“Sunset Boulevard” (1950) dir: Billy Wilder

sunset-blv

One of the best pictures in the history of cinema, receiving  11 nominations from the Academy Awards (including nominations in all four acting categories) and finally winning the “Best Writing, Story and Screenplay”,  “Best Art Direction-Set Decoration” and “Best Music”.  The film was directed by Billy Wilder and stars William Holden as Joe Gillis, an unsuccessful  screenwriter, who at the verge of losing his precious car finds himself in an empty  garage that belongs to a 20’s vast mansion. There he will make a bizarre encounter with Norma Desmond  portrayed by  Gloria Swanson, a faded  silent movie star now isolated from the public eye with the sole company of her ever devoted butler, Max. There he will discover his personal limitations when it comes to weighing his ambition against his instincts.

Gloria Swanson  (Norma) was particularly theatrical in her performance with the tone of her voice filled with pomposity, waving her hands  with the  long nails like a predator  and pulling her head backwards while goggling her eyes.  She delivered a wonderful performance, with the rest of the cast being equally competent. William Holden delivered a very serious Joe, firm with a decisive tone of voice and a face that betrayed hidden anger when he encountered Norma.

Further Analysis of the Plot:  

Throughout the film there are various memorable scenes that prove its original script. To begin with, the film has a particularly intriguing opening scene with the dead protagonist, floating in a pool, sarcastically narrating the series of events that led him there.

When Joe  first sets eyes on the house we detect the irony because it reminds him of the old woman  from “Great Expectations”, neglected and bitter for having being forgotten by people, without imagining its owner, Norma fits  the description herself. Norma’s face throughout the coverage of the window, lurking and observing him is brilliant.

Another unforgettable part is the formal funeral of the chimpanzee, which offers  a rare scenery. The decoration of the enormous house is  heavy, with flowers and veils, long dark curtains that banish natural light and manage to draw the era of Norma’s zenith and also create a claustrophobic environment.

The scene at the store where Joe realizes he assumed the role of her protégé and lover through the words of the salesman.

The desire to make sure her script, her “brain child” takes flesh and blood leads her back to the Paramount studio. Her visit there is sad and heartbreaking ; Norma is reunited with  Cecil B. DeMille, her mentor that feels true affection for her and informs his coworkers that her rare wit and heart were degenerated by fame. There we find a humorous scene, where the feather of her hat is pushed by the microphone.

Betty Schaefer, a script reader meets Joe and start revising one of his  old stories when they gradually fall in love And although Betty is the exact opposite of Norma and represents his escape from the depressing, threatening relationship. The existence of Betty is hurtful for Norma, especially when Joe’s decision is made between a young, beautiful woman and an old, psychologically decaying one.

Betty is creative and good at writing scripts ( her job), while Norma abandoned her public when she refused to adapt and her attempt to write a script is aesthetically catastrophic. Lastly, Betty feels working behind the cameras is more interesting than acting while the latter is obsessed over her projection. In the middle of the film Joe surrenders to Norma’s fantasies, after her attempted suicide out of guilt and pity.

Towards the end, when Betty finally discovers his secret  I suppose Joe is consumed by his anger with himself, his guilt to have taken advantage of an unstable woman that instead of following Betty to his salvation, he punishes himself by sending her away by being cynical and cruel. This entire scene is beautiful, and revealing for the characters.

After facing Norma , Joe packs his suitcase and tries to leave, ignoring her threats. Norma loses the few remaining shreds of sanity and kills him.

The film closes with a scene of catharsis for Norma ,that in her mental breakdown finally performs once more in front of the cameras and  is dancing as Salome on her way down to the beloved crowd.

Ideas about the film:

A story relevant to human nature, vanity and delusion. The impact of fame to a person’s mind and personality blended with the desire to see the world change back to the old habits and idols, once change and adaptability are discarded. In Norma’s desires and efforts to look younger we see the modern middle aged woman feeling the pressure of maintaining high standards of her physical  appearance, comparing subconsciously herself with the image of the young beautiful woman that never ages, that is always happy and glamorous, the one that stars in films.

On the other hand, Joe represents every ambitious human being that seizes the chance when he sees it. The interesting thing about Joe’s personality is that right at the beginning he seems resourceful, smart and demanding, but through his complicated relationship with Norma we discover him being more passive, sentimental and easily convinced to put aside his wishes out of guilt more than mere ambition. Aside from that and removing the last act of liberation, Joe is a young man that discovers the easy life with a woman much older than him, whose affections and vivid interest is not discouraged not until it is too late, and faces the eternal dilemma, “is it (fame, money, security etc) worth the sacrifice (pretending, selling yourself and your ideals) ?”.

Max is clearly the depiction of a loyal friend/lover who faces a certain psychological instability himself too, when he decides to tie his life with Norma’s, even when that entails having to serve her new husbands/lovers, while at the same time he has to be responsible for maintaining her lifesaving bubble. Last but not least, Betty is the fresh, fun, young, down-to-earth girl that is easygoing, hard-working, focused and very smart. Except for the scene of the party, where together with Joe they make a small sketch, and is very amusing for us there were two other scenes that made me think of her as a mature woman, despite her 22 years of age. The first was the one where she tells her story to Joe, the one about her nose and explains that failing at her acting career was for the best providing valid reasons (“life behind the camera is more interesting” – something that Norma (given her mature age) would be expected to say). The second when Joe throws his sarcastic show at the villa, where she stand listening and comprehending his mistake and asking him to forget everything and leave, once it is still possible because “ I haven’t heard any of this, I haven’t received those phone calls and I’ve never been in this house. Now get your things together and let’s get out of here”.

Memorable quotes :

  • “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small”, the explanation that Norma gives for abstaining from pictures.
  • Max’s comment about the number of the house being similar to that of the pound, because of the numerous phone calls of Betty requesting to talk to Joe ( “the stray dog”), compacts the essence of his feelings about Norma’s romance fantasies.  
  • Preparing for her imagined comeback, Norma undergoes rigorous beauty treatments that leave the audience with the sense of her tormenting obsession. Joe’s memorable attempt to set her straight “There’s nothing tragic about being 50. Not unless you’re trying to be 25”.
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Author: CinémAmoureuse

I grew up in Athens and have adored cinema since I was a kid. My very first intense cinematic experience was the Titanic at the age of 5. I love the 40-60's b&w Hollywood era and I enjoy expressing my amateur thoughts on all films that come my way.

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