Sunset Boulevard ★★★½

Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard is merciless, a scathing critique of Hollywood's self-obsession and relative inhumanity. Wilder's deft exploration of gothic visuals and entrancing camera movements display a startling ability to navigate our own desire, rendering the film a spell despite it's abhorrent subject material. It's a tale of broken dreams and unshakable egos, a bold comment on fame and fortune's effect on the human psyche. It's daring, a marvel that Wilder's script even got approved in the first place. And one must believe that Wilder's decades long career in the heart of it all would lend a sort of validity to it's extremism.

Perhaps an unpopular opinion, but Nancy Olsen (Gillis' secondary flame) gives far and away the finest performance in this film. Sunset Boulevard is oppressively dark, offering next to no relief from the tragedy that is Norma Desmond's life, aside from a few of Joe's escapes from the house. In these escapes, we meet Betty Shaefer, an optimistic, sharp and talented young writer who desires to work with Joe on a script he had started years earlier. She is Wilder's way of saying Hollywood isn't all bad, that characters like Betty, with strong convictions and a healthy bit of modesty, can rise above the debauchery of it all and maintain a feasible humanity within them. Nancy's performance is wonderful, perfectly exuding a feeling of refreshment and levity to a film that offers little. More than this, she feels the most grounded in realism. This is my fundamental issue with the film, which I will go into later. My love for this character is surely owed in large part to Wilder's script, but discounting Nancy's contribution would be criminal. I haven't seen many performances like her from women in that period, so assured and not defined by her gender, or her gender in relationship to the male protagonist opposite her.

Herein lies my main issue with the film, that is often the pride of it's disciples. Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond. The best thing I can say about it is that it is big, similar to Leonardo DiCaprio's performance in The Revenant, or some many Oscar winners before him. It certainly is one of the "most" performances I have ever seen, really not allowing for any subtlety or genuinely human moments at all. I get that it is fruitfully entertaining at parts, so grandiose and almost comical that mere expositionary scenes feel alive. But in the moments that count, I couldn't feel sympathy for her. I didn't feel any humanity was inside her, nothing for me to feel sorry for. I understand that as a silent film star, she likely relied on exaggerated facial expressions and grand gestures, and the film fundamentally asks whether or not her diminished career ultimately defines her. But that definition did not feel authentic at all to me, keeping me at arm's length from any real emotional connection to the film.

I would extend this criticism as well to Erich Von Stoheim, Norma's butler, played by Max Von Mayerling. He felt robototic, comically amusing but also not relatable when it really counts. I anticipate readers claiming these grandiose, larger-than-life characters are instrumental to the feeling the film is trying to cultivate. A feeling of seduction, sort of an Alice in Wonderland situation. As we follow Gillis further and further down the rabbit hole, we are supposed to be continually conditioned to expect even more irregular behavior, or accept even more unrealistic realities. But my fundamental issue here is that that rabbit hole is mighty shallow. As soon as we arrive at the mansion, we are already introduced to Norma's narcissism, or blinding ego and her relentless self-obsession. We are already familiar with Stroheim's oddly religious dedication to his master, as he seems to worship her from the start. Sunset Boulevard isn't so much a trip down a rabbit hole as it is a reminder of the bottom of the rabbit hole, and this fundamental failure to make the transition from realism to fantasy is why Sunset Boulevard despite it's spot near the top of the greatest American movies, fell dramatically short for me. Perhaps a revisit looms in my future, but first I need to explore more of Wilder's filmography.

Billy Wilder Ranked