One of Billy Wilder’s most famous films is “Sunset Blvd.” A film that’s always escaped me despite seeing two productions of the stage musical, most recently on Broadway with Glenn Close as Norma Desmond. No matter how it is interpreted, it is a haunting story narrated from the grave of young screenwriter, Joe Gillis. In the 1950 film, Joe is played by William Holden. Norma is played by Gloria Swanson, with Erich von Stroheim as her butler Max.
Joe is a down on his luck screenwriter trying to avoid his car being repossessed. Events lead him toward hiding the car in the garage of a mysterious mansion belonging to one time silent film star, Norma Desmond, now obsolete during the age of talkies. She was big at one time. Though Norma insists she is big. “…it’s the pictures that got small.”
Joe is caught in Norma’s web, feeling obligated to write her story while she provides him with all the money and clothes that she can, to keep him close with no opportunity to escape. Even a sneak away to a New Years Eve party leaves Joe feeling compelled to return to Norma where Max has set up living quarters for him.
Holden’s voiceover narration is wry and descriptive like a novelist’s words being emoted vocally. Feelings are shared allegorically. It lightens the mood of Wilder’s film which is a quite dark and strangely sad depiction of a one time film star who has aged amid her isolation and is all but forgotten among the Hollywood elite. Even Cecil B DeMille (playing himself) doesn’t carry much interest in Norma anymore. It’s especially quite telling later in the film when she unexpectedly shows up on the Paramount lot. She had been called upon, but not necessarily for a new role, rather something else entirely.
Swanson is unforgettable as Norma; one of the greatest and most memorable film characters to ever grace the screen and the part is drawn out so well within the Oscar winning script from Wilder and his long time collaborator Charles Brackett. Swanson gives honesty to Norma’s madness; look at the famous final stair descending scene. It doesn’t get much better or more impactful than that. Don’t believe me? Go watch Carol Burnett spoof that moment. It’s one of the greatest cinematic moments ever placed on celluloid.
Yet, I get Norma’s refusal to accept the changes to Hollywood films. She tells the modern screenwriter, Joe, that back then they had FACES, not dialogue. I get it Norma. I truly get it.
Joe is challenged to maintain his own present state of mind. He’s a writer with ideas like a baseball picture. Only he needs a producer to invest. Sure the money comes to him easy from Norma but it’s conditioned under her rules and unwavering possessiveness. It’s a shame when Joe only gets an opportunity at something following meeting Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a pretty, up and coming writer herself, and engaged to his best friend. Joe is stuck. He has to be covert in sneaking away to write with Betty unbeknownst to Norma. Worse, he has to resist the urge to get intimate with Betty as well. Joe has multiple problems to contend with here all stemming from being stuck in someone else’s past that offers no stimulation sexually or creatively. Wilder and Brackett pen a perfect character conundrum. Joe has no escape.
It may sound silly but I couldn’t help but think of Paris Hilton while watching “Sunset Blvd.” I’ve never followed the heiress’ comings and goings. However, I recall a time in the early 2000s when Hilton would be all over reality TV. She was in every magazine and on every gossip headline. Not anymore. Reality TV, like network TV, is losing its flame quickly to the newest medium of streaming services. Hilton is now 15 years older. (Desmond is only 50 in the film, when she’s all but washed up.) Could Paris be wondering what’s become of her starlight? Is Paris waiting for the “Joe” who she’ll insist on being her boy toy? My mind actually drifted towards this subject!!!!
If anything, it tells me that “Sunset Blvd” still holds relevance. Mediums change and those that were once prominent sadly become obsolete. Either we change with the times, or we opt to be abandoned by an ever developing future.
“Sunset Blvd” should be seen simply as a reminder that our history never stays stagnant. However, a danger lies in refusing to move on or in Norma’s case losing the opportunities to move on. We might all be ready for our close up Mr. DeMille, but doesn’t that mean someone needs to be holding the camera?