Take a Walk Done Sunset Boulevard to See the Grittier Hollywood:
A Film Review of Sunset Boulevard by Christopher Wostenberg
In my opening comment to this series of film reviews, I mentioned that it is hard for me to pick a favorite movie of all time or even a short list of films for that honor. But there are a few movies that always seem to creep up in my discussion of truly great films; and, one of them is Sunset Boulevard. I have seen the movie several times now, and every time, I find something new to love about the film. There is so much I could discuss about the film, especially since I wrote an essay on the score for a film class as an undergraduate, but I will keep this review short.
The plot involves a broke screenwriter name Joe Gillis who evades tax collectors by hiding out at the Sunset Boulevard mansion of Norma Desmond, famous silent film actress. In order to stay at the mansion, Joe agrees to edit Norma’s comeback script for director Cecil B. DeMille. Norma’s delusions of a comeback are further fed by her faithful butler, ex-husband, and former director—who also discovered her—Max Von Mayerling. At the same time Joe is editing Norma’s screenplay, he is also working nights with a script reader, Betty Schaefer, on her first screenplay. Norma falls for Joe and provides him with the Hollywood lifestyle he desires. But, Joe falls for Betty who is actually engaged to Joe’s friend, Artie. In the end, Joe tries to put everything right by leaving both his love and his desire, but he is unable to fully escape the web he has sewn.
This film was bold at its time for being a major motion picture that exposed Hollywood as a seedy place not unlike the settings of other film noir stories, e.g., the criminal underworld of San Francisco in The Maltese Falcon, post-war Vienna in The Third Man, and Gotham city in Tim Burton’s and Christopher Nolan’s versions of Batman. It opened the way for other films like Barton Fink, The Player, Hollywoodland and L. A. Confidental, to depict a more honest portrayal of Tinseltown. The average person, like the Joe’s and Betty’s, thought Hollywood was the place to be to get rich and famous. Yeah, you might have to start at the bottom, but if you worked hard, you could make it, a true testament to the American dream.
But, as the movie shows, the average person stays in an inane studio job or goes back home or worse. Even at the onset of the movie, Joe has been working awhile as a screen writer turning out a few scripts a week without success. Unsurprisingly, he becomes a cynic. This attitude causes him to be like the rest of Hollywood and take advantage where he can, in this case of Norma. Betty’s idealism is contagious at first, re-sparking Joe’s own optimism, but in the end it is not enough to save him. It is unclear what happens to Betty or the screenplay she and Joe worked on; however, based on the tone of movie, it is unlikely much comes of either Betty or the screenplay. Thus, Sunset Boulevard stands in stark contrast to films depicting the “Hollywood illusion” such as A Star is Born, Singin’ In the Rain, and La La Land.
Even the people who are successful in the film wind up with nothing in the end. In her mind, Norma gets what she wanted. The cameras are again focused on her, and she believes they are making her great comeback movie: this impression is only a delusion. Sadly, the film industry has left her grasping at thin air without a safety net. It is even more depressing considering that she still has “friends” within the system as evident by her trip to Paramount Studio. The other person who “made it,” Max, is left to watch over Norma because he feels responsible as he discovered her in the first place. His is the least tragic narrative arc in the film because Max chooses to leave the fame and money behind to nurse Norma. Even with that said, his is still a glum situation because at one time he was famous enough to make stars but is hardly recognized himself anymore. Joe recognizes Norma almost right away, but it takes him months to identify Max as the famous director that he was. This shows the fleetingness of fame within the system.
At first it is easy to state that Sunset Boulevard is a fictional movie offering only one point of view; nevertheless, there is a blurry line between fact and fantasy in the film. First, many people portray themselves in the film, e.g., Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper (gossip columnist), and Buster Keaton (silent film star). Others portray characters similar to themselves. Gloria Swanson, who plays Norma Desmond, was a famous silent film actress whose career faded as talkies came about. In fact, Gloria Swanson was good friends with Cecil B. DeMille, much like Norma. Max Von Mayerling is depicted by German director and actor Erich Von Stroheim, who actually directed Gloria Swanson in Queen Kelly. As a side note, Queen Kelly is the film Norma shows Joe during the movie. Additionally, much of the locations were actual Hollywood places at the time of filming. In a sense, Sunset Boulevard might have been an early example of a low key meta film similar in vein to This is the End and Birdman, but without totally breaking the fourth wall. All these things make it hard to just dismiss this film as pure make believe.
Favorite Scene: It is hard for me to pick one scene from this movie as my favorite because there are so many good, classic scenes: the first view of the house with Joe’s monologue; the trip to Paramount studios; and, the final scene of Norma on the staircase. With that all said, I have chosen the opening scene where the homicide squad comes to the Sunset Boulevard mansion as my favorite.
When I first saw the movie, I thought it was a unique way to open the film with the lead actor dead. It really sucks you in to know what is going on, but as the film progresses, you easily forget he is dead and get caught up in the rest of the plot, until it comes full circle at the end. Additionally, the tone of the movie is nicely set up through the subtle humor of the first scene’s monologue. Finally, you know this will not be a glamorous look into the movie industry where the country girl/boy makes it big in spite of all obstacles. In hindsight, we would now consider the opening scene a cliché film noir trope, but it works excellently for this film.
With that all said, go and watch the movie. Then, we can discuss these aspects or others at some later date.
Next time, I will be reviewing Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Until then, here is a quote from the French film Breathless, “I told you being afraid is the worst sin there is.”