Sunset Boulevard | The Dark Side of Hollywood
In 1950, Austrian-born filmmaker Billy Wilder released Sunset Boulevard, a noir movie centered on a former silent film actress (portrayed by Gloria Swanson) who lives in regret for her past and the vanished glory. It is a notable work on the star system, with Wilder providing an ironic and melancholic commentary on ex-stars once acclaimed as gods, only to be forgotten. This movie celebrates the expressive power of the silent film era and blends reality and fiction seamlessly in a meta-cinematographic style.
The title originates from the renowned thoroughfare in Los Angeles and effectively encompasses the movie’s main motif. Sunset Boulevard serves as a metaphor for the journey toward fame and success woven into the storyline. Fame is a transient entity, a hub for the origin and circulation of all that eventually meets its demise. The protagonist views cinema as the sole crux of her being; without it, her identity would be unrecognizable.
Sunset Boulevard received widespread critical and popular acclaim, solidifying its status as one of the greatest classics in cinematic history. Billy Wilder emerged as a leading figure in the Golden Age of Hollywood. He earned multiple Academy Awards nominations and took home seven Oscars during a career that spanned five decades. His versatility in navigating diverse genres – including comedy, melodrama, and noir – captivated viewers by providing a rich tapestry of complex characters and compelling narratives.
A Diva Trapped by Her Own Fame
Joe Gillis (William Holden), a screenwriter based in Los Angeles, experiences a professional crisis. One day, while trying to escape debt collectors, he encounters a seemingly abandoned mansion on Sunset Blvd. As it turns out, the estate is occupied by Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a retired silent film star living amongst old memories in a dilapidated home. Norma persuades Joe to revise a screenplay that would signify her triumphant comeback to the silver screen.
Norma Desmond: An Iconic Character
Norma Desmond is a fifty-year-old former star who is eccentric, narcissistic, and disillusioned. She lives entirely in the past, and her home is like a mausoleum filled with photos depicting her success at the pinnacle of her career. Norma refuses to accept that her career is finished and still longs for a triumphant return to the big screen. To fulfill her desire, Norma entraps Joe, making him her “prisoner” and lover, buying him everything he desires and exerting a manic hold over him. Contributing to the illusion of perpetual fame is Max (Erich Von Stroheim), Norma’s butler. His devotion to the actress is exemplified by the fact that he sends bogus fan letters to deceive her into thinking that she is still beloved by the public.
In Sunset Boulevard, Norma confronts an internal conflict between her ideal and true self. Her ideal self is the Norma of the screen, young, beautiful, and adored. Her real self is the woman who has wrinkles, has aged, and is forgotten. When the false self-image no longer dominates, and Norma can no longer deceive herself, madness takes over. This duality is portrayed through a distinct use of the camera. During moments of vulnerability, Norma is not filmed directly. Instead, a gimmick is employed where she is reflected in a mirror. This technique is repeated multiple times to emphasize the character’s duplicity. However, when Norma has complete control, she is filmed from below to showcase her power over both the characters and the audience.
Swanson’s interpretation played a crucial role in establishing the fame of this character. Her performance strikes the ideal balance between melodrama and realism. Swanson brought to life a character that has cemented a place in the collective imagination. Norma Desmond does not fit the mold of a hero or a villain in the film. Rather, she is a woman who was shaped by, and later let down by, the very system that made her a star.
The Cult of Stardom
In Sunset Boulevard, Wilder critiques the Hollywood star system. During the peak of stardom in the 1920s, movie stars became the voice actors of their characters. The public idolized and projected fantasies onto them, while the studios contributed to building their images. Hollywood also disclosed private information about stars, creating a sense of mystery around these semi-divine figures. The first stars to emerge were women. Actresses were idealized, being required to blend physical beauty with moral qualities.
Wilder shows how Norma becomes a victim of the star system. She exists solely due to the attention of the spectators, without their presence she holds no importance. Norma’s need for visibility emerges out of her inability to accept being forgotten by the public and her desire to be flattered. This need for visibility brings to mind today’s society, in which social media enables digital visibility for everyone. In Sunset Boulevard, Wilder foresees themes pertaining to the culture of exhibitionism of the 21st century and cautions against the risks of pursuing celebrity status at any expense to one’s mental and physical well-being.
Between Real Life and Fiction
Gloria Swanson’s portrayal helped establish the character of Norma Desmond as an icon. The actress’s life mirrors that of Norma. Swanson was a star of silent films and a fashion icon in the 1920s. Her romantic encounters were a popular subject in gossip magazines. However, her career suffered a decline with the advent of sound. Sunset Boulevard served as her grand return to the silver screen after an almost two-decade hiatus and offered an extraordinary parallel between reality and fiction. The similarities are striking but it’s noteworthy that Swanson did not suffer the same fate as her fictional character. Rather, she successfully redefined herself by pursuing careers in both radio and television. On the other hand, Norma was devastated by solitude and her carefully crafted persona on the screen, making it impossible for her to recover from the depths of despair she encountered.
