“So they were turning after all, those cameras. Life, which can be strangely merciful, had taken pity on Norma Desmond. The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her.”
‘Sunset Boulevard’, directed by Billy Wilder in 1950, is an American comedy with film noir touches. It is the story of a Hollywood scriptwriter, Joe Gillis played by William Holden, who stumbles on the house of aging silent film star Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson and her devoted butler played by Erich von Stroheim. Gillis is emotionally blackmailed, and tempted by money, into staying with Desmond as her consort and is witness to her attempts to recapture and preserve her youth and to persuade her onetime director Cecil B. DeMille, played by himself, to cast her in her own version of ‘Salome’. It’s a dark comedy, at times poignant and at times nightmarish. The route of it all seems to be Wilder’s own nostalgic regard for the era of silent movies, but it also offers a degraded vision of this nostalgia. Old movie stars such as Buster Keaton and Anna Q. Nilsson play themselves as ‘waxworks’, whilst von Stroheim, himself a legendary silent movie director, plays a version of himself reduced to sustaining Desmond’s own fantasy world. Ironically for a movie that so heavily references the silent era, it is Wilder’s dialogue that sings. It’s packed with classic lines that construct a truly compelling character with Desmond, but also deconstructed the state of Hollywood after the Second World War. It’s a movie filled with decay and narcissistic corruption, but with Swanson’s amazing performance you also feel both pity and respect for her. Highlights are the scene in which Swanson presents a pitch-perfect imitation of Chaplin and the final scene in which von Stroheim returns briefly to direction and stages Desmond’s final exit from the movie.
Would I recommend it? Yes – the mischievous side of me wants to recommend ‘Dunmplings’ as an interesting companion piece to this, but instead I’d go with Lynch’s ‘Mullholland Dr.’, a movies that similarly plays with and subverts the Hollywood fantasy and is clearly inspired by Wilder’s film.