels in, not only the dark heart of Hollywood, but all the cynicism and reality-biting life of post-war America.
The story is simple: a disillusioned Hollywood hack helps a faded movie star write a screenplay for her great, doomed, comeback. And he ends up floating face down in her swimming pool. This is not a spoiler – this is how the film opens. It starts dark and goes full circle.
Yet running alongside the central storyline of Norma Desmond’s desperate, grudge-ridden megalomania, there are plenty of moments of light, hope and joy, even, when Joe Gillis (the luckless protagonist – played by William Holden in the role of his life) forgets the hell he’s fallen into – he allows himself to fall in love and glimpse a bright future. This future he quickly relinquishes as he realises that, if he wants to save the girl – the very image of hope, life and normality – he must sacrifice himself to the greedy, pompous vanity of the dead past.
I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.
Right from the start, the audience is drawn into Wilder’s world of Hollywood at an impasse. The golden years of the 20s, the 30s, even the 40s, have all gone, and tinsel town is left to wonder where to find its next bandwagon in the wake of a world war that has left Uncle Sam victorious but not knowing what the hell to do next. In a bold yet cruel piece of casting, Wilder presents Gloria Swanson, a real-life faded movie star of the silent era, as the fictional version of herself. Was Swanson in on the joke or was she, herself, too eager for her great comeback to really see what she’d been sold into? There are other old faces too, appearing as cameos – Buster Keaton, Erich Von Stroheim – propped up like effigies to another age amongst the decaying glamour of Norma’s world, stuck away on a suitably forgotten stretch of the Boulevard.
Norma’s hyperbole of a Hollywood mansion, full of dusty, out-of-date luxury from her imported car to her Italienate decor, underlines the tone of Wilder’s twisted paean through and through. It’s got great lines and some truly, humorously morbid moments – for instance, the scene when Joe first enters Norma’s house and is mistaken for the mortician who has come to take away Norma’s beloved chimpanzee – which Joe discovers lying ‘in state’ in her bedroom.
In this tale of Hollywood, there’s not one bit of glitter, just its dark, dark heart for all to see. And see it you must, and love it, and revel in it because after Hollywood’s era of noir came to an end in the mid 50s, musicals became all the rage again. Happy smiles, people, happy smiles.
— Posted by Amelia Morrey, Cambridge