Considering I had already seen the musical of Sunset Boulevard on its UK tour in 2018 (starring Ria Jones and Danny Mac), and had wanted to see the film long before then, it’s quite amazing that I have only just got around to watching it!
Ranking as one of the best films ever made, and nominated for 11 Oscars including all 4 acting categories, plus Best Director and Best Motion Picture, Sunset Boulevard had a lot to live up to. But, in my opinion, the film rose to the challenge and even exceeded my expectations!
With incredible acting, a compelling story, and a great score accompanying the film from start to end, Sunset Boulevard more than deserves its place in movie history.
Sunset Boulevard begins with the body of Joe Gillis (William Holden) in a swimming pool, surrounded by police. With Joe narrating, we rewind back to 6 months ago and see how he ended up there.
Struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis is under pressure from lenders looking to call in debts that he can’t pay.
He tries to get his latest script accepted by a Paramount film named Sheldrake (Fred Clark). As he is trying to persuade Sheldrake to take on the script, he meets Betty Schafer (Nancy Olson)- a script reader who criticises Joe’s script and says it is no good. Still without funds, Joe is then pursued by the debt collectors.
Joe manages to evade them by turning into a seemingly deserted mansion on Sunset Boulevard. However, this place is far from empty! He hears a woman’s voice calling, and upon entering the house he meets silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her butler Max von Meyerling (Erich Von Stroheim).
After finding out that Joe is a script writer, Norma demands that he reads the script she has written for Salome- in which she (of course) will play the leading role. Joe manages to wangle his way into working on the script, seeing it as a way to get some quick and easy money while staying out of the way of the debt collectors, before then going back to the “real world”.
However, the situation soon escalates far beyond anything that Joe wanted or planned. First, he is moved into the mansion, then he is living in the room next door to Norma, wearing clothes she has bought, and is expected to be by her side at all time. The film focuses on the dynamics between Joe and Norma, as well as the mysterious butler Max.
Through the film we learn that Norma still believes that she is at the height of fame and the fan letters she receives (secretly written by Max) reinforce this misguided view. As the film unravels, we see how emotionally unstable Norma is, and see that she is no longer living in reality but in a world of her own making- where she is still a great star. She sends her script off to her former director Cecil B. DeMille, and even goes to the studio herself, but the matter of her return to film is glossed over by DeMille and other Paramount employees.
Joe meanwhile is torn between Norma and the world she lives in, and the world of Betty Schafer- who he meets again at his friend Artie Green’s (Jack Webb) party. Joe and Betty start work on a script, and gradually begin to fall in love. But, with Norma still as big a presence as ever in Joe’s life, this love was destined never to work out.
As the lives of Joe, Norma, Betty, and Max intertwine and collide with each other, it is inevitable that the story is not going to end happily for any of them.
Sunset Boulevard is a dark story that looks at the side of Hollywood that no-one ever sees, or at least the side that no-one wants to see or admits is there.
Behind the glamour and the fame of the hottest actors and actresses are many other “forgotten” famous figures who were also once in high demand. Sunset Boulevard perfectly captures the contrast between these worlds- showing how the ever-changing land of Hollywood can make you a star one minute and a nobody the next.
Through Norma, it highlights how the movies discard previously-acclaimed figures when they no longer draw in the crowds and replace them with people who are younger and supposedly even more beautiful and more talented.
The characters in Sunset Boulevard explore this cycle of fame and the cruel nature of the movie industry.
Starting out in her career is Betty- showing optimism, a determination to advance her career, and a desire to make a great screenplay. Then there is Joe, who we can assume also once had these dreams. However, his experiences and knock-backs have made him more cynical and jaded about the industry. Having had some minor successes, he is now struggling for cash and is looking for what work he can get.
Then there is Norma. She experienced the great success and acclaim that most people in the industry can only dream of. But far from making her life fulfilled and accomplished, Norma is discarded from Hollywood and has to create a fantasy world to maintain the idea that she is a big star. She lives in the past and tries to cling onto her youthful image, unable to confront the idea that times have moved on and she no longer has the fame that she used to have.
This is what makes Sunset Boulevard such a fascinating film. It shows the film industry in a far from flattering way, with every character facing their own troubles and having their own backstory and motivations.
On the one hand, Sunset Boulevard can leave you feeling completely disillusioned with the film industry. But, on the other hand, the film itself is such a masterpiece that it demonstrates just how good movies can be!
In my opinion, the stellar acting helped Sunset Boulevard to make such an impact.
