In Sunset Boulevard, writer-director Billy Wilder provides us with a "behind the scenes" investigation into Hollywood. While Wilder's caustic wit is apparent throughout, the investigation is a serious one. As such, Sunset Boulevard can be seen as an influence on many subsequent films about Hollywood. With the notable exception of A Star Is Born (1937), films about Hollywood prior to Sunset Boulevard had tended to be light comedies and musicals. These films served to demonstrate that Hollywood people had plenty of heart and were basically "just plain folks." But Sunset Boulevard was made during a period in which Hollywood, was reevaluating itself, and audiences were re-evaluating the Hollywood product they had been accustomed to. Hollywood was steadily losing its audience, partially as a result of television, but more crucially, as a result of government antitrust action and a Supreme Court decision which forced a restructuring of studio distribution and exhibition policies. Sunset Boulevard was also made during a period when audiences were being exposed to films from Europe which were more realistic in ap-proach, as well as independently produced American films which strived for social relevance.
Sunset Boulevard responded to these shifts in the film industry by demys¬tifying star mythology and exposing the more cold-blooded aspects of the studio system. In doing so, it purports to be "realistic," but because the film is a commercial Hollywood product, it ultimately equates star mythology with transcendent and larger-than-life qualities, and reveals that decency does exist beneath the corruption induced by working in the studio system. It is this opposition between exposing Hollywood's "dirty laundry" and reaffirm¬ing the value of Hollywood itself that influenced later films such as The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), A Star Is Born (1954), and The Barefoot Contessa (1954). Like Sunset Boulevard, these films show movie people who are creative but also obsessed, ruthless, or deeply troubled as a result of making movies. Once having detailed these various personal problems, however, the films stress that movies and what the stars do in front of the camera—and the public—are what really matters in the final analysis. The simple message is, "The show must go on."
What makes Sunset Boulevard truly unique among these films is its blend of fact and fiction. For the role of Norma Desmond, the legendary star of the silent screen who has deluded herself into attempting a comeback, Wilder cast Gloria Swanson. Absent from the screen for nine years, Swanson was attempting a comeback of her own. While she had made several sound films (including 1934's Music in the Air, coscripted by Wilder), her career had never attained the heights she had reached during the silent era, when her name was synonymous with Hollywood glamour. As Norma's faithful butler as well as former director and husband, Wilder cast Erich Von Stroheim, who in 1943 had appeared in Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo. As a director, Von Stroheim was among the truly great innovators of the silent screen, and in 1928 he had directed Swanson in Queen Kelly, a film that was never released. At one point in Sunset Boulevard, Norma shows a scene from Queen Kelly. Norma also dresses up in a "Bathing Beauty" outfit, another reminder of Swanson's career since she made her first screen appearances as one of Mack Sennett's "Bathing Beauties." To complete his casting, Wilder used several Hollywood figures as themselves. Cecil B. De Mille appears as one of Norma's directors from the silent days; De Mille had directed Swanson in such films as Male and Female (1919) and Don't Change Your Husband (1919). Columnist Hedda Hopper also appears, as do Buster Keaton, Ann Q. Nilsson, and H. B. Warner, all of whom were silent era stars who did not make a successful transition to sound, Wilder furthers the sense of verisimilitude by setting many scenes at Paramount Studios.
These legends from Hollywood's pioneering days are clearly opposed to the new Hollywood, represented by a down-on-his-luck young screenwriter named Joe Gillis (William Holden). When Joe pulls into a driveway in an exclusive residential section off of Sunset Boulevard to elude two men who intend to repossess his car, his luck takes a fateful turn; the driveway leads to Norma's decaying mansion. Norma first mistakes Joe for an animal undertaker, but when she learns his occupation, she tells him of her plans to return to the screen in a version of "Salome," which she has scripted herself. Joe finds the script unbearable, but he sees an opportunity to make the money he so desperately needs. He tells Norma that the script has potential, but needs the kind of contemporary slant that he can provide. Norma hires him and soon moves him into the mansion, making him her "kept man." Joe lets Norma pick up the bills while he fuels her delusions of a comeback and makes love to her.
It is significant that Norma mistakes Joe for an undertaker, for his presence at the mansion will eventually lead to his death by her hand. The mansion itself intensifies the foreshadowing of doom. Its gothic ambience is established by rats in the empty swimming pool, the midnight burial of Norma's chimpanzee, and the eerie organ music that punctuates the musty night air.
Joe's death is a result of his romantic involvement with Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a Paramount script girl. The relationship induces Joe to reach beneath his cynical veneer and draw upon his innate decency. Joe's admission to Norma that he has been lying to her and his attempt to make her face reality only serve to make her mind snap. Ever the prisoner of inescapable self-delusion, Norma shoots Joe, and he falls into the now-filled swimming pool, a symbol of filmland status providing Joe with a watery grave.
