"Sunset Boulevard" Is Still Big, Even If The Screen Got Small Review

Anyone bemoaning the quality of Hollywood's recent output would do well to revisit Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, a noir for the ages if ever there was one. It may help to bolster their argument (it's hard to think of a more lyrical screenplay written before or after), but it might also sweep away any nostalgic ideas about the dream factory as the pablum that they are. For as efficient, resourceful, and rewarding as it can be, the film industry has never been anything but that: an industry, Darwinian in its aims, ruthless in its means, and merciless to those past their prime milking years. While it takes a special kind of delusion to buy into its fanciful vision of itself, it takes a rarer kind of madness to build it. That madness has never been imagined more clearly than it was in Sunset, but it's never been riper than it is right now.

On the run from bill collectors and a world that has provided only failure, small-time screenwriter Joe Gills (William Holden) takes refuge in the dilapidated mansion of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a former film star who, as Gills puts it, used to be big. "I am big," Desmond corrects him. "It's the pictures that got small." After participating in a make-shift funeral for a chimpanzee, Gills cons a place for himself in the household, which also includes Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim), a former director reduced (willingly) to serve as her butler. Together, they work to orchestrate Desmond's return to the big screen, however futile such an endeavor would seem to sober eyes. Gills thinks he can make a quick buck out of it, but like the rest of the industry, he has underestimated Desmond's madness, and its ability to swallow him whole.

If insanity is to do the same thing multiple times expecting different results, something must be said for a compulsive desire to re-enact situations regardless of the outcome. Such is the state that Norma Desmond finds herself in, her happiest years long behind her and her financial prospects increasingly dim. Rather than accept this grim reality, she retreats again and again into those moments where she was most visible, a desperate and demented equation to happiness. It was an apt metaphor for a Hollywood looking into the abyss of the television screen then, but it may be an even more striking parallel today. Just as Desmond was never able to find her way out of the silent era, Tinseltown faces a similar threat of irrelevance with the onset of seemingly omnipresent digital technologies, and is similarly ignorant as to what to do about it. Those might seem like harsh words for an industry that still draws in several billion dollars a year, but it's hard not see reflections of her final walk down the staircase every time a studio bets its entire year onto a single tentpole release in the early weeks of summer. It's a plan that stopped being responsible years ago, but no one seems able to break the pattern.

But the real power of Sunset Boulevard lies not in the depth of Desmond's delusion, but in Gills's cynical cleaving to her. Early on, he recognizes the hopelessness of her aspirations, but a creature as reptilian as him should have gotten out long before he did. Why didn't he? Inertia, probably, but he also shares more with Max than he would ever care to admit. Whatever threat Desmond poses to him personally and professionally, she possesses some measure of glamour that he wants a part of just as much as he did when he first came to Hollywood. Just like Gills, we know the romance of futile gestures and last stands, and just like him, we are caught in their endless loop, doomed, perhaps, to descend that staircase forever.


This disc is absolutely filthy with featurettes, covering just about every conceivable topic. For the sake of completeness, they are "Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning", "Sunset Boulevard: A Look Back", "The Noir Side of Sunset Boulevard", "Sunset Boulevard Becomes A Classic", "Two Sides of Ms. Swanson", "Stories of Sunset Boulevard", "Mad About The Boy: A Portrait of William Holden", "Recording Sunset Boulevard", "The City of Sunset Boulevard", "Franz Waxman and the Music of Sunset Boulevard", "Behind the Gates: The Lot", "Edith Head: The Paramount Years", and "Paramount in the '50s". There's also a commentary by Ed Sikov, the author of "On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder", the script pages for the infamous morgue prologue, a deleted scene (Paramount Don't Want Me Blues), a theatrical trailer, and three separate image galleries (Production, The Movie, and Publicity).

"Sunset Boulevard" is on sale November 6, 2012 and is not rated. Drama. Directed by Billy Wilder. Written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr.. Starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich Von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough, Jack Webb.

Anders Nelson • Associate Editor


New Reviews