The movie is about Norma Desmound, an aging silent movie actress. She still believes that she is a "big star", a lie that is fed to her by her butler and ex-husband Max. He writes her fake fan letters and lies to her about why people are calling for her while she holes up in her strange mansion and watches old movies of herself. She meets Joe, a young, broke screenwriter, and she sort of cons him into coming to live with him as her kept man. He doesn't have a lot of other options, so he goes along with this. But Norma becomes increasingly more crazy, not aided at all by the fact that Joe starts sneaking out to see Betty, a cute young girl, and write a screenplay with her. The movie ends famously, apparently, although it was really new for me.
I thought Gloria Swanson was incredible! She was so creepy and over-the-top, but it worked so well in this movie. I love it when women get to take weird, sick roles like this. They seem to be sort of rare, but they are always some of my favorite performances. I think of Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream as a more recent example of this particular sort of insanity. The whole movie Norma sort of walks the line between being eccentric and being crazy, and she does such a good job of it. Her wide eyes and strained neck, her big gesture and expressions - they all work so well together somehow, ad it seems...convincing.
Ebert mentions that Gloria Swanson was actually pretty young when this movie was made, writing, "There is a scene during Norma's beauty makeover when a magnifying glass is held in front of her eyes, and we are startled by how smooth Swanson's skin is. Swanson in real life was a health nut who fled from the sun, which no doubt protected her skin (she was 53 when she made the film), but the point in "Sunset Boulevard'' is that she has aged not in the flesh but in the mind; she has become fixed at the moment of her greatness, and lives in the past" (The Great Movies, 438). We can understand why Joe goes along with the relationship to some extent. She's a little crazy, but she's not some weird, hideous freak. She is still pretty when she is not pulling faces for the invisible camera, and it scenes like the one Ebert describes above can help us to understand her strange appeal.
I have to throw in a big Ebert quote, because he points out something very cool in this film, writing, "Billy Wilder and his co-writer Charles Brackett knew the originals of the characters. What was unusual was how realistic Wilder dared to be. He used real names (Darryl Zanuck, Tyrone Power, Alan Ladd). He showed real people (Norma's bridge partners, cruelly called "the waxworks'' by Gillis, are the silent stars Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H.B. Warner). He drew from life (when Norma visits Cecil B. De Mille at Paramount, the director is making a real film, "Samson and Delilah,'' and calls Norma "little fellow,'' which is what he always called Swanson). When Max the butler tells Joe, "There were three young directors who showed promise in those days, D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille and Max von Mayerling,'' if you substituted von Stroheim for von Mayerling, it would be a fair reflection of von Stroheim's stature in the 1920s" (The Great Movies, 438-439). Wilder actually referenced real life, and used old silent films stars, which I noticed, having watched so many silent films for this project. I just wanted to share this with you since I thought it was pretty shocking that Wilder was so blunt, and it's easy to miss if you haven't had to watch silent movies.
I just really was so impressed with this movie. It felt so bizarre but it also felt vaguely realistic. I mean, we turn on the TV and watch celebrities have minor breakdowns in public all the time, and we feed off it. People do crazy things when they don't feel famous anymore, because there is a need and a deep hunger for the attention. Ebert says this is a great movie about movies because it has so few illusions, which is true. It exposes the ugly side of fame, the "monster" side of it, as Lady Gaga might say. I really hope that you try to rent and watch this film. It's one I want to run out and buy, I liked it that much. It's such a great noir - shot well, scripted well, and well-acted. Let me know if you decide to watch this movie!
Have any of you seen Sunset Boulevard? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Sunset Boulevard