Wilder continually points out that both Joe and Norma are victims of Hollywood. We are told that Joe has talent, but the studio doors are closed to him because he refuses to turn out hack work. A Paramount producer and. Joe's agent, representatives of Hollywood business practices, are both callous individuals. The power structure is presented as unfeeling, while those who toil in the ranks, such as Betty Schaefer and Joe's friend Artie Green (Jack Webb), are depicted in positive terms. Norma's victimization results from her refusing to leave. the Hollywood past behind. She believes that her legion of fans are still anxiously waiting her return, but we later discover that the fan letters she has received over the years have been forged by Max (Erich Von Stroheim), her butler. A call from Paramount convinces Norma that her comeback is assured.
The call leads Norma to visit Paramount, and this constitutes the most poignant scene in the film. When Norma enters a soundstage to visit her mentor Cecil B. De Mille (played by himself), she is mobbed in adoration by the technicians and extras who worked with her during the old days. But even here her victimization is suggested, as the mike boom on the set con¬tinually casts a shadow over her. It finally swings down to her, and she pushes it away as if it were a pesky insect. Yet Norma cannot get rid of what the mike boom represents—the progress made by Hollywood. Certainly, Norma is one of the inevitable victims that progress must leave in its wake. After Norma leaves, we learn that Paramount had called her to request the use of her vintage automobile in a film. De Mille demonstrates the decency of the Hollywood pioneer when he orders that Norma is never to be told the reason for the call.
Norma leaves the studio convinced of the imminent production of Salome and prepares for her triumphant return. Even when she finally lapses into madness, she holds onto her conviction. After Joe's murder and the arrival of the police and reporters, she believes that the newsreel cameras are there to film her comeback. She then descends the stairway for her final close-up. But this close-up is not directed at the filmers of the newsreel, but rather at the audience, as Norma walks past the newsreel cameras and directly toward the offscreen camera filming the scene. The texture of the image then blurs, giving her a transcendent and illusory appearance. It is supremely fitting that Norma, who has been unable to distinguish illusion from reality, should take on such an appearance. Her walking past the fictional characters and toward the audience finally establishes her as a mythic figure.
Like Double Indemnity (1944), the events of Sunset Boulevard are related through a flashback structure narrated by the male protagonist. But in this instance Wilder adds a gimmick to the structure—the narrator is Joe, who is seen floating in the pool at the beginning. In other words, it is a tale told by a dead man. This gimmick was not an original idea in itself, as evidenced by Charles Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947), which begins with Verdoux's voice-over as a shot of his headstone is seen. But unlike Sunset Boulevard, Monsieur Verdoux is not bracketed by this narrative device, nor does it contain continual voice-over narration. Actually, Wilder had originally filmed a different dead narrator device, in which Joe sits upright in a morgue and tells his story to the other corpses; but the director scrapped this footage when audiences laughed during a sneak preview.
As it is, the device is audacious enough. What makes it work is Holden's deft reading of Wilder's crisp, cynical dialogue. Despite the publicity surrounding Swanson's return to the screen and her undeniably powerful presence, it is Holden who provides the film with its central source of tension. The look of revulsion on his face when he gets ready to make love to Norma is chilling, and it is one of the many expressive resources Holden draws on to make his dilemma touching. Holden plays Joe as more than a callow manipulator. Indeed, his fleshing in of the character earned him recognition as a serious actor and enabled him to move away from the bland leading roles he was known for prior to Sunset Boulevard. Under Wilder's direction in Stalag 17, Holden won an, Academy Award as Best Actor of 1953, and the actor would later appear in two subsequent Wilder films, Sabrina (1954) and Fedora (1979). Without Holden, Sunset Boulevard might have been a merely a unique collection of old Hollywood relics; with him, the film becomes poignant in its delineation of the past against the present. "
Wilder has often been quoted as saying that many. Hollywood moguls reacted adversely to the film, but the 1950 Academy Award nominations show that Sunset Boulevard was highly regarded within the film industry. The film won Oscars for Best Writing (story and screenplay), Best Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, and Best Art Direction/Set Direction (black-and-white). It was also nominated in several major categories: Best Motion Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress (Olson), and Best Cinematography (black-and-white). (Ironically, the film honored as'Best Motion Picture, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve, was another exposé of show business with a unique flashback structure in which the narrative is connected by the "unconscious" thoughts of three of its principals.)
In addition to these industry accolades, Sunset Boulevard earned far-reaching critical acclaim. The Hollywood press awarded "Golden Globe" Awards to the film as. Best Drama, Best Director, Best Actress in a Drama, and Best Score. The National Board of Review honored the film as Best American Film and Swanson as Best Actress, and also included it on its ten best films list, as did the New York Times and Time magazine. While the film was only moderately successful at the box office, its popularity with audiences—as well as its stature—has increased over the years. In a 1977 survey conducted by the American Film Institute, Sunset Boulevard was listed forty-fourth on the list of the fifty most popular films of all time The film's reputation is richly deserved, for it provides us with a look at an introspective Hollywood and an insight into the mind of its genius creator.