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70 Years Later: Sunset Boulevard

17 August 20 words: Charlie and George Alexander

Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard marks its 70th birthday and unlike the film’s star Norma, remains a timeless, never-ageing classic from the heights of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim
Running time: 110 minutes

Impressively experimental for its time, the narrative begins with its fatal finale. Our protagonist, Joe Gillis, lies dead in the pool of a faded star. William Holden plays the down-and-out screenwriter and just as his life seems to be at a total breaking point, he stumbles upon the has-been actress Norma Desmond. Through a combination of his own manipulative skill and Norma’s overarching delusion, Gillis finds himself employed, ghost-writing her detestable screenplay for a lavish wage. 

It’s a tale packed with narcissistic self-delusion and dreams. Norma’s are the most overt; utterly self-obsessed and distorted in her belief that she is still relevant and has the ability for a comeback. Similarly, our narrator Gillis lies to himself desperately pretending that he hates the glamour and money that Norma provides, whilst simultaneously shunning the opportunities to become a credible writer. However, it is in Norma’s apparent butler, Max, we witness the biggest player in the fuelling of delusion; the puppet master to Norma’s self-obsessed and frail mind. Stoking the fire through writing fake fan letters and hiding the truth from her. When revealed as the ex-husband and director, it is easy to be cynical and believe that he enjoys living in their faded past. But Max is aware of her madness and it is a misguided love for Norma that motivates him to play along. Max would rather see her die a star than realise her own irrelevance and age; harrowing, unrequited love at its most severe.

Rightly hailed as one of the greatest screenwriters in history, Wilder’s script is as slick as Norma’s recently waxed floor. Wilder manages to hit the mark with every line; impeccably timed sarcastic remarks from Gillis through to disturbingly desperate shrieks from Norma, the script is the source of the films’ prowess. Specifically, Wilder’s choice to reveal the conclusion at the beginning of the film provides a premature wisdom and knowledge above all the characters. In doing so, a crushing futility to the film is created which is where its film noir elements are most evident. The premise of obsessive desire for fame is prevalent throughout. This is enjoyable when mocking the characters as two-dimensional dreamers, but Wilder offers a commentary on the human condition and our own capacity for vanity which can often disguise and distort the more important aspects of life.

A significant and unforgettable film in the history of cinema...catnip for film buffs

Built cohesively through both the gothic camera work and Gloria Swanson’s impeccable but disturbing characterisation of Norma, Sunset Boulevard maintains an integral suspense that deepens throughout the film. Norma’s abode screams of a form of narcissistic grandiosity. We are left captivated but equally frightened by her volatile persona. Swanson pushes her character to the absolute limit of reality; achieving a sense of caricature that both engages you with the narrative and strengthens the film’s bewildering nature.

The meta aspect to the film is intrinsic in creating this highly parodical Hollywood-bashing picture. Norma is played by Gloria Swanson, an ex-silent picture star, and the characters Max and De Mille act as and are played by ex-directors of Swanson’s films. A subtle but fitting nod, the film that Max projects is in fact the actor’s very own Queen Kelly which was produced by Joseph Kennedy, the father of JFK and ironically Swanson’s ex-lover. Buster Keaton’s cameo also can’t be ignored - playing one of her "waxwork" friends must have been slightly crushing for an actor who also failed to cross over to the talkies. Wilder made bold decisions to reference reality so bluntly, resulting in the cementing of its status as a significant and unforgettable film in the history of cinema; catnip for film buffs.

Sunset Boulevard is a flawless spectacle from a bygone era of cinema. Through Wilder’s pitch-perfect writing and pioneering structure, we observe a satirical romp that also maintains an inescapable sense of doom; an unpredictable but masterful picture.

Did you know? Gloria Swanson only starred in three more films following Sunset Boulevard, feeling that the characters in all of the scripts she received were poor imitations of Norma Desmond.

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