SUNSET BOULEVARD (’50) & The Effects of Star-Power

“Sunset Boulevard” (’50) Trailer
“Sunset Boulevard” (‘50)

This piece was originally published at The Nu Romantics Facebook group.

“I was big Dahling! It was the pictures that got small!”

Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in a publicity still for “Sunset Boulevard.”

Ready for your close-up? This piece will examine a darkly romantic noir, from the canon of truly great cinema: Billy Wilder’s epic, gothic look at the rotten, corrupting underbelly of Hollywood life and star pressure’s psychosis producing effects: Sunset Boulevard (1950), which can be watched on Netflix in the US.

Sunset Boulevard tells the swan song of washed-up B-Movie writer Joe Gillis (William Holden), who is on the run from repo men looking to repossess his car in 1950. The film starts in a very unusual way, with the typical noir voice-over (sans spoilers). Joe hasn’t sold any scripts recently, nor even any stories. He’s not making his rent and barely has cash to eat. As LA is a city basically laid out around the automobile, taking Joe’s car basically amounts to (as he says) “cutting his legs off.”

Joe Gillis (William Holden) opposite Max, Norma’s butler (Eric von Stroheim)

Joe is on the run from the repo men when he pulls into the garage of what he suspects is an abandoned mansion, one of those gaudy numbers built in the roaring twenties (the house was actually owned by oil man J. Paul Getty who built it for his wife in the ‘20’s), massive, and way too ornate in its architecture. It is also massively decaying. Joe compares it, and the woman clad in twenties style aristocratic dress calling to him from the window to Ms. Havisham and her home in Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Still photograph from “Sunset” of the outside of the Getty mansion.
Still photograph from Norma’s New Year’s Eve Party, showing the inside of the mansion.

Joe figures, what the hell, I better explain what I was doing in this woman’s garage anyway. So, he walks into the house and is struck by three things: the absolute ornamentation on everything it, its massive square footage, and the pictures plastered all over the walls of this woman he is talking to. It is then that he realizes who she is: Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), silent film titan, the woman who basically built Paramount Pictures but hasn’t worked in many years.

Norma at first, thinks Joe is there to help her with a very bizarre rite: the funeral of her pet chimp. Joe figures this out when she lifts the veil over the chimp’s body, and sees her butler Max (Eric von Stroheim) descending the huge spiral staircase of the house with a child’s size coffin. Director Billy Wilder has a pretty interesting story about it too. He was escorting first lady Nancy Reagan to the premiere of Sunset Boulevard the Broadway musical, when he was asked by an older woman what the chimp scene meant. Wilder, in typical fashion, looked at the woman and said: “Don’t you get it? Before Joe Gillis, Norma was fucking the monkey.”

The infamous chimpanzee close-up from the funeral scene.

That anecdote will undoubtedly give you a better idea of where this film is headed. Especially, when Norma ropes the cash strapped Joe into reviewing her script telling the story of Salome. It is horrible, but the cash strapped Joe won’t tell her and Max refuses too.

Gloria Swanson absolutely nails the character of Norma Desmond (she stayed in character over the ENTIRE duration of the shoot, according to her daughter) for one huge reason: she was pretty big in silent films in real life. Her gesticulations throughout, her aristocratic speech inflections, and just her over all portrayal of the character really drive home Norma’s unfolding psychosis as she does things like keeping Joe on a tight leash, never paying him but lavishing expensive gifts on him, throwing a spectacular party where no one shows up but her, Joe, Max, and the orchestra she hired, and showing her films in her living room theater done with an old school projectionists booth and very fine nitrate film. Will Norma Desmond finally get her close-up (her penultimate accomplishment) and be at the peak of her romantic roller-coaster of emotion?

“Alright Mr. Demille, I’m ready for my close-up,” is actually the correct line here. Gloria Swanson absolutely nails the psychotic, aristocratic mannerisms of Norma Desmond, likely because of her profound early pedigree on the silent screen.

Looking at the stills from the film (included in this article), I am sure you will see the very gothic elements in every shot with Norma and her house. Wilder’s take on the decay both in cinematography and story structure is eloquent, brutal, and oh so beautiful. Wilder added quite a bit of fine dust in the air during filming, which, when coupled with the very hard, very Expressionist shadows and angles, adds to the overall feeling of moodiness (the same effect was utilized in Wilder’s seminal tale of murder and jealousy in 1944’s Double Indemnity).

An example of the decay and the gothicism in “Sunset”, with the decay present throughout the mansions disused grounds.

It is these cinematic touches, coupled with Gloria Swanson’s incredible performance (it was a crime that she was snubbed at the 1951 Oscars for Best Actress), that make Sunset a must-see for every fan of cinema period (not just great directors like David Lynch who gives great homage to the film in another piece about the rotten underbelly of Hollywood 2001’s Mulholland Dr.). The eloquent take on dead dreams speaks to the romance in the human heart.

A still shot example of the fine dust in the air adding to the ambiance of the film.
A second still shot example of the dust in the air, this time accentuating Norma Desmond’s grandiose gestures as she performs for an audience of one.