Sunset Blvd. Review


Sunset Blvd. is a bold picture outlining the destructive nature of the film industry. Director Billy Wilder reportedly made a lot of enemies with this film, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a film noir/character study/cautionary tale that doesn’t pull many punches. But the central performance by Gloria Swanson is quite hammy, to the point it detracts from the narrative. Therefore, I’m not as enthusiastic about it as most. While I liked it, I was definitely disappointed.

Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a struggling screenplay writer. He’s months late on his rent, and debt collectors have come to take his car. While trying to evade them, he stumbles across a crumbling mansion on Sunset Blvd., home to silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her faithful servant, Max (Erich von Stroheim). Norma clearly has some issues. When Joe gets there, she is preparing a burial for her dead monkey. But she needs help with a screenplay she wrote for herself, and Joe needs money, so the two are forced together. The next day, all of Joe’s belongings are delivered to the mansion, and he realizes this might not just be a quick buck. Soon, Norma’s obsession for Joe rivals her obsession for fame, and when Joe begins sneaking out every night to work on a screenplay with the young and vibrant Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), Norma is forced to take drastic action.

No discussion about Sunset Blvd. would be complete without a thorough look at Gloria Swanson’s performance as the painfully deluded Norma. It’s confusing to analyze (as I’ve written this, my opinion changed twice), but my gut instinct is that it was way too over-the-top. Norma is certainly crazy, and Swanson’s performance accurately shows that. However, some of her mannerisms (the constantly bulging eyes, the up-turned head and the bizarre hand motions) just seemed wrong. It’s hard to see any semblance of past sanity in her, so it’s hard to feel bad for her. In the film’s final moments, I found her repulsive and completely unsympathetic; my feelings were closer to laughter than pity.

But despite this big flaw, the film still works. Holden and von Stroheim are great as the cynical Joe and loyal Max, respectively. The real star of the film, however, is Billy Wilder. He really had guts to stick it to the Hollywood establishment (for if the film has a villain, it’s the movie industry). And he creates an incredible atmosphere, using the set pieces with great effect. Norma’s mansion was eerily similar to Xanadu with all of its clutter (rather than statues, Norma’s mansion is populated by pictures of herself). Many of the shots Wilder creates are phenomenal, such as the shot in which lights going off in Norma’s bedroom through the keyhole and the shot of the dead body in the pool.

I had a hard time with this film because it does so many things right, but everything, especially Swanson’s performance threatens to cross the line into self-parody. It’s regarded by most as one of the all-time greats. And while I recommend it, I’m not nearly that enthusiastic about it. I give Wilder credit though for the balls to make a film about Hollywood that is this cynical.

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