Sunset Boulevard (1950)













Billy Wilder can make a movie, by the time the 50s had rolled around he had already proven that to everybody with movies like "Double Indemnity" and the Oscar winning "The Lost Weekend" which won both Best Picture and got Wilder his first (but not last) Academy Award for directing. No stranger to controversy, Wilder would push the envelope again and again until 1960 when he made his smash hit "The Apartment" which would win him his second directing Oscar and win Best Picture. Remember that the two movies that won him the directing Oscars were about a drunk about to drink himself to death and a man who lends his apartment out for people to have affairs in.
So when 1950 comes and goes, Billy Wilder stamped his name on cinema forever with the unusual and terrifyingly realistic "Sunset Boulevard".
The first thing you notice about this film is its cinematography, the way that the credits appear on large block font on the screen as the shot of a single street seems to never end is somewhat haunting. Then the camera pans up and you see police cars whiz by and the camera whirls around to see them speed into the distance.
William Holden's noir voice narrates from the beginning. These police cars are going to a famous actresses house to find a dead body in the pool. But don't judge too quickly, let's go back and see what happened.
Right away, "Sunset Boulevard" strikes an uncanny resemblance to "Double Indemnity" with its style and approach. But this film has something that the previous one didn't, a little pinch of crazy.
Joe Gillis is a writer whose checks are beginning to bounce. He's tried writing a screenplay for Paramount Pictures but everyone agrees, it's too fluffy and full of nonsense. His bills are piling up and some men are trying to take his car. In a chase away from the man, Joe blows a tire and ends up hiding in a desolate old mansion which looks abandoned. He quickly finds out that this is the home of the aging silent movie star Norma Desmond. The oddities of the house are darkly humorous and not fully explained like the dead chimpanzee upstairs that is quickly given a white coffin and toted out of the house. Norma wants to write a movie screenplay about Salome, the daughter of Herod who (supposedly) tried to seduce John the Baptist and when she failed she beheaded the man. Her seduction was made famous by Oscar Wilde and it commonly referred to as "The Dance of the Seven Veils". Norma wants to play Salome and she's sure that this movie will be a hit. Out of desperation and cabin fever she shows Joe her screenplay which is basically gibberish and he agrees to help her with the project.
It's quickly seen that this woman is not in her right mind. Narcissistic would be putting it nicely.
As far as lead actors go, I've never been a fan of William Holden carrying a movie on his own. He doesn't show that much emotion and he's from the generation of "shakers"—show women your love by grabbing them just below the shoulders, squeezing them tight, and giving them a few good shakes—wow, that was hot. There's no chemistry between him and the woman (Nancy Olson) who is supposed to fall in love with him at the drop of a hat because he oozes sex appeal. I actually didn't like Olson's character in the movie at all, if I had a magic film eraser I would have just taken her out. If you want to see amazing chemistry, watch "Shakespeare in Love". The best thing you can see William Holden in is "Network".
The film kind of prolongs itself in the middle section, building up too much for a ending, albeit a mighty fine ending.
What makes the movie is simple: Gloria Swanson. As Norma she embodies the depth and craziness of an aging star who would love to soak up more lime light. Perhaps the reason that she's so good in this role is because the role so closely mirrors her own life. It takes great courage to defy your public figure (or add to the flames) by playing someone who obviously represents yourself in a movie. Another movie to see something like this in is "Being John Malkovich".
There are certain things that are left unanswered (like the chimp) and others that don't feel natural but I can see why "Sunset Boulevard" is a classic.
The last act itself is worth the whole movie to see.
Gloria Swanson! No more is needed to be said.


Score: 3 and a half stars out of 4

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