Directed by Billy Wilder
Sunset Boulevard satirizes Hollywood, much as other movies about movies do. It’s a story about the filmmaking process, about the sets and the crew and the actors and producers who make movies. It strips the magic out of the process, showing why movies get made, for reasons that are less majestic and much more financially practical, and yet Sunset Boulevard feels like some kind of haunting fairytale.
Even as the film breaks down the elements that make a movie, demonstrating the roles of the writers, actors, producers, directors and even the lighting technicians, it also elevates the setting to a land of wonder, or what used to be wonder. As Joe Gillis (William Holden) notes, the old mansion he finds himself in looks like the land of Miss Havisham, the old lady from Great Expectations who still wears her wedding dress every day of her life.
In Sunset Boulevard there are two world, the realistic, self-satirizing Hollywood setting and the haunted palace of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a former silent film era celebrity. The film blends these two worlds, suggesting in some way that they’ll each always exist. Just as a once famous movie star hides away behind delusion and what’s left of the fortune she has amassed, there might be other movie stars rotting in the dark, cast aside by the industry that made them famous but no longer needs them.
We follow struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis between these two worlds. He lives in a small apartment he can barely afford, pounding out two original stories per week that he cannot sell. When Joe flees from them men who have shown up to repossess his car, he turns into a hidden driveway of what looks to be an unoccupied mansion. In voiceover, Joe explains the strange allure of such a place. It’s important to note that the film opens with Joe’s dead body, floating in a pool as he begins to narrate the story from beyond the grave, lending the story a sense of gloom and doom, considering we now know where it’s all headed.
The home belongs to Norma Desmond, a silent movie star who hasn’t acted in decades but remains convinced that it’s only a matter of time before she makes her return to Hollywood. Norma is waited upon by a butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim), whose adoration of her borders on obsession but who otherwise seems quite normal, forcing us to have some empathy for Norma as well.
The film flirts with comedy and horror. We might find Norma both amusing and terrifying, but underneath it all there is only sadness. We see what she can’t see, that the world doesn’t need her anymore. Her obsession with her own star quality is haunting, and later we will learn more empathy for the character when she’s faced with the reality that she’s completely unneeded.
The more sympathetic Norma becomes, the more we might come to like Max, who waits upon her only because he so strongly cares for her. Later we will learn that Max was her first ex-husband and a former silent movie director who first discovered Norma, now reduced to a helping hand.
Norma pays Gillis to live with her and help write a new movie for her to star in. He knows it’s never going to happen, but he needs the money and a place to stay. He indulges in what Norma has to offer even as she becomes more possessive and delusional.
Through Joe’s eyes we see how Norma lives. She plays cards with other former silent movie stars (including Buster Keaton himself), she surrounds herself with pictures of herself, and she watches movies of her old performances. This, in particular, is where director Billy Wilder blurs the lines between fiction and reality. Just as the other card players play former silent movie stars, they also are former silent movie stars. Gloria Swanson herself used to be a silent movie star, and Erich von Stroheim did in fact direct Swanson in Queen Kelly (1928), which is the film they watch together with Gillis.
Later, Max will take Norma and Gillis to Paramount Studios where she will meet again with famous director Cecille B. DeMille, playing himself. We see how DeMille tries to be delicate with her while trying so hard to get her off the lot. The movie DeMille appears to be in the middle of shooting is one he really directed, Samson and Delilah.
The story centers around Norma’s wavering sanity. She will never again be the movie star she wants to be, even if that’s her goal. Gillis knows it, and Max knows it, though he doesn’t have the heart to tell her. There is a side story with Gillis sneaking out at night to write a script with a young script reader, Betty (Nancy Olson), and Gillis has to sneak out because this is akin to having an affair.
For Norma, making a movie is making love. Gillis’ relationship with Betty, which does turn romantic near the end in a bout of melodrama, threatens Norma. When she learns about it, she tries to ruin Gillis’ relationship with the young woman who seems like an absolute breath of fresh, sane air in contrast with Norma.
When Norma calls Betty, warning her about Gillis, he calls Norma’s bluff and invites Betty over to see what’s become of this old movie star. But Gillis isn’t there to spare Betty’s feelings. When she expresses apprehension about being there, he sends her right off, apparently electing to remain with Norma.
Then Gillis packs his belongings and leaves. Norma can’t let him leave (“no one leaves a star”), and she shoots him dead. When the press arrives, with all their cameras, Max treats it like a movie shoot, feeding into Norma’s heightened delusion. She truly believes she’s on set and that Max is Cecil B. DeMille.
So while Norma walks herself straight to jail, she has achieved her dream, thanking the cast and crew she doesn’t realize isn’t really cast and crew. She even thanks the audience while looking directly into the camera. Then she says that famous last line, “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close up” and we fade out.
In Sunset Boulevard, the final barrier to be broken is the one between the movie and the audience. We have already blended the realities of the movie’s version of Hollywood and the fantasy land inhabited by Norma. Hollywood is in the business of creating fantasies without realizing that even the people who go into that creation might get swept up in it themselves, just as the audience might.
At the end, then, the illusion of cinema has been broken, both by showing us all that goes into it and by showing us a character who recognizes what she is, just a character and yet who believes it all the same as we are meant to. These character include many actors playing versions of themselves, making us wonder how much of this is based on reality and how much is made up.
And it’s all made up, right? So even the Hollywood we see onscreen isn’t Hollywood but a version of Hollywood we’re meant to believe. There is some magic in the late night meetings between Gillis and Betty, writing a movie together, but this magic is shattered in the end, when Gillis suddenly turns on her. He rejects her love and even says that the movie they’ve written will likely never get made.
Norma’s world is heightened, full of fantasy and delusion, the hope that helps sustain a Hollywood career, and Gillis’ version is bleak, one of broken dreams and resignation. I guess you could say that they are just two very starkly contrasting images of the same thing, and they both work to kill Joe Gillis, who rejects them both.
Up Next: Me and Orson Welles (2008), What If (2013), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)