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Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Boulevard

The combination of one of the best L.A. film noir narratives, ties to filmmaking reality, and exceptional performances by actors needing to remind audiences why they were once famous is what elevates Sunset Boulevard beyond the outlandishness, and what helped secure its spot as one of the true Hollywood greats.

Even if you’ve never seen it, you know Sunset Boulevard. Its references largely go unacknowledged, taken for granted like they’ve always been there. Not only the famous last line in the film (“All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up.”), but its character types and narrative structure have become commonplace. This is the kind of L.A. noir that inspired films like L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia, Hollywoodland, and Chinatown (and at least one video game, L.A. Noire). Director Billy Wilder was one of the masters (Double Indemnity), and by 1950 he had perfected each motif. This is Raymond Chandler and James A. Cain’s SoCal, only with actors, directors, and writers instead of cops, private eyes, and insurance salesmen. It’s got it all: a murder mystery, voice-over narration, a smartass and emasculated leading man, and a very different kind of femme fatale. Like any great noir, Sunset also has witty and fast-paced dialogue laced with biting one-liners. Although these remarks and some of subject’s more ridiculous eccentricities (a chimpanzee funeral, general overacting, the Isotta Fraschini limo, etc.) are sometimes campy and comical, this is not a comedy.

The film opens with our main character’s lifeless body floating in the pool of a crumbling L.A. mansion. Joe Gills (William Holden) manages to narrate the story from beyond the grave; he tells his story of woe, from trials as a struggling screenwriter and a chance meeting with former silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), to becoming a “kept man” and eventually a dead man. Initially lured in by a paid scriptwriting gig, Joe stays with Norma because of something in himself that connects to her erratic, narcissistic, and self-deluded behavior, her desire for him, and the unusual yet worry-free life she offers.

Sunset Boulevard addresses one of the most interesting periods in film history: the move to sound’s aftereffects. A huge technological and cultural advancement that changed moving images forever, talkies also left a lot of talented people in its wake. While Swanson’s acting may cause viewers to dismiss the events portrayed onscreen, the movie is a (very) thinly veiled lesson in Hollywood’s past, and its accuracies outweigh its exaggerations. Swanson was a former silent film superstar who could not make the transition to sound. As Norma’s butler, Max, Erich von Stroheim is playing a version of himself; he was a great silent director who never reached his full potential, and Swanson stared in a couple of his films. Holden was not a screenwriter, but he was a lowly studio player struggling to make it to the big time (this movie succeeded in catapulting him to star status). Some famous names turned down these roles because they cut too close to home, like famous silent queen Mary Pickford. Others show up in cameo roles, such as the great comedian Buster Keaton, and director Cecil B. De Mille himself (who did survive the move to sound).

Sunset Boulevard is still entertaining and even though the studio system is gone, the way Hollywood operates really hasn’t changed all that much; it still chews actors up and spits them out, leaving their sanity as the biggest sacrifice for fame. The story of a young up-and-comer latching on to an older, fading star for some sort of career boost is still relevant. L.A. is still a place where the desire and ambition to make it big and be a star will often trump conscience and reason.


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