Darkly funny, supremely ironic and suspenseful, Sunset Boulevard is a richly-textured masterpiece from director Billy Wilder, who blurs the line between fantasy and reality while simultaneously depicting the devastating consequences of such blurred vision. Set in the movie industry, the film pairs a down-and-out screenwriter with an older, narcissistic former movie star and chronicles their growing capacities for self-deception. Sunset is most well-known for the bravura, wrenchingly honest performance of Gloria Swanson as the egomaniacal former star, and deservedly so.
Wilder had to have fun casting former silent movie great Swanson as former silent movie great Norma Desmond, and film director Erich von Stroheim as Max, ex-film-director-turned-devoted-servant. When Norma watches one of her old movies, Wilder shows us scenes from Queen Kelly, Swanson's movie directed by von Stroheim. Famed director Cecil B. DeMille, silent movie star Buster Keaton and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper appear as themselves. Even Paramount, the studio which released Sunset Boulevard, gets to play itself exploiting the news of the writer's scandalous murder at Norma's house.
Wilder's earlier noir Double Indemnity began with the protagonist wounded yet alive. Sunset opens with protagonist Joe Gillis already dead, though that doesn't stop Joe from fulfilling his duties as narrator for the rest of the film (what a trooper!). Unemployed and behind on payments, screenwriter Joe contemplates leaving Hollywood and returning to his Ohio hometown. Although his fate is a foregone conclusion (he's dead!), Wilder creates suspense by having Joe almost escape on several occasions the path that ultimately leads to his own death.
Yet Joe always gets steered back to the trail of destruction, nudged by cruel fate and his growing talent for self-deception. He chances upon former movie star Norma Desmond, now a wealthy recluse who still believes in her illusion, nourished by her stern yet devoted servant Max, that the public eagerly awaits her comeback after her 25-year absence from the movies. Joe schemes to get back on his feet by editing Norma's script which she plans to use for her comeback. Yet Norma quickly gets the upper hand, by making Joe increasingly dependent on her for clothes, a car and even a place to live. Joe occupies the privileged position of narrator in the film, but he feebly masks his increasing powerlessness. When Norma overrides his editorial decisions about her script, he lamely says in a voice over, "You don't argue with a sleep walker."
Joe might as well be referring to himself, as he grows fonder of Norma's money, becomes her lover and stops writing altogether. An idealistic young woman writer reawakens both creative and romantic desires in him but he's trapped in a set-up to which he's been wilfully blinding himself.
Norma's trapped in the belief of the eternal youth and desirability of a movie star, unable to face the fact the public and the industry have long since moved on. Swanson uses her repertoire of silent movie gestures--wildly-waving hand gestures and bulging eyes protruding so far from their sockets you fear they'll soon pop out--to make Norma be like her dilapidated, once-grand mansion, "out of beat with the rest of the world." Swanson's honest and unafraid performance is aided by the contrast of William Holden's naturalistic acting as the writer and von Stroheim's underplaying.
Egomaniacal, manipulative and increasingly unable to face reality, Norma is hard to behold. Yet Wilder makes her sympathetic. Sunset subtly criticizes the film industry's sexism by contrasting a forgotten Norma with Cecil B. DeMille, who ruefully admits he's old enough to be her father from the set of his latest movie. And by having Sunset's fictional characters interact with real-life figures, Wilder places the audience squarely in Norma's position. We share Norma's difficulty separating fantasy and reality. We can't condemn her; we identify with her. With that, Wilder brilliantly brings noir to Sunset.(January 13, 2001)