By: Christina Harding (A Toast) –
What is there even left to say about Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard that hasn’t already been said? In the half century-plus since its 1950 premiere, this film noir classic has no doubt endured an endless amount of scrutiny and would-be re-evaluations since its heyday. But yet, it has still managed to survive all the deconstruction and parody that sixty years worth of remaining in the public consciousness can afford it, and has remained just as prevalent and biting in its satire as it’s ever been. But perhaps an even greater testament to its strengths as a film is the fact that in addition to the way it still manages to function as a grand, sweeping statement on the truth behind the deep, dark nature of Hollywood, it works just as well on the surface as well as a pure, damned entertaining piece of filmmaking; i.e. just like every other one of Billy Wilder’s most acclaimed features.
For those who have never had the pleasure of seeing this gem yet, Sunset Boulevard centers on a washed up Hollywood screenwriter named Joe Gillis (played with a reliable dose of straight-man charisma by William Holden) who, through a series of circumstances that involve unpaid bills and an attempted repossession of his car, winds up claiming sanctuary at the home of an equally washed up silent film actress named Norma Desmond (famously portrayed by Gloria Swanson – herself a former silent film star). While there, the two unwittingly enter into a toxic and symbiotic relationship of sorts, where all the deepest, darkest secrets of the seemingly glorified Hollywood starlet and the glossy facade of the studio system are both debunked and yet somehow immortalized all at once.
As it would seem, all the elements are in place for Sunset Boulevard to be a self-congratulatory wank-fest that merely celebrates the current (at the time) state of the Hollywood system, which is what this film might seem to be on all outward appearances. But the true genius of Billy Wilder and what he’s created here is the way he’s able to skewer the Hollywood system in such a familiar and merciless fashion, all the while still allowing his film to be wrapped up in all its trappings. Over half a century later, it’s still mind-boggling that a major studio would release such a film as this under their umbrella (Paramount in this case), and even allow their own namesake and image to prop up such a deconstruction of their own livelihood and likeness. No doubt that’s the sort of thing that wouldn’t fly now-a-days, which makes what Wilder achieved with Sunset Boulevard all the more impressive and daring in hindsight.
But of course, all the slick commentary and sharp witted screenwriting in the world would be completely wasted if there wasn’t an ensemble of memorable, talented actors bringing this material to life. Fortunately, Sunset Boulevard is gifted with one of the strongest central casts seen during this era of American cinema. As mentioned before, William Holden makes a strong impression as the leading man at the center of the tale, and Nancy Olsen provides a good foil and is able to transcend the role of a sidelined love interest (though the way the role is certainly helps add to the flavor). Silent film director turned actor Erich von Stroheim has a commanding presence and can also be oddly sympathetic whenever it’s required of him, though the real star of the show here is, as expected, Gloria Swanson’s beautifully realized Norma Desmond. Much like the film itself, Swanson’s performance has been talked to death at this point, but allow me to throw in my two cents and add that she’s worth every bit of the hype. It’s truly one of the greatest female roles in all of cinema history, and a strong combination of great writing and acting both work together to help bring it to life.
As if you even needed me to confirm this, Sunset Boulevard is of course an all-time masterpiece of cinema and has held up extremely well over the decades since its initial release. In fact, one could make the argument that it’s aged even better as time has moved forward. The commentary on the film industry is just as crisp and fresh now as it was back in 1950, and the performances shine just as brightly as they ever have. But like the best films from the classic era, even if you put aside all the innovation and influencing factors, it works perfectly well as a standalone piece of entertainment in its own right. Much like the aging silent film actress at its center, it’s a timeless work of art in every sense of the word.
Sunset Boulevard (1950) Drinking Game
Do a Shot: each time a beloved, classic line is said.
Do another Shot: whenever Norma Desmond mugs to camera.
Pour a Glass of Wine: for another prominent film classic that not only holds up perfectly well, but has aged even better over time.