When we think of “Gothic,” we conjure cavernous, menacing and dark places with mysterious images and powerful symbolism.
Tonight, in my fevered illness, I‘m going to such a place.
I slip my Collector’s Edition disc into the player and sit back with my laptop.
This movie is about pathos, ambition, disappointment, and the netherworld between reality and dreams. It is about life gone awry. It is about decadent glamour and haunting despair. It is the black pearl of film noir. It is the most “Gothic” of movies.
Welcome to Sunset Boulevard.
Of all the crimes that Hollywood could be accused of, its treatment of silent films is perhaps the worst. During the silent era, thousands upon thousands of films were made annually. In 1909 alone, Mary Pickford starred in over fifty films. This created a massive back catalog and created a little problem. With the huge output of new films each year, early Hollywood saw little value in replaying the previous year’s hits.
There were countless warehouses in Los Angeles with reel tins stacked to the ceiling. In the sweltering heat, miles of film stock would often spontaneously combust due to the silver nitrate in them. Sometimes it wasn’t so accidental. Studios would often destroy decades’ worth of irreplaceable art just to make room for copies of the newest talkie. Of all the silent films that were produced, about 90% have been lost or destroyed.
Hollywood didn’t treat silent film actors much better.
Once seen as Hollywood’s royalty, most of the Golden Era’s greats could not make the transition to talking films. Superstar Clara Bow, the original “It” girl, lost her considerable fanbase when they finally heard her lower class Brooklyn accent. Pola Negri, a vamp once lusted after by millions, met a cold reception with her thick Polish accent.
Two generations of silent stars saw the door of opportunity slam in their face with the advent of talkies. The reason for their failure isn’t apparent at first. There is a misconception that silent films were simply films without sound. The reality was that these movies were an entirely different art form which emphasized different aspects of an actor’s performance. The silent era necessity of having extremely expressive faces became nearly comical when sound came around and an actor could simply say what was going on in a character’s mind. Sound turned the paradigm of acting upside-down.
What was a strength in the silent era became a glaring weakness in the sound era.
There are a number of uncomfortable parallels in Sunset Boulevard with the reality of Hollywood. During preproduction, director and writer Billy Wilder wanted to cast an actress who not only would play a former silent star, but in reality, had actually been one. He approached a number of actresses without any luck. Although ten years older than the character, Mae West thought herself too young at 57 to play the part. Mary Pickford stared in horror at Wilder when he described the story. Pola Negri reportedly threw a tantrum at the thought of being portrayed as a has-been. And her thick accent didn’t help matters, either.
Finally, they found a star willing to take the risk.
This almost fell through when Paramount requested a screen test from her. After having done so many films to help create Hollywood, Swanson thought it insulting. Her friend, realizing the potential of the starring role in Sunset Boulevard, threatened to shoot her if she didn’t swallow her pride.
The rest is history.
Swanson was one of the greatest stars of the silent era and her extraordinary performances of those times are among the greatest in film history. She was histrionic, stylized, majestic, forceful and mesmerizing. She was not a common mortal. Her theatrical presence reflects not passion, but vision, albeit a vision clouded by the myths of self-importance, youth, and immortality.
Which made her perfect for the role of forgotten movie queen Norma Desmond. She is all arched brows and grasping talons. She has a cigarette-holding ring and guzzles champagne. She imperiously gestures and commands. Her world is mostly confined to the exotic, lush interiors of her mind and mansion, where she has divorced herself from the real world and has been working on a screenplay about the biblical femme fatale Salome which she plans as her comeback role on the silver screen.
In a remarkably bold stroke of casting genius by director Wilder, he chose Erich von Stroheim as Desmond’s devoted butler and ex-husband. One of the silent era’s biggest filmmakers, von Stroheim had directed Swanson in the 1929 film Queen Kelly and some of this footage is used in Sunset Boulevard. The sly inclusion of Queen Kelly was not some sadistic joke by Wilder, but a suggestion from von Stroheim himself. Queen Kelly was a notorious failure that pretty much ended the acting career of Swanson and the directing career of von Stroheim, who did continue in films, but as an actor playing small parts as Nazis and evil henchmen.
