Sunset Boulevard accomplishes the difficult task of being an intriguing story primarily focused on endings and false starts. The film begins with the conclusion, protagonist and narrator Joe Gillis floating dead in the pool, immediately followed by a flashback of Joe giving up on his dying career as a film writer. His first meeting with former Hollywood starlet Norma Desmond occurs over the corpse of her dead pet chimpanzee — a vacancy soon to be filled by Joe himself. Norma had already witnessed the cessation of her career on screen, predicated by the overall demise of silent pictures. Sunset Boulevard depicts the collision of these endings and its aftermath, including a doomed resistance movement lead by Joe and Norma to jump start their flagging occupations, which results only in tragedy and a sense of inevitability.
The legacy of the film is tied most directly to its exploration of the studio movie industry and its intimate study of the gilded mirage created by the aura of Hollywood. Unlike the multitude of films that follow a bright eyed young woman and her quest to make it in show business, Sunset Boulevard explores fame from the inside looking out. Joe failed to achieve the level of success he sought in the industry, but Norma is described as one of the biggest stars Hollywood had ever seen. She has been to the mountaintop and treated as royalty, thus when the cameras turned away from her and were soon followed by the fans, her pride and sanity both took a considerable hit as she faded from their memory. An addiction to fame and adoration from strangers feels almost commonplace in the internet age, but watching Norma’s face break into ecstasy as she briefly regains the spotlight and is once again fawned over in Cecille B. DeMille’s Paramount studio encapsulates the drug of notoriety. She craves attention and it fuels her ability to cling to the edge of sanity, however tenuously.
The feeling that the end of Norma’s success in Hollywood is inevitable creates an undercurrent of sadness even in the film’s most joyous moments. That gloominess can be partially attributed to the film’s noir styling; from the murder mystery framing the narrative and first person character voiceover, to the dramatic melancholy of the black-and-white imagery, the film utilizes the most essential and effective elements of noir. However, the Los Angeles setting and the sunniness beating down on the lead characters allows Wilder to use noir technique to demonstrate how even the brightest moments in the movie industry are grotesque or deceiving. The happiness Norma feels in that studio under Hawkeye’s spotlight is of course an illusion, a side effect of movie magic and returning to the center of attention, however briefly. Norma spent her life in the industry, trained to commit to the mirage, and thus she shines under the fake spotlight in the studio and shrivels under the real sun of the normalcy she’s resisting.
Behind the scenes, Wilder and his long time writing partner Charles Brackett were experiencing their own disintegration. Sunset Boulevard was the thirteenth and final film the two writers collaborated on together. The reason for their ultimate separation remains unknown, but the men had both described their creative relationship as fueled by the tension between them, and it’s easy to see this was both the key to their success and what ultimately tore them apart. This dynamic is also inhabited by Norma and Joe — when it’s revealed that Joe has sought out another writing partner in Betty Schaefer, the jealousy Norma’s feels is both romantic and professional. Like Joe and Norma, Brackett was suspicious of Wilder’s ambition and Wilder viewed Brackett as an aristocratic stuffed shirt who was at times out of touch with common humanity. The tension between the writers bled into the script, lending the film both the authentic anguish of creative strife and the brilliance of what can be accomplished when it’s surpassed.
This is what separates Sunset Boulevard from other movies about Hollywood, it confronts the fallacy of film making head on with wry cynicism, most apparently by Wilder’s willingness to blend reality with fiction. Norma is played (marvelously) by Gloria Swanson and her faithful servant / one time director Max Von Mayerling is played by Swanson’s actual former director, Erich von Stroheim. When they gather with Joe to watch Norma’s silent movie, the screening is of actual footage from Queen Kelly, a film the two actors made together over twenty years earlier. DeMille also directed Swanson, and the “wax figures” who participate in Norma’s bridge game are real life silent movie stars, including Buster Keaton.
Blurred lines of reality infect Norma’s character as well, as she descends deeper into delusion, enabled by Max and Joe for most of the film. When the truth is revealed by Joe that DeMille has no interest in producing her script, Norma is forced to confront her minimal relevance in the film industry and any semblance of her lucidity is lost. The result of Norma’s full on insanity is her complete commitment in one of the greatest scenes in the history of film, as she descends the stairs, preening and working the camera, she is full of life and vivacious as she hallucinates returning to her rightful place center stage, in the full glory of the public eye.
As I mentioned earlier, Sunset Boulevard is primarily interested in endings, and after this grand finale, it’s no wonder why the film opens on a shot of the title painted on an actual gutter. Sunset Boulevard itself represents hope to so many who are eager to succeed in the heart of the American film industry, and failure to many more who bought into the allure of Hollywood only to become disillusioned by its reality. At the time Sunset Boulevard was released, the conclusion of the golden age of American cinema was approaching, and the first round of movie stars began to shrink from public consciousness and replaced by new talent.
The film sometimes feels as if it is a sad eulogy for early performers, and a reluctant acceptance that the art form may be permanent, but the fame of its players is not a reprieve from being left behind when the wheels of entertainment grind forward. As is the norm with sunsets, Norma put on a dazzling display at the conclusion of her rational existence before fading completely into night and joining the rest of the wonderful, anonymous, people in the dark. Ironically, Norma’s quest to be as ageless and enduring as the stars could only be accomplished after sunset.