“I am big, it’s the pictures that got small!” — Norma Desmond
Right now, the movie industry might be undergoing a metamorphosis. Due to COVID-19, the theater-going experience is endangered and more and more movies will go straight to streaming services and rentals from home. Sitting in a theater on opening night as a crowd of people laugh and cheer might become a thing of the past.
Hollywood has seen seismic shifts before and every time there’s always a relic of the past that gets left behind. A part of the world that is unable to adapt to changing times.
Maybe the biggest change came with the invention of “talkies.” Silent film stars who made obscene fortunes on a weekly basis were suddenly out of work. Some adapted. Charlie Chaplin made a few sound films and was even nominated for an Oscar. Others became reclusive. They became hermits, alcoholics and addicts. Some had mental health problems and some committed suicide.
They love you one day. The next day you’re forgotten. That’s Hollywood.
No movie has captured this reality truer than Billy Wilder’s 1950 masterpiece “Sunset Boulevard.”
This film noir classic tells the story of an out-of-work screenwriter played by William Holden who stumbles upon the mansion of Norma Desmond, a long forgotten silent film star that is in such denial about the world passing her by. Silent film actress Gloria Swanson — who had a similar stint of fame but actually handled the transition well by just moving to TV shows and plays — creates one of the most fascinating characters in movie history. She’s almost a monster with her clingy behavior and treatments meant to keep her looking young. When Holden enters her gothic mansion, which has been quiet for some years, Desmond is almost like Dracula, a seductive parasite who plans to suck the youth of this unsuspecting chap. “Sunset Boulevard” is not just a film noir classic, but it’s also a horror film and, at times, a dark comedy.
Billy Wilder is one of my favorite directors and he certainly is underrated. He won Best Director and Best Picture twice for “The Long Weekend” and “The Apartment,” along with several awards for screenwriting. He also made “Double Indemnity,” “Some Like it Hot,” “Sabrina,” “Stalag 17,” “The Seven-Year Itch” and “The Fortune Cookie.” He eschewed the visual flair of Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock and the politics of Frank Capra. Instead he was interested in human emotions. He wasn’t afraid to cast against type, giving lovable TV star (and the Absent-Minded Professor) Fred MacMurray the chance to play despicable characters. Most of all, he was a witty writer who know how to craft some of the most famous lines in cinematic history.
“Sunset Boulevard” ends with one of the most famous quotes in all of movies: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” In case you haven’t seen this one, I don’t want to give too much context to spoil the ending. But it’s the perfect way to finish the movie.
Setting is important to Wilder in “Sunset Boulevard.” He takes sunny Los Angeles and still gives it the grim look of a film noir classic and obviously you can see how David Lynch was inspired for his own movie “Mulholland Drive.” Norma Desmond’s mansion is perfectly ugly inside and every detail has been considered.
Wilder nails the casting too. He wanted an actual silent film star for the role and he considered Greta Garbo and Mae West. Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift were considered for Holden’s part.
Some turned down the role because they were offended by a romantic relationship between an older woman with a man half her age. Others thought it made Hollywood look bad.
Gloria Swanson didn’t want to submit to a screen test, saying she had “made 20 films for Paramount. Why do they want me to audition?” They worked that into the movie and Norma Desmond says, “Without me there wouldn’t be any Paramount.”
Holden was fairly unknown, having just served in World War II. After the movie, he teamed up with Wilder again for “Stalag 17” and won a Best Actor award.
Erich von Stroheim, who actually directed Swanson in some silent films, plays her loving man-servant Max. His Austrian accent makes him seem like the Igor to her monster. He slinks around the shadows like The Phantom of the Opera.
“Sunset Boulevard” is pretty dark when you consider when it came out. It hold the mirror up to Hollywood in a gruesome way that still packs a punch 70 years later.
“Sunset Boulevard” ranked 16th in the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest movies ever and it certainly deserves it. It’s available to stream for free if you have an Amazon Prime subscription.