Sunset Boulevard (1950, directed by Billy Wilder)
About a Drama Queen
Hollywood is such a massive and omnipresent occurrence that it is often even a topic of Hollywood films themselves. Sunset Boulevard is a film that could be described as a tribute to the great old silent Hollywood era… Or at least it would if this tribute wasn’t so distorted and even perverted.
The protagonist, a screenwriter Joe Gillis, relatively blank but sufficiently likable, is hiding from financial troubles. He accidentally finds an asylum in a mansion that looks more like the house of the Addams family, with a grumpy butler Max who enjoys playing the organ, a dead monkey and a former silent film star with a pair of crazy eyes, called Norma Desmond. Very soon, Joe finds himself relocated into the mansion and needing to explain to Norma where he’s been sneaking out to at night.
In an elegant and witty way, Sunset Boulevard manages to both laugh at and elegise the Hollywood film factory at the same time. Norma is not even slightly outdated – she’s antediluvian and lives in her own antiquated world refusing to accept the loss of popularity. On the other hand, there’s an array of silent film stars, including DeMille who plays himself – they all came together to remember old days when they were young, brilliant and adored but also to release a melancholic sigh and admit that it’s over. There are new heroes now, the ones like Betty Shaefer, who once tried to be an actress and it didn’t work out, but that’s fine because screenwriting and development of characters is more exciting for her than seeing her pretty face on a big screen.
Norma, however, enjoys watching her old films over and over again. Who needs words, she asks, if it’s all there, in the face? Especially if it’s a beautiful one like hers. She’s going insane sitting at home (which is more like a museum dedicated to her stardom), without the illumination of studio light boards. According to DeMille, Norma used to be a different person, but perhaps the whole acting career experience has introduced some irreversible changes into her personality. She’s still crazy about work – but only from 10am until 4.30pm, not a minute more, please. However, her persona should be worshiped 24/7. As Stanislavsky said, you need to love art in yourself, not yourself in art. Apparently Norma has breached that commandment and madness has reigned upon her as a punishment. Or was she just punished because silent and sound films have different rules? Or maybe fame is just very harsh in its addictive force and volatility?
Apart from posing those deep questions the film does not abandon the principles of entertainment. We observe, to name a few: at least two love triangles; the somewhat unhealthy motherly-amorous relationship between Norma and Joe, and the mind-blowing character of Norma’s ex-husband. All this action is irrigated by an imposing score that informs us unmistakably which moments are the most dramatic ones.
And there’s a gun. According to Chekhov, if there’s a gun in the first act of a play, it’s going to fire in the finale. Sunset Boulevard introduces another commonplace: if there’s a swimming pool in the film, there’s a high probability that someone is going to lifelessly float there at some point.
Nevertheless, like every self-respecting Hollywood film, this one has a happy ending. Admittedly, it’s a bit blood-chilling and not very happy for everyone, but how much can we ask for, even from Hollywood?
Editor’s note: Sunset Boulevard will be showing at the Gulbenkian on Monday 15th December at 7pm.
If you enjoyed this article, you can check out the next instalment of ‘A Gentle Reminder’ on Thursday 20th November.