Gloria Swanson was perfect in the role of Norma Desmond. Even though Sunset Boulevard is a “talkie”, she used the more over-the-top, melodramatic acting of the silent era, with its exaggerated expressions and great use of the face and body. This brought the character of Norma to life, and made it feel like Norma was putting on a performance throughout the entire film.
Although in a normal film this kind of acting would be jarring and out-of-place, it was very fitting for Sunset Boulevard. It showed that Norma was living through her on-screen persona, and that she was living in a fantasy world rooted in the past rather than the present. Even when Norma was confronted with the truth, she carried on believing in her fantasy world which, for her, was more real and “safe” than the scary prospect of acknowledging she was no longer famous and adored.
Because the audience can so clearly see that Norma is living in a fantasy world far removed from reality, it means that we don’t hate her for how she acts, especially to Joe.
In fact, the multi-dimensional nature of Norma and Joe’s characters means that we don’t hate either of them but we also don’t fully support either of them.
If Joe was a straight-forward, likeable man who was clearly trapped against his will, it would be easy to like Joe and hate Norma for keeping him prisoner. But this is not the aim of the film.
By making Norma a more tragic and delusional figure, and by making Joe bitter, jaded, opportunistic, and happy to get what he can out of Norma, the audience can simultaneously sympathise with and dislike parts of their characters.
Not just any old Joe
Joe is an interesting character, and William Holden struck the right balance between making the audience like him, but also making him sharp-tongued and in some ways cruel.
We also see that he is not without fault or blame for what happened. Although Norma becomes possessive over Joe, taking over his working and personal life and manipulating him into becoming dependent upon her, at the beginning, Joe was actually planning to exploit Norma.
When Norma asks him to look at her script, he sees an opportunity for quick and easy money; and even when the situation escalates, he is initially happy to go along with it and get a comfortable, easy life.
Joe laps up the attention Norma gives him, but, having seen earlier how he is under financial pressure and is disillusioned with the film industry, part of us can’t blame Joe for using Norma and the situation to his benefit.
Joe, both as narrator and as the character also makes sarcastic comments throughout the film, which make you smile and warm to him a bit more. Holden played him as someone quite casual and not too bothered about what he did, but also hinting that there was more going on under that sharp and cynical exterior.
Adding in the character of Betty lets us see another side to Joe. We glimpse a possible future where they could be happy, but of course we know that it won’t materialise and will end fatally for Joe.
When Joe invites Betty to see how he lives at Sunset Boulevard, you can see the mix of emotions he is feeling and how he seems to be tired of everything. He acts harshly towards Betty but arguably it’s to shield her from him, and to let her lead an uncomplicated and happy life with her boyfriend Artie instead.
Joe’s actions and motivations are left open to interpretation, but I think Joe did genuinely care for Betty and he just couldn’t see a way of making the relationship work.
The other tragic figure
Max, the other key player in the story, is also a tragic and forgotten figure. Formerly a famous director and Norma’s first husband, he puts his life on hold and devotes himself to serving Norma just so he can remain close to her.
He helps Norma to live in her own world and fuels her fantasies by writing fan mail to her. He feeds those delusions and even at the end when Joe tells Norma the reality, Max can’t break Norma’s dream world. But interestingly, he doesn’t outright deny them as he simply says “Madame is the greatest star of them all”.
In my opinion, Max’s devotion of Norma and years of serving her made Norma feel like she could act as she did towards Joe. If she was used to being worshipped and waited on hand and foot by Max, then is it any wonder she thought Joe should fall at her feet too!
There is the question of why Max spent so long serving her. Yes, he loved her, but did part of him also enjoy sharing Norma’s fantasies- preferring to live in the past rather than confront the reality where he is a forgotten director and is no longer with the love of his life?
Max is not the only one guilty for encouraging Norma’s fantasies, as Joe and Cecil B. DeMille also allow them to continue. Joe knows the Salome script will never be accepted and yet he continues to work on it and accompanies her to the studio. When Norma goes to Paramount and sees DeMille, the director also doesn’t break Norma’s fantasies of making a return to screen. He evades the subject of the script and doesn’t tell her the studio is only interested in her car and, by doing so, allows Norma to carry on her fantasy.
Direction, scenery, costumes
The acting was at the centre of Sunset Boulevard, but the direction by Billy Wilder, the score by Franz Waxman, and the costume design by Edith Head all made the film even more of a masterpiece.
The decision to shoot the film in black and white made it feel more like a film noir, and also made the mansion in particular feel more eerie and old-fashioned. The high contrast lighting and the shadowy set of the mansion gave it a sinister and unsettling air, which contrasted with the less shadowy and more normal shots outside the mansion, in the “real world” such as the drug store.
