Old Ass Movies: Sunset Blvd. (1950)

By  · Published on June 9th, 2011

Your weekly fix of great movies made before you were born that you should check out before you die.

An aging actress of another era wastes away in her mansion on Sunset Blvd. It’s by chance alone that a young writer stumbles upon her dreary existence and is pulled deep down into her madness alongside her. That young writer is now floating face down in a beautiful pool.

A classic, a must-see, a brilliant film, Sunset Blvd. succeeds on every level no matter how desensitized by the past 60 years of filmmaking we’ve been.

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Directed By: Billy Wilder

Written By: Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman, Jr

Starring: Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, and Jack Webb

There are thousands of angles to take on this movie, but there are three that are particularly fascinating in the modern context – its status as a horror film, its theme of shifting stories, and what most consider a new invention, the meta angle.

Sunset Blvd. begins with a very convincing body trying its damnedest to breath pool water (a shot achieved using a mirror on the bottom concrete) while simultaneously narrating our tale. It’s clear that violence is more than a possibility, and the former living man makes it clear that we need to hear the real story before it gets distorted. Fortunately, that man is Joe Gillis (William Holden), and Joe Gillis is a writer.

The flick plays with more than a few genre tropes, but it’s genuinely frightening when it wants to be. Regardless of the drama, the noir, or the tragedy, the movie that it most resembles is Misery – the story of a writer who is stranded in the house of a crazed fan. Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is incapable of being a fan of anyone but herself, but she could beat Annie Wilkes in a fistfight or a staring contest. She’s insane from the moment we meet her (trying to bury her sweet pet chimpanzee), but Wilder isn’t content to make her a flat boogeyman. There are few slasher icons as scary as Norma Desmond, but she’s ultimately sympathetic (until she swings right back to being murderous and pants wettingly-horrifying. Still, if you don’t believe this movie is a horror flick, take a look into Desmond’s face and try and deny it.

The most prevalent theme is one of shifting stories, and there are more than a few elements that Wilder and company play with:

  1. The opening narration is given by a dead man and continues throughout the film as he plays out his fate. He places an emphasis on getting the right version of the story out there for the audience, but he’s both omniscient (as a man from beyond the grave) and faulty (because he’s a man who doesn’t know what’s going to happen to him).
  2. Gillis pitches a concept called “Bases Loaded” that sees a troubled ball player in debt to some gamblers. The studio executive wants to change it to a female character and give it comedic musical numbers.
  3. The movie itself reshapes Hollywood history by name-dropping and by featuring filmmakers as themselves. It’s unclear what year the story takes place, but if we consider it being 1950, it changes a lot. Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself) is shooting a historical epic, because that’s what he was known for, but in real history, he would have been shooting When Worlds Collide. There’s a random note about Norma Desmond’s car (a beast of an Isotta-Fraschini) is perfect for a new Bing Crosby picture (one of the actors Wilder had a feud with), but it’s unclear what movie it would be for. These figures and dropped names exist as themselves, but in an alternate universe where a silent star named Norma Desmond exists as well. It’s Cecil B. DeMille playing a character named Cecil B. DeMille that’s remarkably similar to him.
  4. It also shifts stories by toying with genres. Early on, there’s a noir-esque car chase, but it isn’t gangsters or spies or hardboiled detectives. It’s a failing screenwriter and two repo men. The tension is there, but the reason for it isn’t. Wilder is a master of manipulation that way and loved making all kinds of movies. Here, he gets to make several kinds in one.
  5. Gillis also mentions a previously made movie of his as a story about Okies in the dustbowl that ended up being filmed on a torpedo boat.
  6. The centerpiece of the movie is a script called Salome that Desmond has written. It’s her story, but it becomes reshaped by Gillis as he rewrites it completely.
  7. Gillis, an established liar, also changes his own personal story depending on who he needs to sell. Ultimately, it’s this story that matters most because Norma Desmond ends up changing him (in one specific way, permanently).

Alongside the stories, the concept of playing parts and roles is explored heavily too. It’s through this, and through simple roles like “mother,” “husband,” “servant,” and “master” that it transcends the bonds of being another simple Hollywood movie about Hollywood. It becomes something we call relate to (even if we’ve never been held as a de facto prisoner in a wealthy old loner’s house).

Since it’s a story about stories, it has no choice but to be meta, but Wilder plays around with that concept as well. For one, it’s a movie starring a silent film star/aging actress about a silent film star/aging actress trying to be in a movie. For two, Gillis and Betty (Nancy Olson) are working on an “Untitled Love Story” script together while falling in love. Plus, Gillis is a writer who had a few hits but has sunken into joblessness – a situation that mirrors William Holden at the time. He’s essentially playing the writer version of himself, just as Swanson is playing the insane version of herself. There’s also the real-life filmmakers to take into consideration here as well.

A million more words could be written (and probably have) about this incredibly deserving film. It’s ultimately a story about people caught in the middle of a changing time and the various responses they have to it – which is why it’s fantastic that it’s so timeless. It’s a modern movie made before the modern era that hasn’t lost a step or gained a wrinkle since it first premiered. Fortunately, it’s nothing like its washed up main character because it’s her descent into madness (and down the stairs) that’s the most captivating element of all. It was a star-making turn for Gloria Swanson – just in time for her to retire. Life has a funny way of teasing art that way. That’s why it’s important to get the real story before it gets all distorted.

Next Thursday, we’ll welcome a vagrant into our homes with My Man Godfrey.

Celebrate more ancient flicks by reading more Old Ass Movies

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.