More than a half century after “Sunset Blvd.,” audiences are well aware that Hollywood is not all glitz and glamor — that there’s a stark reality. Yet despite that knowledge, “Sunset Blvd.” is still an eye-opening and deeply affecting motion picture today as it was in the 1950s. Because even though our “access” to Hollywood is greater than that of yesteryear, great film-making and chilling performances are timeless and that’s what this classic delivers.
Billy Wilder was already famous for his string of films in the mid-late ’40s, but “Sunset Blvd.” is in a category of its own. There’s something shockingly real about this noir drama. Maybe it’s the fact that actress Gloria Swanson, who plays faded silent film star Norma Desmond, was in need of a comeback herself, or that famous director Cecil B. DeMille plays a big role as himself, or that several old silent film stars such as Hedda Hopper and Buster Keaton appear in the movie as Norma’s friends. It’s kind of enchanting really, but doubly so because of the suspenseful tone of the film.
“Sunset Blvd.” is about a work-starved screenwriter named Joe Gillis (William Holden) who by coincidence ends up in the mansion of an old silent film star, Norma Desmond. Desmond has written herself a comeback (or return, as she prefers) role and convinces Gillis to redraft it. Oddly, however, she insists on him staying at her mansion, where he inevitably becomes her plaything.
The script by Wilder and longtime collaborator Charles Brackett (along with D.M. Marshman Jr.) creates some awkward but powerful moments, such as a New Years Eve party where Gillis discovers he’s the only guest. Although the beginning scene was a last-minute addition, the excellent shot of him floating in the pool is the first of many affecting images and scenes that Wilder has crafted with a touch of horror and creepiness to be truthful. Franz Waxman accentuates this tone with his suspenseful score.
But it’s way Gloria Swanson carries herself as the iconic Norma Desmond that generates the creepy effect. Head tilted back, she stares at you with those 1930s movie star eyes and moves her hands in such a manner that will terrify everyone just slightly. Not getting an Oscar win just goes to show what a great year for film 1950 was, though speculation is the film’s mildly negative portrayal of the industry could have been partly responsible. All the main characters in this film got nods but lost out on the prize in fact — and truth is all were deserving of being there.
It’s hard to see now, but Hollywood was all about reputation in those days. It was about the image and deceiving the public with glamorization of the business. “Sunset Blvd.” was a classic of its time for getting beneath the veil that Norma oh so cleverly has on when she goes to visit the great Mr. DeMille, but it’s a classic for all-time because of the subtle haunting quality of Wilder’s work and bewitching performance of Swanson.