Unrated; Directed by Billy Wilder; Starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Nancy Olson, Erich Von Stroheim
As an old movie buff, I’ve seen many of the films listed on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Movies list, especially the comedies and musicals. Still, there are some well-known classics that I haven’t taken the time to see. This summer I made a decision to remedy this. One of the movies on my to-see list was the classic Sunset Boulevard. This cynical look at Hollywood deserves all the kudos it has received.
The film begins with a voiceover by William Holden, the film’s protagonist. We see cops racing to a crime scene and then a dead body floating in a pool. The movie tells the story of how that body ends up dead in that pool.
Holden plays Joe Gillis, an unsuccessful screenwriter who is getting desperate. Evading debt collectors he drives into a garage in what he thinks is an abandoned mansion. It’s not – the mansion belongs to silent screen star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson in a scene stealing role). In little time Joe finds himself a kept man. Joe’s only escape from Norma’s desperate clutches is when he decides to work on a new screenplay with Betty (Nancy Olson), a wannabe screenwriter.
Director Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot, Stalag 17) is in top form. He gives this 1950 movie a venomous quality. Norma Desmond lives in a world devoted to all things Norma – her pathetic need for love is frightening, as is her devoted servant, Max (Erich von Stroheim). The claustrophobic settings trap Joe and the audience in a world not right.
Gloria Swanson plays Norma with vitality. For those of you who have only seen the spoofs of this over the top character would be surprised at how fascinating she is to watch in this movie. Holden matches her desperate clinging with an aloof cynicism. His performance works, as a man who knows what he is and isn’t too proud of himself, but too comfortable to give up his lifestyle.
There are so many great moments in this film. There is a card game with faded silent film stars (including Buster Keaton), a visit to the Paramount film studio, and the fabulous final scene with a delusional Norma walking down a staircase. She gives her classic line, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” in this scene. There are other great lines. When Joe meets her and says “You used to be big.” Her magnificent delivery of the response deserves its fame: “I AM big. It’s the PICTURES that got small.”
Check it out. Number 12 on the 100 greatest films list, it deserves its place.