“Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” Ugh! So good!
DIRECTED BY BILLY WILDER WRITTEN BY BILLY WILDER + CHARLES BRACKETT SCORED BY FRANZ WAXMAN
STARRING GLORIA SWANSON WILLIAM HOLDEN ERICH VON STROHEIM NANCY OLSON
Men don’t like that women age. A lot of silent film stars didn’t make it to the talkies. Hollywood loves and hates itself. Gloria Swanson is a treasure. During the scene at a party, some guy jokes that Holden’s character is the Black Dahlia killer???
Hi, my film babies! I started my journey off through the AFI Top 100 with a true Hollywood classic, Sunset Boulevard. My, oh, my, I had no idea Hollywood could be so meta.
Let’s talk about the transition in Hollywood from silent films to talkies. In the mid-1920s, sound began to make its way into film and many celebrated actresses of the Silent Film era were pushed out for a number of reasons including thick accents and a shift in acting styles. Actresses such as Gloria Swanson, who had a very successful career in her youth, were now considered dwindling stars largely forgotten by the film industry. This NYT article from 2010 provides a richer history if you want to learn more.
In Sunset Boulevard, Swanson is able to shine – and shine she does. Her performance as Norma Desmond, a depressed and aging film star living with her butler in an isolated and overgrown Hollywood mansion, is alluringly creepy in all the right ways. Her overflowing collection of framed headshots and dramatic gesticulations signify that this is a woman is distress and stuck firmly in the past. This is only amplified when Norma pulls Joe (William Holden), a struggling young screenwriter, into her dusty lounge to watch her reminisce over her old silent films. One of which is Queen Kelly, pictured below.
Did you read the whole caption? Yeah. Erich von Stroheim, the man who played Norma Desmond’s live-in butler and former director was actually Gloria Swanson’s former director! Meta. Billy Wilder, the director of Sunset Boulevard, kept details like these in mind. The casting was very particular.
Speaking of casting, there are more actual Hollywood legends in this film than I can count on six hands. To name a few: Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Sidney Skolsky, Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner. I honestly only know a few of these names. Cecil B. DeMille is arguably the most important side “character” since he also used to direct Norma Desmond. Norma brings him a terrible original script for an adaptation of Salome and he has to let her down gently. It’s a crushing blow that Norma can’t seem to fathom. Instead, she suffers from a manic episode and kills Joe by the pool. By the way, they couldn’t film underwater at the time so they installed a mirror on the bottom of the pool and shot the reflection from above. Reluctant props to Wilder.
The last moments, as Norma descends from the staircase thinking she’s filming Salome with DeMille directing serves as a direct visual metaphor for her descent into madness. And it’s absolutely captivating to watch.
In summation, I thoroughly enjoyed this film. It was an education in the different eras of Hollywood and provided a unique insight into the minds and psyche of aging movie stars. It’s simultaneously a celebration and scathing critique of Hollywood and how the industry chews up actresses and spits them out. Although the scenes between Olson and Holden drag at times, the performances from Swanson and Stroheim are deep, emotional, and rooted in truth. Strongly recommend.
★★★★☆ 4/5 stars
- The score by Franz Waxman is hauntingly gorgeous. It’s still stuck in my head days later.
- I didn’t really care for Holden’s character and I think they should’ve cast a younger man. This movie is all about Swanson for me.
- There is so much lore surrounding the production of this film that I haven’t even begun to touch on. I want to do more research and eventually watch it again.
- Elizabeth Short (aka The Black Dahlia) was killed in 1947, just two years before this film was made. Though George Hodel was (and still is) considered a strong suspect, the case was actively being investigated at the time. What a laugh line, huh?