Film 101 is In Reel Deep’s commitment to an in-depth re-examination of cinematic classics — old and new. Learn more about the ongoing series and see others in it on our Film 101 page.
Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard is keenly aware of itself, and the needle it attempts to thread for its duration, in just about the best way a film possibly can be. Everything about the film is a delicate dance. The potential for stumbles abounds. And yet it endures as a classic, nominated for 11 Academy Awards in the wake of its release and regularly namechecked thanks to a handful of iconic lines, often referenced by people with no context for them.
Sunset Boulevard, as it has been since it was released, is ready for its closeup, darling, so in the name of the kind of unforgiving scrutiny a camera provides, let's examine a few of the ways this could have been a grating, forgettable film, but was able to avoid such a fate.
The place to start, it seems to me, is with the very conceit of the film - one that is able to successfully blend the paint-by-numbers plot of Film Noir with that most navel-gaze-y of Hollywood tropes, a movie about the movie business. What an odd thing to do, and what a challenging thing as well.
William Holden's voiceover, set in the start of the film against the backdrop of his character Joe Gillis' lifeless body floating in a swimming pool, lays down a marker for the narrative beats of the film. A dead narrator going back and explaining how he got to be dead is about as Film Noir as it gets. And yet those familiar beats butt right up against an oddball theme in that context - the potentially poisonous nature of fame and stardom. Holden's Joe almost literally drives on to a different movie set when, attempting to dodge creditors, he parks his car in the dilapidated mansion of Silent Era has-been Norma Desmond.
The Film Noir never quite gets drowned out. We know where all this is going, of course, and Holden's ongoing voiceover keeps that Noir-ish current running through to a very dark conclusion. But it is just one of the currents. It co-exists, somehow comfortably, with a character study of the deluded and desperate Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson.
Norma Desmond is as fascinating a character as we have come across in this series, a tragic and highly idiosyncratic figure, who with her odds-and-ends staff of enablers and her recently deceased pet chimpanzee, conjures up a late-in-life Michael Jackson. Desmond must have presented an enormous challenge to Swanson, and her character is another of the ways in which this all could have gone much more poorly.
She is a truly pathetic person. Desmond has crafted what I would only now describe as a Trumpian reality for herself. Nothing is her fault. It is incomprehensible to her why some can not appreciate her obvious greatness. She mostly seems worthy of pity - perhaps with a side of mild scorn - and this is never more apparent than after her suicide attempt, which brings the reluctant Joe rushing back to her side. In the end, much like the figure I am comparing her to, simply being in the spotlight is all that really matters to her - never mind why the spotlight is shining on her. This makes her very dangerous, in addition to being pathetic.
For Desmond to be such a compelling figure, Swanson has to play her with the precisely right amount of camp. She has to make you smile and roll your eyes and almost root for her to fail and find reality when she says things like "I am big, it's the pictures that got small."
This, it strikes me now, is incalculably difficult, but Swanson puts just the right amount of mustard on her Norma Desmond. She does this physical thing over and over, with her mouth clenched, her jaw jutting out, and her teeth grinding that crystallizes the sadness and the lurking, tightly coiled violence perfectly. And so the film works.
It works when it leverages cameos from real stars of yesteryear like Buster Keaton and Cecil B. DeMille. (Just to put a finer point on this, the counter-factual here is basically 1950s Entourage. Ick.) It even works when it borrows from other genres like horror. What else can you call it when Norma's man-servant Max, played by Erich von Stroheim, fills her cavernous mansion with the eerie sounds of an organ?
The aim of Sunset Boulevard is clear, if a little bit surprising. This is an unflinching and uncomfortable look at post-fame, and it does not paint a pretty picture of what that looks like. That, by itself, is not very interesting thematically. What makes this film such a standout is its methods.
It takes special talent - the kind possessed by Wilder, Swanson and others - to tackle those themes in this particular way. More than a half century since its release, that is why Sunset Boulevard remains such a touchstone.