Sometimes a thing that can haunt our minds is how we fear that at one point, we’re to be forgotten. It may not be nearly as big as what’s taken over the mind of Norma Desmond, but Billy Wilder shows us perfectly what if this specific fear came to hit the mind of someone who was so well-known and beloved at one point. Her name has faded away into obscurity thanks to the many new stars in the world of film that have taken over Hollywood, but where Sunset Boulevard triumphs is not only in its haunting look at the industry, but the biting cynicism and satire that can be felt all throughout. It gives the film industry a treatment it deserves, because forgetting about our past is a most unforgivable crime especially when it comes to what these films have left upon what we have now.
The biggest triumph that Billy Wilder leaves behind in Sunset Boulevard is his means of studying the mind of Norma Desmond, who is played beautifully by the former silent film star Gloria Swanson. There was a point in her life in which she was of great fame, and everyone had loved her. She felt that since she carried the spotlight, she truly meant something to others, she knew she was an important being to those people. Now, she’s an abandoned household name. The triumph comes clear from here, Billy Wilder’s picture of what fame does to a soul who truly is damaged on the inside, it corrupts the mind in such a manner that horrible thoughts become what primarily come out, which is the case with Norma Desmond, a faded star who still carries the belief she is indeed relevant in the movie industry.
Norma Desmond is indeed a fascinating character because of the way in which she was written. Billy Wilder was always one to feature such interesting characters inside of his films, whether it be from a comedy as goofy as Some Like It Hot or as cynical a film-noir as Double Indemnity. In Sunset Boulevard, Wilder uses the screenplay which he formed together with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr. in order to show us the psychology that runs within the Hollywood system, but the brilliance of the screenplay especially is what allows for a specific realm of depth to be opened as we come around to look at what it is that takes place inside of his characters’ minds, whether it be a soul as damaged as Norma Desmond or as humanistic as William Holden’s Joe Gillis, the hack screenwriter who intends to help Norma out.
In spite of being very much a product of its time, Sunset Boulevardstill maintains its theme of relevance so perfectly even today. The film is set in the 1950’s, a time in which the silent films have already gone away, and the “talkies” have begun to take over. The transition has been difficult for many stars as shown to us by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen in another wonderful Hollywood critique, Singin’ in the Rain, but where Singin’ in the Rain gives light to those who were successful in the transition, what ever happened to those who had failed? That’s what Billy Wilder so perfectly captures in here. And today, there’s a sense in which some truly great stars have been forgotten by the new generation of Hollywood, where audiences flock specific sorts of films over the other, and there’s a lamenting coming to mind that what’s taken over is simply just not as good as it was back then.
The cynicism can be felt within the rather haunting atmosphere present in Sunset Boulevard in its noirish structure, but its manner at biting how things are working today is why it still hasn’t lost any of its impact. While its outer shell presents a hardboiled film-noir taking place within the world of Hollywood especially in its manner of grounding down every detail to the bare bone, just seeing how realistically it also pictures a construct of the human condition is where something all the more wonderful has come out. Take what Norma Desmond’s character arc is detailing, then apply that to how life works. At one point, we were young and the world belongs to us. Then over time, upon our fading, the feeling of losing a sense of whom one truly is can drive them mad.
Billy Wilder has indeed created one of the greatest pictures to come out of Hollywood’s Golden Age, by merely showing people what the industry can be like. Although it may not be my favourite of his films, what’s so wondrous is its revelation of the truth behind obscurity which some say is only a myth. From the perfectly tense structuring present all throughout Sunset Boulevard down to the metaphors it present that can even apply to the most ordinary of lives, Sunset Boulevard truly is Hollywood cynicism at some of its finest. It brings a close-up to what this supposed kingdom really is, especially when we come to consider how damaged these people may be in spite of the endearing personalities they carried. Celebrity culture is one crazy thing.
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All images via Universal/Paramount.
Directed by Billy Wilder
Screenplay by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D. M. Marshman, Jr.
Produced by Charles Brackett
Starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim
Release Year: 1950
Running Time: 110 minutes