How many times have I seen this movie? I really couldn’t tell you. This is absolutely my all-time favorite movie – directed and co-written by legendary Billy Wilder, who was also the creative force behind “Double Indemnity.” (1944 – see my review).
Like Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard begins at the end, as we see a Hollywood writer, Joe Gillis (played by William Holden) floating face down in the swimming pool of a decrepit mansion. Then we are taken 6 months before his unseemly end, where Gillis is a failing writer, and his car is about to be repossessed. He’s dropped by his agent, and his ideas for movies are shot down by movie producers around Hollywood, including Sheldrake and his assistant, Betty Shaefer (played by Nancy Olson). He’s desperate, thinking of going back to Ohio, when he and his car are chased by those repo men. In an attempt to elude them, he finds himself serendipitously in the driveway of a Hollywood old-school mansion, as described by Gillis:
It was a great big white elephant of a place, the kind crazy movie people built in the crazy ‘20s. A neglected house gets an unhappy look. This one had it in spades. It was like that old woman in Great Expectations — that Miss Havisham in her rotting wedding dress and her torn veil – taking it out on the world because she’d been given the go-by. . . .
This particular mansion, with its unkept tennis courts and landscaping, and empty pool in the beginning, is owned by an aging Silent Movie star, Norma Desmond (played brilliantly by former Silent Movie star Gloria Swanson). Gillis recognizes her from her Silent Screen days, and he asks her, “didn’t you used to be big?” to which she responds:
I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.
Desmond finds out that Gillis is a writer, and she wants him to help her with her overwrought screenplay about historical figure Salome. He needs the job, and she needs the help, so they seem perfect together. She asks about his birthday, and when he responds December 21, she says, “I like Sagittarians. You can trust them.” (My birthday is December 15) Gillis moves into her apartment over the garage and begins work on the screenplay – “sometimes it’s interesting to see just how bad bad writing can be.”
Out of this working relationship, they somehow form a dysfunctional and damaged personal one. She, in essence, becomes his sugar mama, as she buys him clothes and accessories, yet longs for more. He moves into the main house, all the while seeming to protest his independence and assert his dignity. Is he being bought and paid for – a kept man? It’s definitely a role reversal pretty much unseen in Hollywood, as typically the female is painted as the gold digger and the man is the sugar daddy. Desmond is independently wealthy, strong, assertive, unfailing in her belief in herself, but a little demented and demanding. Hey, we’re all flawed! She makes a perfect practical feminist.
Real life movie figures show up to grace Sunset Boulevard, including Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton and Hedda Hopper. Gillis’ friend, Artie Green, is played by a young Jack Webb (who, in this movie, has an uncanny resemblance to Lou Diamond Phillips). This is a happier, friendlier Webb than I remember from his days on “Dragnet.”
Gillis also runs into Sheldrake’s assistant, Betty Shaefer, at a New Year Eve’s party. They forge a writing team that turns into more.
What makes this movie so brilliant? Wilder’s sense of humor, coupled with his insider’s knowledge of Hollywood, with it’s very damaged and egotistic personalities, is a chief reason. His characters, especially Desmond and Gillis, are flawed yet the viewer still feels empathy for them. They are human. Swanson’s acting makes this movie divine! There’s a great insider’s scene when Desmond visits Paramount Studios to see DeMille about resurrecting her career.
How does Gillis end up in the pool in the opening scene? You will definitely have to rent this movie to see. The ending of Sunset Boulevard is one of the best in the history of film! A must see! Highly recommended.
Copyright© 2011-2014 by Brenda L. Hardy. All rights reserved. The material contained within these pages is the sole property of Brenda L. Hardy. All rights to copy, reproduce, publish or alter this material in any way are reserved. Reproduction of any kind is expressly prohibited without prior written consent.