What the heck? What am I doing reviewing a film that was released before I was born, and, probably, before you were born? Sunset Boulevard was released in 1950 and, directed by the great Billy Wilder, ranks as one of the very best films made, particularly if you’re interested in the self-referentialism of films about the movie industry like I am.
Sunset Boulevard is all about lost dreams, about the inevitable march of progress and of those who are left behind. It’s about the world we all see ourselves as inhabiting versus the harsh light of reality, of the extraordinary lengths we’ll each go to deny that reality and live within our cocoon, and even of the lengths others who love us will go to keep us safely in our delusions.
There are three characters in Sunset Boulevard and it’s their interaction that power this entire movie: the hack screenwriter Joe Gillis (played beautifully by William Holden) who can’t sell a script and is hiding out so that the bank won’t reposes his car, forgotten silent film star Norma Desmond (played brilliantly – and frighteningly – by Gloria Swanson in what is probably her best role) who lives in a run-down mansion with her servant and companion Max Von Mayerling (an interesting, albeit somewhat creepy role for the great character actor Erich von Stroheim).
In their own way, each of the three is living in their dream, their memory of a better day, pushing away anything that doesn’t jibe. Gillis is a cynical writer who gets sucked into a strange relationship with the far older Desmond, who, for her part, continues to play the role of Hollywood star even without an audience. When Gillis literally drops into her world (in an opening scene that sets the tone and light wry touch of the entire movie) she embraces him and slowly traps him in her world of faded lights, nostalgia and forgotten celebrities.
All the while Mayerling hovers around the scene, orchestrating as needed to ensure that Desmond can remain in her dream world even as reality increasingly forces its way into the story in ways that cannot be denied. When you realize who he was and how he and Desmond are connected, whole new layers of the film open up, like a trap door dropping out from under you, the viewer.
The ending is tragic and somehow inevitable, while, in so many ways, echoing the basic pretension of the entire film process (as Singing In The Rain, in a very different way, also offers up a dry commentary on Hollywood and the evolution of film from silent to talkies).
I have been careful not to spoil any of the many interesting and surprising twists in this movie, widely considered one of the very best ever made.
Watch it and find out why.