Billy Wilder’s status as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time is kept alive by his enormous cinematic legacy, made up of multiple timeless classics like Double Indemnity and Ace in the Hole. At the centre of it all exists Sunset Boulevard, an enigmatic crystallisation of the magic of cinema with which Wilder violently lashes out at the decadence of the industry. Roger Ebert famous called it the “best drama ever made about the movies”, but Sunset Boulevard refuses to age because it merely uses its incisive critique of the film industry to launch an allegorical examination of the human condition.
Starring William Holden as a broke screenwriter called Joe, Sunset Boulevard follows a circular narrative and begins at the end. Within the first few minutes, we become aware that we are witnessing the work of a filmmaker who is at the apogee of artistic achievement. The iconic shot looking up at the floating corpse of the protagonist from the bottom of a swimming pool is unforgettable, a feat that Wilder managed by using mirrors to film the reflections: “The odd thing is one cannot film through water. The image is broken on the surface.”
In Hollywood, where the rotting carcasses of millions of dreams provide nourishment to the flowers of a few, Joe tries his hardest to sell out. He has given up the silly idea of following in the footsteps of James Joyce, Dostoevsky and Norman Mailer, choosing to pitch commercial sports dramas instead. On the run from repo men who won’t give up, Joe stumbles into a corner of the world that has largely been forgotten – the dust-covered mansion of an irrelevant film star from the silent era where opulence and obsolescence have combined to conjure up images of the grotesque.
Gloria Swanson is sublime as Norma Desmond, a rich actress who has exiled herself to a shrine built for her glorious past. The heterotopic space exists within a gothic atmosphere, populated by a mysterious manservant and the dead body of a chimpanzee. These sudden injections of gothic horror into the sociological realism of the film’s critique result in surreal visions and oneiric hallucinations. It is interesting to note that before making Eraserhead, David Lynch screened Sunset Boulevard for his crew and described it as “a black-and-white experience of a certain mood”. In retrospect, Eraserhead does appear to be the absurdist extension of that mood.
With an ageing actress who is an advocate for silence because she wants people to look at her fading beauty without discovering that she has nothing important to say, Sunset Boulevard deconstructs the highly mythologised figure of the celebrity. Norma locks herself up in an echo chamber designed to sustain her fragile ego, a private theatre in which she can watch endless reruns of her forgotten films. In order to convince herself that she is still loved by her non-existent fans, Norma spends her time working on a terrible script and recruits Joe as a ghostwriter, which takes us to the film’s central thesis.
Sunset Boulevard is just as striking today as it was in 1950 because it shows us just how convoluted the concepts of free will and liberty are. A promising directorial talent Max von Mayerling (played by Erich von Stroheim) is reduced to the state of a cuckold by Norma, his ex-wife. Joe oscillates between the temptations of exploiting the chance of being Norma’s boy toy and the dream of breaking free to write a truly great script with a woman he actually admires. As for Norma, she no longer knows or cares about anything other than sustaining the illusion of yesteryears. She is enslaved by memories that help her sleep at night and ensure that she makes it through the day.
John F. Seitz’s cinematography retains all its magic, underlined by a typical film noir muskiness. Its spectacle of ominous chiaroscuro act as subtextual supplements to Wilder’s commentary on the illusory nature of grandeur. Wilder and Charles Brackett’s script is an essential lesson in screenwriting, contributing immensely to the atmosphere that the film constructs. While the witty exchanges are great, the descriptive voice-overs steal the show by invoking images that run parallel to Wilder’s own vision: “The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis, out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion.”
Wilder’s work has survived the years because of the film’s parallels with reality, featuring the likes of Cecil B. DeMille and columnist Hedda Hopper as themselves. A star of the magnitude of Buster Keaton only appears in a tiny cameo part where he is referred to as a “waxwork”. Wilder transforms the Hollywood dream into a terrible nightmare, insisting that it has become a product which is commercialised and sold by the industry.
When Norma uses the murder of Joe as a publicity stunt to feel famous again, we see the addictive and destructive potentialities of the celebrity culture. It is only fitting that Norma’s final close-up is nothing but a mug shot of a criminal who inevitably lost her mind.