Also, having Joe narrate the film from beyond the grave added another dimension to the film. Throughout the film Joe makes comments (often sarcastic) and links the scenes together by filling in the gaps, as we only see a few moments from a period of several months.
His comments also add a bit of “dark humour”, as do other moments in the film, such as the monkey funeral and Joe shopping with Norma for clothes. These don’t make you laugh outright, but they add a bit of lightness to an otherwise dark story.
Finally, the scenery and costumes deserve a mention. The mansion had a gothic feel to it, and the interior was designed to be just like the ones that silent film stars like Mae West had built in the 1920s. It was crammed full of photos of Norma at her prime (actually using genuine publicity photos of Gloria Swanson) and was so ornately furnished that you too could almost feel claustrophobic and trapped like Joe.
Norma’s costumes were also excellent throughout the film and helped to create her character. She dressed lavishly, but still slightly old-fashioned and with lots of extra trinkets, which reinforced her appearance as a dated, old-time film star. I particularly loved the costume she wore to go to the studios. Although it was stunning, it was extravagant, over-the-top, and looked completely out-of-place in “the real world”, just highlighting how Norma no longer belonged there.
It’s hard to pick a favourite scene, but the New Year’s Eve party stuck in my mind for many reasons.
It marks a turning point where Norma becomes more possessive and declares her love for Joe, and is when Joe finally feels the need to escape from her world- going to a friend’s party where he meets Betty again.
But there’s so many aspects to this scene.
Firstly, credit has to be give to the scenery and design team for making the house and ballroom so decorated and beautiful. Even in black and white, you can see the flowers, the food, the drink, and the stunning décor, which is perfectly complemented by the costumes of Joe and Norma as well as the music of the orchestra.
This setting is then soured when you realise there are no guests and it is all put on for Joe and Norma. Instead of beautiful, it looks more pathetic and sad as you realise just how far Norma’s delusions go.
Of course, the acting of Gloria Swanson and William Holden also make this scene memorable. From Joe’s comments at the start, to dancing on “the same floor as [Rudolph} Valentino”, to the moment Norma says “there are no other guests” and Joe realises it is all a set-up, the scene contains so much in such a short space of time. Which is why, for me, it is such a memorable and iconic few minutes!
There are so many iconic quotes, especially from Norma: “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small” and “Alright Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”.
However, I enjoyed the dialogue from Joe as narrator, particularly at the beginning of the film where he sets the scene for what’s to come.
“The poor dope, he always wanted a pool. Well, in the end, he got himself a pool. Only the price turned out to be a little high.”
This line tells us a lot about his character. Considering he is talking about his dead self, it shows us his laid-back and indifferent nature and hints that he is sardonic and cynical. So, just with the few narrated lines in the first few moments of the film, we can get an understanding of what Joe Gillis is like.
Connections to reality
The thing I find most fascinating about Sunset Boulevard is its connections to the real world.
For a start, Gloria Swanson was herself a huge silent-screen star and appeared in many films directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
Erich Von Stroheim was also once a famous director, and even directed a film starring Gloria Swanson- Queen Kelly. A snippet of this very film is seen when Norma and Joe watch one of her old movies on a projection screen. However Erich Von Stroheim was never married to Swanson and certainly was never her butler!
Also, the “waxworks” who visited Norma to play bridge were played by some famous faces: Buster Keaton (star of The General), Anna Q. Nilsson (star of numerous films in the 1910s and 1920s, and H. B. Warner (star of The King of Kings and later starred as Mr Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life).
Knowing the background of the film and its production makes Sunset Boulevard even more intriguing, and gives you a new-found appreciation when you watch it again!
To sum up, this film is well-deserving of its place in movie history. The acting, direction, and set design combine to make this a compelling watch, and one that will stay with you long after it has finished.
One of the main things I like about Sunset Boulevard is that no character is perfect, and all of them in some way have had some negative experiences from the seemingly golden world of the movies.
I also like how there are some questions about the characters that are left unanswered. One of the main questions that I think about is: did Joe truly love Betty and did he love Norma in some way? And why did he invite Betty to see how he lived, send her away and then leave himself?
As this was when Joe also told Norma the truth and tried to break her illusions, was he just fed up with everything and wanted a clean break? Had he decided that he was never going to become a successful screenwriter and gave up on his career, or did he just not want to be in that world any more, preferring to lead a simpler life in Ohio? Did he feel any guilt or remorse for his actions? Did he think Betty deserved better than him?
There are so may questions, but this review has gone on long enough for me to answer them all.
What I will say is: anyone who likes movies needs to see this film!