Sunset Boulevard

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

Police cars speed down Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, California, to a mansion where the body of a young man, Joe Gillis (Holden), floats in the swimming pool. Joe narrates the events leading up to his death. A flashback begins.

Six months earlier, Joe was out of work as a screenwriter, having only a few undistinguished B movies to his credit. Broke, he tries to persuade Paramount Pictures producer Sheldrake (Clark) to buy a script, but script reader Betty Schaefer (Olson) gives a harsh critique, unaware at first that Joe is listening.

At an intersection, Joe spots the repossession men after his car. During the ensuing chase, one of Joe’s tires blows out. He pulls into the driveway of a large and seemingly deserted mansion on Sunset. Hiding the car in the garage, he looks over the decaying house. A woman inside calls to him. Mistaken for the undertaker to her deceased pet chimpanzee, he is ushered in by the butler, Max (Von Stroheim). Joe recognizes the woman as long-forgotten silent-film star Norma Desmond (Swanson). When she learns that he is a writer, she asks for his opinion on an immense script she has written for a film about Salome that she hopes will revive her acting career. Although Joe finds the script awful, he flatters Norma into hiring him as a script doctor.

Joe stays in a guest room over the garage. The next morning, he objects when he sees that Max has brought his belongings on Norma’s orders. Although he hates being dependent on her, he comes to accept the situation, eventually moving into the bedroom of Norma’s former husbands. As he works, he comes to see how unaware she is of how her fame has died. She refuses to hear any criticism and makes him watch her old films in the evenings. Although she still receives fan mail, Joe later learns that Max writes them. Max explains that Norma’s state of mind is fragile, and she has attempted suicide in the past.

Over the next few weeks, Norma lavishes attention on Joe and buys him expensive clothing, including a tuxedo for a New Year’s Eve party attended only by the two of them. Horrified to learn that she has fallen in love with him, he tries to let her down gently, but she slaps him and retreats to her room. Joe goes to see his friend, assistant director Artie Green (Webb), about staying at his place. At the party there, he meets Betty again. She turns out to be Artie’s girl. While still unimpressed with most of his work, she believes a scene in one of his scripts has potential, but Joe is uninterested. When Joe phones Max to have him pack his things, Max informs him that Norma had attempted suicide. Joe returns to the mansion, apologizes to Norma and kisses her. She draws him down to her bed.

Norma sends her script to Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount. Not long afterwards, Paramount executive Gordon Cole keeps calling. Norma, however, petulantly refuses to speak to anyone other than DeMille himself. Eventually, she has Max drive her and Joe to the studio in her 1929 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A luxury automobile. DeMille entertains Norma, while tactfully avoiding questions about her script. Many of the older guards, technicians, and extras recognize her and welcome her back. Joe and Max, meanwhile, learn that Cole merely wants to rent her car for a film. Max insists that they say nothing to Norma. He later confesses to Joe that he was once a respected film director. It was he who discovered Norma as a teenage girl, made her a star, and became her first husband. When she quit, he abandoned his career to become her servant because he could not bear to leave her.

While Norma undergoes a rigorous series of beauty treatments to prepare for what she believes is her comeback role, Joe sneaks out at night to work with Betty on a screenplay. Although she is engaged to Artie, she falls in love with him, and he with her. When Norma finds the script with Betty’s name on it, she phones Betty and insinuates what sort of man Joe really is. Joe, overhearing her, invites Betty to come see for herself. When she arrives, he pretends he is satisfied being a gigolo. After Betty leaves in tears, Joe begins packing, having decided to return to Ohio to his old newspaper job. He bluntly informs Norma of the truth — there will be no comeback, her fan letters come from Max, and she has been forgotten. He ignores Norma’s threats to shoot herself. In a fit of passion, she shoots him three times as he leaves. He falls into the pool.

The flashback ends. Norma completely loses touch with reality, thinking the news cameras are there for a film shoot. Max plays along to give her what she craves so desperately. He sets up the scene for her and yells “Action!”; Norma dramatically descends her grand staircase. She gives a short speech at how happy she is to be acting again, ending with the famous final lines: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”[


Returning to the true gems of cinema history, a real classic came in the mail this afternoon, Sunset Boulevard. I bet you’re not familiar with film as much as you are the classic line  “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”, uttered by Gloria Swanson’s character, the aging actress Norma Desmond. Surely, though, there is more to see here than wait for the final shot and her utterance of that line, right?

What is this about?

Running from debt collectors, screenwriter Joe Gillis stumbles upon the crumbling mansion of former silent-film star Norma Desmond. As he begins penning a comeback screenplay for her, their professional relationship evolves into something more.

What did I like?

Weird. Outside of directors like Hitchcock and episodes of The Twilight Zone, no one was really pushing the boundaries of storytelling at the time of its release. In that respect, this film is a bit of a pioneer or trailblazer for many flicks to come. What is weird about it? Well, for starters, there is a bit of role reversal, where the rich woman is taking care of the man. Then there is the storyline regarding her unhealthy obsession with him, which ultimately leads to the film’s pinnacle moment. Leave us not forget the ex-husband turned butler. Yeah, you read that right!

Topic. At the time this was released, films had solidly made the transition to sound, and it wouldn’t be long before color would take over. When dealing with an aging actress of this time, the thing to do is touch on the fact that their careers may never be the same in the “talkies”. This film does just that, allowing Swanson’s character to be a bit  bitter about the current films, and all those associated with them, including our star.

Cast. A cast the includes the like of William Holden and Gloria Swanson surely can do no wrong, right? Well, they both deliver strong performances, especially Swanson, but it is the cameos and supporting roles, most notably Cecil B. DeMille, the acclaimed director, that grabs your attention. Also, fresh-faced cutie Nancy Olson provides a nice adversary, then commandant, and finally lover for Holden.

What didn’t I like?

Debt forgiveness. Those of us with student loans wish we could just make those evil things go away, sort of the same way the debt collectors after Holden all give up the chase once he give them the slip and we never even make an attempt to find the car or any kind off dead body.

Color. I felt that while effective in black and white, a splash of color would have helped with the contrast in tone, especially in the last act. This is more of a personal ting but I can totally see splashes of color here and there keeping the audience’s attention because, let’s face it, this is a bit of a slow picture.

When we talk of classic cinema, I wonder why it is that Sunset Boulevard isn’t normally mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Citizen Kane, among others. I felt that this is a lick that has earned its stripes and deserves a bit more recognition than it gets. That being said, this is not a film for those that don’t care for the classics and just want stuff to blow up. I give this a very high recommendation. Check it out as soon s you get the chance!

4 out 5 stars

2 Responses to “Sunset Boulevard”

  1. You may enjoy my essay on Gloria Swanson and Sunset Boulevard that I recently posted.

  2. […] being a reflection of that, not to mention the fact that she was considered for the lead in Sunset Boulevard. If this is any indication of the kind of performances she gave on a regular basis, then […]

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