Sunset Boulevard ★★½

A great underlying idea marred by needless sensationalism. Everything regarding William Holden's character as the vessel through which the audience enters the world of forgotten stars feels overblown and dripping with Wilder's gleefully mean-spirited cynicism. It doesn't help that Holden's smug detached performance feels so annoying fifty years later, peppering condescending sarcasm into nearly every scene. If there were more scenes like the one containing Keaton, or DeMille (by far the best scene in the movie), you could generate a genuinely heart wrenching commentary on the way that celebrity and Hollywood chews up its stars and discards them for new bodies as soon as it can. Instead you get scenes where Von Stroheim projects a real movie he shot with Gloria Swanson, the one that essentially ended his directing career, and one can imagine Billy Wilder cackling to himself over his typewriter at the infinite cleverness of his in-jokes.

Don't get me wrong. Some of these scenes (the finale borders on a horror film in the intensity of Swanson's performance) work and are watchable entertainment. I am beating on the movie only because I see strengths here that feel sadly unexplored, even as the movie we do get is interesting, often beautiful to look at, and has a kind of punchiness I feel was rare among Hollywood films of 1950. Wilder didn't become famous without talent, and I would take even the raw cruelty of this film over his sweeter films (like The Apartment) that, to me, feel phony and unrepresentative of his actual worldview. But compared to Double Indemnity, a film I feel fires on every sardonic cylinder, I think this film can't decide which side to be on -- whether we should feel sadness at the loss of these bygone figures, or a kind of morbid glee in watching Swanson sink into delusion. The film wants to have and eat its cake, and I feel this aspect of scoffing on the one hand while sentimentalizing with the other is one of the most poisonous lessons later filmmakers pulled from Wilder's success.

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