Sunset Boulevard starts with sirens and a voice-over, as we see cars rushing into a driveway. Police and newsmen swarm over the lushly landscaped grounds of a Hollywood mansion and the camera moves toward the swimming pool where a man in a suit is floating face down. The camera switches to a view from the bottom of the pool where we can see the drowned face of the body. He is Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, whose voice-over we have been listening to. It is a stunning visual image and a startling introduction to the movie, one of the best in film history. The movie then becomes a straight-forward, conventional flashback that explains how Holden ended up in that pool.
Gillis is a hack screenwriter of B movies, with few credits and lots of creditors. He’s about to have his car repossessed and is desperate to raise money to keep it. Nothing works out for him though. He spots the repo men at a traffic light and they chase him, but he loses them by pulling into the driveway of what appears to be an abandoned mansion on Sunset Boulevard. He hides his car in the garage but is suddenly confronted by a servant with a German accent who summons him inside where the strange and reclusive middle-aged woman who owns the estate mistakes him for an undertaker who had been called to take care of her dead chimpanzee.
He explains that he is not the undertaker and is about to be summarily dismissed when he notices the opulent surroundings and a large portrait over the fireplace. He recognizes the woman as a very famous star of silent films. “Hey, you‘re Norma Desmond,” he remarks. “You used to be big.”
“I AM big,” she retorts. “It’s the pictures that got small.”
Norma Desmond, frozen in a single frame of her past glory, holds this movie and everything that happens in it together. When she finds out that Gillis is a screenwriter, she demands he look at a screenplay that she believes will usher her name back into the spotlight. She wants him to help edit it, although he quickly finds out that it’s a futile task. The writing is terrible and Norma won’t stand to see a single word of it changed.
Coaxed with champagne and the fact that he needs money desperately, he agrees to help her. She then arranges for him to stay at the mansion. He’s not crazy about the idea of staying at the place, but he needs to avoid the creditors and needs the money, which she obviously has.
Gillis begins his futile work on the script and it isn’t long before Norma begins buying him a new wardrobe. He’s a little embarrassed and hesitant to accept, but ultimately gives in, only to soon realize that his new patron may have romantic interests in him that he does not reciprocate.
He leaves one night after an argument with Norma, and visits one of his old pals, who is having a party. Gillis asks if he can stay over for a few days and is happy when his friend, played by a young Jack Webb, agrees. He’s taken aback when Webb introduces him to his fiancé, who is a studio reader who, at the beginning of the movie, had crushed his ego with her devastating critique of his latest submission. Still irked by her criticism, he is rather snide with her but stops just short of being rude. He decides to return back to the mansion where he succumbs to Norma’s advances in an ambiguous scene that, given the censorship of 1950, only suggests that they are having a physical affair. We don’t see nudity or lovemaking. We know they’re doing the deed because he doesn’t recoil when she slithers into his arms.
Gillis is a “kept” man, a doomed gigolo.
He’s not a gold-digger by nature. It’s only that he was in a desperate financial situation. He knows what he’s become and long ago came to the sad conclusion that he was merely a hack writer of unimportant movies and should probably give it up. But that spark of creative romance hasn’t quite flickered out yet, and so he sees Norma as a temporary key to survival, if not salvation. She is an odd stroke of luck, but he came to her with his defenses down and resources empty. When he gives in to her romantic overtures, he is exhausted and his will has fled. Circumstances have conquered him.
Sunset Boulevard is a stinging parody of the paradise known as Hollywood and the perils of the fame machine. But it’s also so much more. It is a parable about the illusions of celebrity, the delusions of ambition, and the erosion of egos.
William Holden won an Oscar for Stalag 17, but Sunset Boulevard made him a star and remains his best performance.