Swanson and Desmond share a commonality in their careers as women in the entertainment industry. They consistently face public scrutiny and must comply with beauty and youth norms imposed by the industry. Norma refuses her natural aging and undergoes exhausting skin treatments in the movie.
The societal pressures affecting women, extending beyond the realm of cinema, continue to be a significant issue. Women are held to Hollywood’s impractical ideals to avoid being disregarded. High-profile adult actresses, including Julianne Moore, Charlize Theron, and Sandra Bullock, receive criticism and questions related to their appearance. Sunset Boulevard presents a fictional story set in the 1950s. Nevertheless, Norma’s apprehensions of being evaluated based on her physical appearance continue to hold significance in the present day.
Silent Cinema vs. Sound Cinema
In Sunset Boulevard, Wilder examines a widely discussed issue, namely the comparison between silent and sound cinema. Towards the end of the 1920s, America experienced the introduction of sound in movies. Before this moment, silent movies had been the norm in cinema, albeit occasionally interrupted by live musical accompaniment. The arrival of sound unequivocally marked a significant transition between two distinct eras of cinema. In the movie, Norma vehemently opposes the changes brought about by the introduction of sound, insisting that sound movies are of inferior quality.
There was a time when this business had the eyes of the whole wide world. But that wasn’t good enough. Oh, no! They wanted the ears of the world, too. So they opened their big mouths, and out came talk, talk, talk.Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson)
Many stars from the silent era experienced career downfall after the introduction of sound. Norma’s artistic parable resembles that of George Valentin, the lead character in Michel Hazanavicius‘ The Artist (2011). The advent of sound is the main reason for the downfall of the two celebrities, as they are unable to adapt and end up becoming irrelevant in the new film industry. The loss of fame leads them to depression and alcoholism, although their fates diverge in the end.
Sunset Boulevard celebrates the expressive power of silent cinema. The director showcases this through Norma Desmond’s dramatic expressions and grandiose gestures. The actress’s physicality effectively brings to mind silent films, particularly when the camera lingers with close-ups of her face. The director admires an era in which words were unnecessary. A simple look conveyed every nuance of feeling or emotion.
Sunset Boulevard is unmistakably a noir movie, characterized by a dark storyline and archetypical characters of the antihero (Joe) and the dark lady (Norma), with the latter representing the femme fatale who seduces and manipulates the main character. While Joe is depicted as a disillusioned and imperfect man, struggling between morality and corruption. Additionally, the movie employs another hallmark of noir – the voice-over – with a unique retrospective narration. Joe tells the story through flashbacks, albeit already dead.
One characteristic of noir is the preference for black-and-white cinematography. By rigorous use of chiaroscuro lighting and camera movements, the drama and suspense of the story are heightened. The lights not only concentrate attention on particular characters but also uncover their deception and wickedness, highlighting their authentic selves. The movie depicts distressing visuals and phantasmal shadows, to the extent that it resembles horror.
The mise-en-scène‘s visual elements contribute to character development. Norma, for instance, inhabits a gothic, dilapidated mansion brimming with self-portraits that commemorate her peak success. Though time has stood still, it is merely an illusion. Norma refuses to acknowledge the end of her career, and her opulent estate mirrors this decadence while concurrently preserving the recollection of acclaim that has since disappeared. Joe observes that the manor resembles Miss Havisham, a character from Charles Dickens‘ Great Expectations. The parallelism is fitting as both tragic figures are trapped in the past, disconnected from reality, and doomed to descend into madness.
Another key feature of Sunset Boulevard is its Academy Award-winning soundtrack composed by German composer, Franz Waxman. The score draws inspiration from various musical styles of the 1920s including the classic tango. Waxman’s use of Norma’s tango theme resonates several times throughout the movie, creating an intense portrayal of passion and madness. Furthermore, Waxman’s masterful use of a large orchestra elevates the impact of the movie’s most critical scenes.
Sunset Boulevard garnered multiple accolades, including three Academy Awards for Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration – Black-and-White, and Best Story and Screenplay. The American Film Institute ranked it sixteenth on its 2007 list of “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies“.
In 1993, a highly successful musical adaptation was produced, faithfully reproducing Wilder’s story. However, numerous dialogues were replaced with songs. The musical was produced in various countries, garnering great acclaim in the United States, particularly due to Glenn Close‘s portrayal of Norma.
Wilder left behind several classic cinema masterpieces, including A Foreign Affair (1948), Some Like It Hot (1959), and The Apartment (1960), among others. Sunset Boulevard is his iconic contribution to cinema history.
Sunset Boulevard is a fundamental example of self-representation within the Hollywood industry. By exploiting the allure of silent cinema, Wilder emphasizes the detrimental nature of the star system, a problem that remains highly pertinent within contemporary Hollywood. Norma Desmond, a character who has become a cultural icon, epitomizes the archetype of a diva constrained by her own excessive self-worship.