IT may be 68 years since brilliant Billy Wilder directed Sunset Boulevard, but the film remains as powerful today as it was back in 1950.
The film’s building blocks remain hugely relevant – comprising an intoxicating cocktail of love, obscene wealth, devotion, jealousy, vanity and an inability to accept that one’s star is no longer in the ascendency. Traits commonplace today. It makes for compulsive viewing.
The heartbeat of the film is Gloria May Josephine Swanson who lives up to her name by giving a glorious – career defining – performance. Her Norma Desmond – a star once of the silent screen – is as fragile as a leaf in Autumn. She is also seriously deluded as she refuses to accept that her movie career is over. Sadly, it has ebbed away like the water in her outside swimming pool.
Holed up in her crumbling mansion, she exists by feeding off her past glories. She is surrounded by pictures and paintings of herself at the height of her fame – and spends many of her evenings watching movies she starred in. Narcissism is carried on the air like a rancid perfume.
To keep her company is Butler Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim) who serves her caviar and champagne, plays the organ and as the film unfolds does much more to ensure Norma does not slide into madness or attempt to kill herself. Max used to direct her films – he was also her first husband. He is her keeper. Without him, Norma would end up either dead or locked up for her own good.
Into Norma’s life – just as her pet monkey has been visited by the grim reaper – steps Joe Gillis (William Holden), a writer who has fallen on hard times. He does not have two cents to rub together and is being chased for loan repayments he has failed to make on his car. In attempting to elude the bailiffs, he ends up holing up on Norma’s driveway.
It turns out to be more than a temporary hiding place as Max invites him in. It does not take long before Norma ensnares him in her web, giving Joe the task of editing a film script she has written – and which naturally she will be the star of. It is mission impossible but needs must when you are broke.
Despite the age gap – or maybe because of it – Norma falls head over heels in love with the handsome Joe. Gifts are showered upon him, she performs for him (including a wonderful version of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp) and she moves him from an outhouse to a room close to hers.
Whether the love is consummated we never find out. But what we do know is that Norma firmly believes he is the catalyst that will kick-start her career. Of course, she is deluded.
It is tough to watch as Norma visits director Cecil B DeMille (playing himself) at Paramount Studios on the misunderstanding that he is going to direct her film. Nothing could be further from the truth. For a moment, she feels like the spotlight is back on her – helped by the warm greetings she receives from old friends at Paramount. But it is fleeting. Tragic.
Her decline is rapid, agitated by Joe’s relationship with Betty Schaefer whom he is writing a film script with on the sly (naturally, Max, all piercing eyes and razor sharp ears, knows).
There are suicide attempts, a set to between Joe and Betty – and Joe and Norma – and a bloody ending (which takes us back to the film’s start). The finale is Norma’s opportunity to be in the spotlight again. It is her last turn under the lights – and of course Max, lap dog as he is, ensures Norma’s moment is one to remember. Yes, more of the tragic.
Sunset Boulevard is a film you can watch time and time again – and not get bored with. It is littered with stars playing themselves – Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, Ray Evans and Jay Livingston. Even von Stroheim directed Swanson in Queen Kelly (1928), a silent movie Norma and Joe watch at one stage.
But there is only really one star in this movie – Gloria Swanson.
You may have been entranced in the past by the musical version of Sunset Boulevard (Glenn Close was the last to play Norma). Yes, it is a wonderful musical – thank you Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black and Christopher Hampton.
But to see the ’real’ Norma, you need to watch Swanson in glorious black and white. Her Norma teeters on the brink like no other. Her Norma skirts on the edge of madness like no other. She is the complete Norma.
Sunset Boulevard is showing at the Prince Charles Cinema, London on Saturday 3 February.