And still, he is dominated by Gloria Swanson.
The thing about Norma is that life with her isn’t all that bad. She isn’t boring. Her histrionics and melodrama are entertaining, and she has a charming side. At some subterranean level, Gillis is content to be a “prisoner,” and perhaps even enjoys it. While his interest in her is primarily financial, he is certainly beguiled by her lifestyle. With her, life is full of surprises, not all of them bad, at least, not at first blush.
It’s interesting to note that Norma Desmond’s mansion belonged in reality at one point to J. Paul Getty, but it wasn’t on Sunset Boulevard at all. It was on Wilshire Boulevard. Today, the site is occupied by an office building. The pool that Gillis ends up floating in was later used in Rebel Without a Cause.
Gillis sees rats playing in the empty pool, but Desmond promises to fill it up and to open up her beach house as well, all in an effort to accommodate him.
But Gillis has taken to sneaking out lately to work on a new screenplay with Jack Webb’s fiance Betty, and the two writers have a mutual attraction going. Gillis decides to call the mansion and tell them to pack his bags only to learn that Norma has slit her wrists. He returns and tells her he was just kidding about leaving. He tells her that she‘s been good to him, that she‘s the only person in this stinking town that has been good to him.
He continues to work on Norma’s script, but also on his own with Betty. When the office of Norma’s old friend, Cecil B. DeMille, calls to meet with her, she thinks the director is interested in working with her again, but Gillis and von Stroheim hide the truth, that DeMille’s office merely wants to use her very impressive Isotta-Fraschini touring car in a Crosby movie.
One night, when Betty finally confesses that she’s in love with Gillis, his doom is sealed.
There he is. Betty‘s future right in the palm of his hand. And she’s engaged to his best buddy, one of the nicest guys who ever lived. And she’s a fool not to sense that there was something phony in his set-up. And he was a heel not to tell her. But you just can’t say those things to somebody you’re crazy about. He hopes that he’ll never have to, that things will somehow work themselves out.
This is the film’s lazy morality. Nothing sinister or larcenous, but an optimist’s dream that “things will somehow work themselves out.”
Of course, we know from the beginning of the movie, however, that they don’t.
When Gillis returns to the mansion, he discovers that Norma has called Betty to reveal his role as gigolo. Not to be bested, Gillis himself invites Betty to come to the mansion and explains to her sardonically that it is all very simple: an older woman who is well-to-do and a younger man who isn’t. Although Betty pleads with him to leave with her, Gillis falls on his sword. “Look sweetie,” he tells her, “be practical. I’ve got a good deal here.”
After Betty leaves, Gillis starts packing his things, but Norma threatens suicide again.
“Oh, wake up, Norma, You’d be killing yourself to an empty house. The audience left 20 years ago.”
He adds that the studio was only interested in her car and that von Stroheim has been secretly writing all her fan mail to her. Gillis picks up bags and walks out. Following him, Norma screams that “No one ever leaves a star. That’s what makes one a star.”
That’s when she fires three bullets into him.
And that’s how Gillis ended up floating in the pool.
This could have been the end of the movie, but Sunset Boulevard is not finished. What was lost in those studio warehouses was more than just old silent movies, it was an entire era of filmmaking. Its stars and scandals are mostly lost to us, now. Thus, Billy Wilder’s final touch on Sunset Boulevard is perhaps his most poignant: it was the last movie to ever be filmed on silver nitrate.
And in the final scene:
Norma is dazed and disoriented. The police and the press swarm her at the top of the stairs. Flash bulbs are popping away. She asks von Stroheim where she is and he takes over one of the cameras. “Quiet everyone.” He tells her the scene is the staircase of the palace. She is now Salome.
Gloria Swanson had taken enormous chances with all her theatrical sneers and swoops and posturings, holding Norma at the edge of madness for the entire film. Now she finally lets her slip over.
She begins to slowly descend the stairs, very grandly, in a sequence that slips out of reality and into film immortality.