Director: Billy Wilder
Producer: Charles Brackett
Screenwriters: Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman Jr
Cinematographer: John F. Seitz
Music: Franz Waxman
Studio: Paramount Pictures 1950
Main Acting: William Holden and Gloria Swanson
How much more noir can you get than a dead guy narrating his own slow demise from beyond the grave? Face down in a swimming pool—that’s the first glimpse we catch of Joseph C. Gillis (William Holden). Quickly establishing the cynical dry wit Wilder specialized in, our expired chronicler guides us back in time to six months prior to fill us in on the details of how he finds himself floating lifeless in some luxurious looking estate’s recreational area. This haunting expose on the ills of Hollywood and how it discards talent at a rapidly callous rate dares us to understand what happens to some people who get what they wish for. Gillis plays a struggling screenwriter that through certain choices in his life scripts his own destruction.
Heartbreaking is the only way to describe seeing once-famous stars playing roles that must have hit way too close to home. Besides Swanson, watching two of the greatest silent directors Buster Keaton and Erich Von Stroheim representing symbols or stand-ins of the perilous nature of the movie business is powerful stuff. It really dawns on viewers about how fate and circumstance can deride one’s life beyond talent or accomplishments. No one can say that either of those two titans were incapable of succeeding in the industry once sound became a factor. Still, the underlying feeling is that they became disposable once Hollywood started to change its mode. A nostalgic look back at a forgotten cinema that was less than 25 years old and the participants who were cast aside. Great men reduced to mere afterthoughts tug at the heart and make us understand that anyone can become expendable in any facet of life.
Made in 1950, this is another example of how great that year was for classic film noir. Sunset Boulevard was no obscure picture made on some miniscule budget to grace the second half of a double bill. It was nominated for 11 Oscars including Best Picture and was a prestige flick if one ever existed. While it lost to All About Eve (one of the better Academy winners in history), it was a popular film that was astonishing for the way it criticized the very industry that created it.
A movie that every reader on this blog has probably seen does not merit much of a plot synopsis or retelling. However, some may not be aware of the many fascinating stories and backstage intrigue associated with the making of Sunset Boulevard. Montgomery Clift was signed to play the role that eventually went to Holden, but pulled out due to mysterious circumstances. Wilder was yelled at in public by Louis B. Mayer and was told that he was a disgrace. Many stars were offended by the no-holds-barred cynicism expressed. The film also explicitly name-drops all sorts of real celebrities and features throughout. It must’ve given the movie-going public an extra inside take on the gossip rags that probably already existed by then. Here was someone actually giving them some well informed dirt about Hollywood and it sure wasn’t pretty. Entertainment Weekly on the big screen tossing around all sorts of dirty laundry, but with an artist’s profound critical eye that makes the acidic ingredients go down smoothly. The satire to end all satire’s made more fascinating by it’s subject matter and who Wilder is lambasting.
Most Hollywood films are an illusion. The buying public gets sold a dream world rich with fantasies meant to indulge and arouse us. Expansive larger than life figures and locales, that like Martin Denny records of the 50’s, are mainly meant to transport us out of our ordinary boring lives. Sunset Boulevard though lifts the curtain on the wizard pulling the strings in the corner. It shows us that tinseltown is just like any other city or dead end place we all inhabit. Some of the people may be superficially glamourous and rich, but really they are not imbued with any special magic or star dust. They put their pants on one leg at a time and fight to survive their own particular rat race like any other working stiff in the US. You would think that after Billy Wilder dropped Sunset Boulevard on the collective human consciousness, that celebrity culture would die a slow death or at least become more trivial. Unfortunately this is not the case and new movie stars get reshuffled every couple of years, replacing those we have no more use for. By shining a light on the ugly face of superficiality and surface fame and/or infamy, Wilder creates a work of immense substance and power. The fact that his satirical warning on this diseased culture still reigns supreme even in this present day is surly not his loss but ours.