Rarely do you find a motion picture that so completely captures a culture’s fascination with celebrity, celluloid and, ultimately, the shared darkness in which these dreams fester. Sunset Boulevard, made during the height of Hollywood’s enduring hold on our collective imagination, would likely have a difficult time finding a brave studio willing to roll the dice on its chances for success today.
But succeed it did! Sunset Boulevard remains one of the most enduring and spellbinding motion pictures ever made. Initially conceived as a comedy about a has-been actress making a comeback to the big screen, Sunset Boulevard very quickly evolves into an eiree dream-like world where it becomes difficult to distinguish reality from fantasy.
Written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, the storyline flows with an incredibly rich combination of truth and legend, as well as desire and the price paid to enter the contest. The realistic settings, the knowing tone of the dialogue and the scenes set inside the actual iron-grilled gates of Paramount Studios all conspire to lend a thoroughly burnished image of what it must have been like to have lived and worked and dreamed and fallen in the fast-paced frenzy that was Hollywood’s Golden Era.
The crux of the story centers around an aging movie star (Norma Desmond, the pathetic, forgotten film queen, portrayed by Gloria Swanson) and an aspiring screenwriter (Joe Gillis, played superbly by William Holden) who finds himself living with her as a way to ‘break in’ to the business. Holden’s range and emotional control never falters and he has the audience in the palm of his hand as his character grabs an opportunity to make some money by helping Norma Desmond hammer out a screenplay about Salome with which the hopeless egomaniac believes she will make a triumphant “return to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen.”
Whether it’s desertion or delusion is a matter of perspective, but the bold-faced narrative rolls with a visceral power that is hard to describe. The fantastic, Babylonian atmosphere of an incredible past is reflected sharply in the gaudy elegance of the decaying mansion in which Norma Desmond lives. It is as if we are being asked to imagine a vintage wine sitting in the rusted out carcass of a tin can.
Wilder, who was born over 110 years ago in a province of Austria-Hungary (present-day Poland), found early success in Berlin as a journalist. Writing crime and sports stories for a local tabloid, he managed to hone a crisp and fast-paced style, which served him well when he later turned his sights to cinema. It was during this era, while still in Germany, that Wilder began collaborating with other like-minded artists, such as Robert Siodmak and Fred Zinnemann, who also later found success in America.
Wilder emigrated to America from Berlin after Hitler came to power in 1933. His mother, grandmother and stepfather all perished in the Holocaust. Still, once in America, Wilder never lost sense of who he was and his acerbic sense of humor and wry take on life kept him going and inhabited many if his finest stories. An inveterate art collector, he was once considering the purchase of a painting by the American artist Stuart Davis. The representative from the auction house was praising Davis’s craftsmanship and skill, all the while encouraging Wilder to act quickly because he had many other parties interested in this piece. Non-plussed, Wilder stroked his chin lightly before turning the canvas over to examine the provenance (that is, the chain of owners) who had hung this particular work of art. Scanning the lengthy list of names, Wilder turned his gaze to the auction house rep and remarked, “Do you see how many people didn’t want this painting?”