Film Title: Sunset Boulevard
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
Genre: Film Noir
- William Holden
- Gloria Swanson
- Erich von Stroheim
- Nancy Olson
“Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close up”. This sentence has haunted us for years. It has become a fragment of pop culture, the often go-to statement amidst the flashing of cameras. Some use it seemingly unaware of its origin. To the film aficionado, it is homage. It was once used in all seriousness, as a simple affirmation hiding something much more disturbing beneath its nine-word structure. The origin of that legendary dialogue is 10086 Sunset Boulevard; the speaker: Ms. Norma Desmond.
Sunset Boulevard follows the narration of Joe Gillis (William Holden), a screen writer struggling to pay his rent. After a visit from a collection agency, he is told to pay on his car or risk it being towed. Realizing that funds are scarce, he dodges their attempts at every chance. He is out for a drive when the collection agents spot him and proceed to chase him through the Hollywood streets. He quickly turns up the long driveway of a mansion and out of sight, losing the agents in the quick maneuver. It appears he has lucked out. The extravagant dwelling is deserted, and so is its multi-car garage. At first glance anyway. On a cautious stroll along the grounds, he hears a voice call out from an upstairs window, shattering his assumption of solitude. He is ordered inside. Gillis has taken the first steps into the most unforgettable experience of his life. The mansion is inhabited by Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a one-time superstar of the silent screen, and her suspicious butler Max (Erich von Stroheim). Together they cultivate Norma’s delusions of fame and the support of her adoring fans. In reality, the world has forgotten her. Isolated in what appears to be a narcissistic shrine, Norma has written the movie that will showcase her big return. Upon learning of his screenwriting abilities, Norma makes Gillis an offer, one hard for a man in debt to refuse. He will edit her script, in return for his bills taken care of and a considerable salary. He takes the job. Before long, Gillis begins to realize Norma’s ulterior motives. She has orchestrated a plot to keep him a virtual hostage while she continues her romantic advances. There is no logical way out of Norma’s web of madness. Gillis would only be leaving to resume his normal life back in the poor house. Humoring her to buy himself time, Gillis finds himself more a companion-for-hire rather than a professional writer. He is soon captivated by a young Paramount employee and fellow aspiring screenwriter, Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olsen). In order to be in her company, he sneaks out at night, all the while under the surveying eye of Max. Does Joe Gillis find a way to escape Norma Desmond, or is he forever doomed to exist as a chess piece on Sunset Boulevard?
After watching this film, it’s very easy to understand how future directors could find inspiration in Billy Wilder. Wilder shot the movie in a very “noir-esque” fashion. The dancing of shadows, unusual camera angles, paranoia and dark subject material justify its Film Noir classification. Gloria Swanson fills the “femme fatale” role quite effectively. However, Wilder manages to invoke pity among viewers for Norma Desmond’s pathetic grip on reality. There are times when you root for Joe Gillis to break out of the stranglehold, and times when you’re convinced he is saving Desmond’s fragile existence. It’s a rollercoaster from the very beginning. This sentiment was echoed in the aftermath of the premiere. The movie opened to a very harsh reception. Critics felt as though they were watching a documentary on the cruelty of Hollywood and its effect on people. Understandably, a film that so blatantly slaps the business in its face is bound to endure negative reviews. Wilder was extremely rebellious. He knew full well what the undertones of his film implied, and was quick to make no apologies for it. Many years later, Stephen King’s “Misery” carried a very similar premise. Although not aimed at Hollywood, the idea of an eccentric woman separated from the real world by way of a large house, searching for something to fill the void in her life, namely writer Paul Sheldon, is an assumed nod to the situation of Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis.
Paramount released Sunset Boulevard on DVD in 2002 with a beautiful transfer and a plethora of extras. We are not only treated to a full restoration, but also: “The Making of Sunset Boulevard” (includes interviews with Nancy Olson, Ed Sikov, film critic Andrew Sarris, Paramount producer A.C. Lyles, and Glenn Close, who portrayed Desmond in the Broadway adaptation.), Photo galleries, Hollywood location map, Script of the original morgue prologue, “The Music of Sunset Boulevard” featurette, “Edith Head: The Paramount Years” (documentary of the famed costume designer), The extra features are an added cherry to this already tantalizing film. The detailed precision discussed in the film’s “making of” featurette leaves no wonder as to how Sunset Boulevard won 3 Oscars and 13 other awards. This is how every DVD should be released.
Sunset Boulevard lives in two worlds, simplicity and exorbitance. From the amazing camera angle in the beginning swimming pool sequence to the mental decline of the characters, this is a portrait of life. It’s a lesson that money cannot buy happiness, no matter how much is thrown around. The persona of Norma Desmond resonates in your memory like a flickering home movie. Her voice is the voice of many dreams broken and never realized. She lives in every disillusioned person to precede her, the world is full of those who refuse to let go. In an almost prophetic manner, her words have single-handedly predicted the future of film. “I am big; it’s the PICTURES that got small!”
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