Two of cinema’s most biting and witty examinations of the Hollywood system arrived within months of each other in 1950. August saw the release of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, with Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve following in October. Both were multiple Oscar nominees, but in the event All About Eve won Best Picture (and is probably my favourite of the two.) It has been argued that Sunset Boulevard was snubbed because its acerbic look at the film world was even closer to the bone than All About Eve‘s more theatre-based witticisms.
There has been much written about Sunset Boulevard and its importance, but I will voice some of my favourite aspects of the film. It’s an exercise in art imitating reality, for a start, and entertainingly so. In the film, Norma Desmond is the ageing, 50-year-old ex-silent film star who lives in a decrepit 1920s mansion on Sunset Boulevard with a dead pet monkey and a failed director as a butler and general dogsbody. In real life, Gloria Swanson was a 50-year-old ex-silent film star, and Erich von Stroheim (Max) was a famed director of the silent film era. In the film, Cecil B. DeMille – as himself – directed Norma in some of her best-known pictures. In real life, Cecil B. DeMille really did direct Gloria Swanson in some of her best-known silent films. All of this cross-referencing and real-life cameos lend Sunset Boulevard not just a healthy feeling of being an in-joke at the expense of Hollywood’s brutal system of creating and then destroying its stars, but also a real authenticity and power.
The characters are a lot less one-dimensional than they appear on first viewing, with Max so much more than Norma’s general assistant; his unabashed love for and devotion to Norma is genuinely touching. The revelation that he was once her husband adds a weird frisson to proceedings. William Holden as Joe Gillis, too, is much more than a jobbing scriptwriter, as his strange relationship with Norma, which traverses the personal/professional boundaries, attests. Norma herself is also quite a developed, rich character, more than the initial view at the boggled-eyed mad-lady villain would suggest. I found Gloria Swanson’s performance overbearingly camp and over-acted until I realised that, as a silent film star, Norma really would have used her eyes and hand gestures for such dramatic effect.
The dialogue is also sparkling, and it’s a pretty quotable film. The atmosphere is a mix of camp melodrama and stylish noir, and despite an arguable sag in the middle, it’s quite tightly structured and executed.
Six decades later, Sunset Boulevard is still a film that hits home today. Harsh, funny, witty, and occasionally heartbreaking, it rightfully earns its classic status.