You know when occasionally you watch a film, and you think it sounds okay, but then it totally exceeds your expectations and you’re just blown away by it? Well, Sunset Boulevard (aka Sunset Blvd.) was just such a film for me.
William Holden – who also narrates the film – plays Joe Gillis, a small-time screen writer, down on both money and luck; as we find out right at the beginning of the film, Gillis won’t be alive by the end of it. He meets former silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who cannot and will not accept the truth that her star has long since faded into obscurity and she has been all but forgotten by both the film industry, and movie-goers. Determined to have another hit film, she hires Joe to help her edit her self-penned script, but she soon becomes obsessed with him, and Joe finds himself less a guest, more a prisoner, at her dilapidated home, with only Norma and her mysterious butler Max for company.
As you may have guessed, I loved this film. The storyline is a caustic and witty dig at a fickle Hollywood. The fact that viewers are informed by Joe’s voice-over right at the start of the film, that he will not survive to the end, fills the ensuing scenes with a bitter sense of doom, and the contrast between Joe the narrator, who knows his fate, and Joe the character who we see on camera, who is unaware of what will befall him, is very effective (A similar idea was used years later in American Beauty, also with excellent results, although Sunset Boulevard was, for me, a much better film.)
Gloria Swanson was excellent as Norma Desmond, and at times was difficult to watch. I disliked her character, but couldn’t help feeling great sympathy for her. Deserted by her fans and her colleagues, she is losing her grip on reality. At times, she was manic and unpredictable; at other times, she showed tenderness and extreme vulnerability (the scene where she entertains Joe by dressing up as Charlie Chaplin is both sweet and disturbing, as her happy mood turns to anger). Swanson was nominated for an Oscar for her performance; the same year Bette Davis was nominated for her role in All About Eve – both lost out to Judy Holliday for her role in Born Yesterday, which also starred William Holden. He was also nominated for Sunset Boulevard.
William Holden shows his real talent for acting here. A not altogether likeable character at the beginning of the film, he nevertheless gets the audience on side, as he and they come to realise the untenable situation in which he has found himself. He imbues his character with passion, tenderness, ruthlessness, and resignation – oh, and he’s darkly funny too.
Eric von Stroheim is perfectly cast as Norma’s taciturn and mysterious butler – this role could easily have been a caricature in different hands, but he plays the part brilliantly.
The main cast is rounded out by Nancy Olsen as Betty Schaefer, a young writer who wants Joe’s help on a script; she is perfectly cast as a feisty but tender young woman who is dragged into Joe’s nightmare world.
In short, my opinion for what it’s worth, is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this film. It’s gripping – I felt unable to turn my eyes away from the screen; it’s sad, it’s tragic, and it’s bleakly funny. It was a real victory for director Billy Wilder, and it’s the best film I’ve seen in a long time. Very highly recommended.
Year of release: 1950
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr.
Main cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olsen