Sunset Boulevard ★★★★★

Part of:
5 Directors x 5 Unseen Films – Round 2

The stars are ageless, aren't they?
-Norma Desmond

Simply brilliant. Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, who both racked up multiple Oscar nominations with a win each to boot at this point in their careers, decided this was the perfect time to take an unromanticized and harsh look at Hollywood's film industry through a brilliant film-noir script they co-wrote together.

I guess it's just a joy to see such a talented director make such a film while he was in the good graces of such an industry that was so in love with itself. To Wilder and Brackett's credit however, the story doesn't take cheap jabs at Hollywood, but sets itself out to tell a story about the disenfranchised and disillusioned. Not everyone saw it like that however and legend has it that Louis B. Mayer berated Wilder in front of other celebrities after seeing the film with the altercation ending with Wilder telling him to go fuck himself.

The story takes place in the present (1950) and it is very much a product of it's time. Sure you could still make films about past film stars yearning to regain their stardom, but here we have a former silent film star in Norma Desmond brilliantly played by Gloria Swanson, who was herself a star of silent films. The "talkies" had taken over barely 20 years prior and you had scores of actors and directors that were not able to make the transition while ending up all but forgotten.

Again Swanson is brilliant as the out of touch and slightly delusional Norma Desmond. Her performance and character gets most of the attention that I've noticed, and rightfully so but I think William Holden's Joe Gillis deserves just as much attention. Rarely do you see realistically written characters in films, even masterpieces, that represent the true human condition and I think Joe Gillis is one such rarity. People do not act logically, but it's almost impossible to properly capture that without going to far, but Wilder and Brackett captured it in this character.

Joe Gillis slowly becomes a kept man in this film by a woman almost 20 years his senior. He is not an idiot, he knows it's happening, she's barely manipulating him as he knows what each step, gift and gesture truly means and yet he goes a long with it even though he hates himself for it. Sure he tries to fool himself with small gestures and dialogue, but as a salesman clearly points out to him during a shopping spree, no one is fooled.

You have Norma Desmond who is washed up, but fools herself that she is still relevant. You have Joe Gillis that is on the cusp of being a washed up writer grasping at Desmond's wealth to still feel successful. It would be truly gloomy for the entire film's run time if it wasn't for one other character Betty Schaefer. She's a struggling writer that has not tasted success yet, so nothing has soured her on Hollywood yet either. She is the personification of the young Hollywood hopefuls and she is played by the charming and beautiful Nancy Olson.

Accept for the fictitious main characters, almost everything else is real. Real studios are mentioned, real actors and directors as well. All this leads to some ingenious cameos from the likes of Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton and numerous others all playing themselves (or versions of). This adds a lot more to the tragic nature of Norma Desmond as it makes it all the more real.

Finally the film has one of the greatest bookends I've ever seen. A fantastic opening matched by a fantastic closing.

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