When I was in film school, one of my teachers called this one of the greatest films of all time, second only to Citizen Kane. And now on this viewing, after having watched far more movies and gotten much more filmmaking experience, I start to agree.
There’s something magical about this film--especially to those who really love the world of movies. It’s both a love letter to and a critique of Hollywood. And Norma Desmond is a representative of what everyone moving to LA and living off of Lyft driver money wants to be. Or at least she was.
This is the tenth movie where I follow along with the equally glamorous podcast, Unspooled, analyzing a different movie off of the AFI top 100 list, noting what it can bring to writers, filmmakers, and movie lovers.
This is 1950’s Sunset Boulevard directed by Billy Wilder and written by him, Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman.
The harsh reality to everyone who wants to get into the movie/ TV industry is that it’s INCREDIBLY difficult ( which is a huge reason why we’re starting Candivan). So many people have the dream, move to LA, and give it a try. There are far more showbusiness wannabes than there are people actually working full-time in it.
The flip-side of this are the has-beens. All of those who did have that moment in the sun, but summer has left.
This film examines both, specifically what happens when a wannabee has a relationship with a has-been, and consequently, that has-been brings so many truths to that wannabe’s consciousness. Through this, Joe Gillis learns the film’s lesson: “Facing reality is essential.”
Norma is stuck in the past. She’s determined to stay within the best years of her life, despite the best years of her life being long gone. She clings to her delusions that she is still the star she once was in the silent era. She’s so stuck in this mindset, she refuses to believe that the calls from the studio are anything but them wanting to turn her script into a movie.
Max shares the same sorts of delusions. Once loved by Norma, he gives up his entire life and his career as a director just to remain part of her life. He feeds into her own delusions, letting her think she’s still a star because if her fantasy is destroyed then so is his.
It’s when Joe finds this truth out that he finally starts to see his own reality. He ceases to be a wannabe at this point, and becomes more determined to live a real life. He even breaks up with Betty, knowing he’s not right for her—their relationship was just an idealized story—and he leaves the false world Norma created for him before she brings him to the ultimate reality: death.
Joe had tried to wake her up, telling her, “Norma, you’re a woman of 50, now grow up.” But at the end she and Max have entered a delusion they’ll probably never wake from. Treating the reporters covering her murder like paparazzi, they face none of the truth of what’s actually happening.
Films on films
The cool thing about films about films is that they allow the chance for the movie to get really meta.
There’s all sorts of parallels between the scripts that are mentioned and Sunset Boulevard itself.
Norma’s screenplay is about a woman who kills her lover after he rejects her, which is almost exactly what happens when Joe leaves her, making her realizes that, unlike her chimp, he isn’t going to stick around until a proper backyard funeral.
Joe’s idea he pitches to Paramount, Bases Loaded, is about a guy who leaves the Mafia, but then realizes that every time he thinks he’s out, they bring him back in. This almost mirrors his situation exactly with Norma and his inability to fully leave her.
Betty’s favorite part of Joe’s script is the scene with the teacher because she she loves it when there’s reality in movies. At the end, she’s confronted with harsh reality by both Norma and Joe, and she’s not allowed to ignore it.
In the last scene, Max and Norma presumably end their relationship the same way they started it: him directing her in front of a crew of cameras.
What can be taken away
This movie is not really a genre movie; however it still uses a lot of techniques, especially techniques from film noir, one of Billy Wilder’s specialties, to create tension.
Here are a couple ways it does so:
Narrating beyond the grave
As far as I know, this is the first movie, but not the last, to use the technique of having a dead narrator tell the story. We know right away that Joe Gillis is going to die.
This has the opposite effect of many movies that also begin late in the story, but with an alive protagonist, and then rewinds to the beginning. In these cases the tension can only reach a certain point. No matter what kind of danger the protagonist gets into, we know that he or she is going to survive at least to that point in the story. If that person is a narrator we usually feel even safer, since we know an alive person is looking back at everything that happened.
Here we also know the outcome, but it’s a much more dreadful one. No matter what happens, we know that Joe is going to wind up face-down in a pool.
This can create a lot more tension because his death can happen at anytime. We’re certain that it’s going to have to happen eventually, so every moment that leads to it carries suspense within it. All his happy moments, like his romance with Betty, also carries suspense with it since we know it can’t last.
This movie is both a film noir and not a film noir. It doesn’t have a lot of the typical story tropes, but the movie does carry itself like one.
The narrating beyond the grave, aside from adding tension, adds a nice macabre feel to everything Joe says. There’s also a dry humor to it, typical of many noirs.
The use of shadows and the set decor also build a noirish vibe. Nora herself plays the role of a femme fatale, albeit she is a subversive version of one.
There’s also many subtle things that build up the suspense, like the holes where doorknobs should be, stand-ins for Nora’s always-watching eyes. There’s also plenty of creepy imagery like the chimp funeral and the bridge game with the wax figures.
This atmosphere let’s us always fee somewhere in our heads that something is wrong.
I have heard some people say that Gloria Swanson and the screenplay make Nora seem too over-the-top, but I don’t agree. The truth is that becoming a celebrity can bring very strange side out of people. Just using Michael Jackson as an example, we could pick out a ton of similarities between him and Nora.
In some ways the film is a warning. It introduces us to this world of wannabes and then shows us what happens when we’re on the other side of that.
One could argue that the entire film also carries with it the cautionary them of “Hollywood eats you up.” Yes, we have the Cecil B Demilles who have survived a long time fine, but he’s also presented as someone who’s able to see reality. I like to believe Betty’s life also comes out ok.
With that, the movie seems a very personal tale for Billy Wilder. He’s a man who dared to dream, and he got a wonderful career out of it, but he’s also seen plenty of people who didn’t.
That last line of the movie--the line I don’t even have to say because even people who haven’t seen this know what it is--is so telling. A close-up let’s us truly examine what’s in the shot. It presents the truth as accurately as possible.
And though Norma think she’s ready for hers, Billy Wilder clearly tells us she isn’t, blurring the image as she so iconically gets closer to the camera. The actual truth in Hollywood may be harsh, but they still produce a wonderful art form that could make anything glamorous.
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