Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Movie – Sunset Boulevard (1950)

This movie is an absolutely fearless look at Hollywood and the stars it leaves behind.  Gloria Swanson is a former silent film star who is now living out her days in her house on Sunset Blvd.  William Holden is a younger man “kept” by Swanson.  Erich von Stroheim plays the butler, who is also so much more.

Swanson’s character is semi-delusional, “knowing” that director Cecil B. DeMille is going to call her any minute to revive her career.  She lives in excess and eccentricity, doing things like holding a funeral for a chimpanzee she had owned.  The people around her feed her delusions and psychosis.

Holden, who would go on to do such movies as Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and The Wild Bunch, was much more the unknown at the time.  The movie starts with his character floating face down in a pool while he tells you about himself.  This may be the first movie to employ this device, where the character is dead and looking back on what brought him to this.

I have to mention the film’s director Billy Wilder.  You can make a legitimate case for him as the best director of all time.  The closest parallel to today in popularity would be Steven Spielberg, but Wilder got more Oscar nominations, and was also a very talented writer.  Overall, Wilder received twenty Oscar nominations, eight for Best Director, winning two times, and twelve for Best Writing, winning three times, including winning for Sunset Boulevard.  

From Double Indemnity in 1944 through The Apartment in 1960, Wilder directed fifteen films.  He received fourteen Oscar nominations among them.  These include The Lost Weekend, A Foreign Affair, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, Stalag 17, Sabrina, Witness for the Prosecution, and Some Like it Hot.  Even the movies he did not get nominated for are considered classics today.  They include The Major and the Minor, The Seven Year Itch, The Spirit of St. Louis, and Love in the Afternoon.

Wilder’s movie Sunset Boulevard is fearless because it hits so close to home for Hollywood.  Many people felt it was a little too close for comfort.  Swanson was, in reality, a big star of the silent film era, just like the Norma Desmond character she played.  Her career had faded in the 1930s and by the time this movie was made she had not been heard from in years, just like her character.  Erich von Stroheim was an actor, writer, and director in the silent film era, whose career had likewise taken a downturn.  You find out how similar this is to his character as the movie goes along.  William Holden had done a bunch of movies in the 1940s, but none were that popular and he could still be considered someone only getting by, like his character of Joe Gillis.

In addition to these people, there were cameos by other silent film stars, most notably Buster Keaton, with narration talking about how they were washed up.  Again, this would have hit right on the nose for audiences in 1950 who would have recognized these people and realized that they had mostly forgotten about them.

The movie has two very famous quotes:

Joe Gillis - "You’re Norma Desmond.  You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”
Norma Desmond – “I am big.  It’s the pictures that got small.”

Norma Desmond (speaking directly to the screen) – “You see, this is my life!  It always will be!  Nothing else!  Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!  ….All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

Even though the movie was made sixty years ago, you can still draw a ton of parallels with Hollywood today.  How many once-popular actresses are considered to be “too old” and get forgotten?  Think it’s not that bad now?  Ask yourself this: When was the last time you saw Meg Ryan in a new romantic comedy?  Had to stop and think for a minute, didn’t you?

How many actresses try to hold on, pretending they are not aging?  How many rich stars live in the excess that their money affords?  How many younger men and women, struggling to make ends meet in Hollywood, end up with someone older who pays for their things, but expects to also control their lives?  How many stars have hangers on who live off them, doing everything they can to keep feeding off the star?

The answer to all of those questions is “too many.”  Of all the movies Hollywood has made about itself, and it has made many, this is the one that gives them the most chills.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars



  1. a mere 4 stars chip? for one of the greatest movies ever made? what does a film need to do to get 5 stars around here? :D an enjoyable read, it's always nice to see people appreciate something wodnerful.

  2. A couple years ago a friend asked me what movies I had given 5 stars to on Netflix because I had only given 4s to most of the movies he rated 5s. I counted it up and I only had about 50 movies with 5 stars, out of roughly 5,000 ratings. That's only 1% of all the movies I've rated. On that list would be some of the usual suspects like Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca, and Citizen Kane, but also on the list are the recent movies Toy Story 3, Whale Rider, and Children of Men. (On a related note, I have given relatively few movies 1 star.)

    After that realization a couple years ago I have tried to be a little more generous. A few times I have run across movies that I had given 4 stars to and I have bumped them up to 5. A couple of examples would be The Lives of Others and Pride & Prejudice (2005.) I have not made a concerted effort to go back through all my 4 star movies and re-rate them, though.

  3. Just rewatched Sunset Blvd. the other day! But it occurred to me that perhaps Joe is the villain and Norma is the hero of the piece?

    I go into a lengthy explanation why here:

  4. @theoncominghope - Thanks for commenting. I actually didn't see either of them as a villain (or a hero, for that matter.) Both of them were using the other to get what they wanted. Desmond was not above using her power over Gillis to get him into her bed and he was not above feeding her delusion to further his career.

    I read your post. I liked the point about how Desmond may have been right that more technology may not necessarily make for a better movie. In one way or another, it's an argument that has been made at every point in movie making, right from stage actors deriding the new "moving pictures" as being for the low class, right up to the complaint about cgi today.

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said about Billy Wilder. One of the best directors of all-time.
    I wonder what someone who knew nothing about film history, or who any of the past actors and directors were, would enjoy this movie.

  6. Well, I knew far, far less about movies when I saw this than I do now. I knew nothing about either Crawford's or von Stroheim's earlier careers. And I didn't really know who Cecil B. DeMille was, other than he presumably was a famous director. Despite all this I still liked the film quite a bit. Perhaps if I had known more about classic movies I would have given it a higher rating, though, like an earlier commenter asked about.