Sunset Boulevard (1950, Wilder and Brackett)
It’s the stuff legends are made of: an at-the-end-of-his-rope screenwriting hopeful (William Holden) ducks the repro men by stumbling upon the tumbling-down palace of a has-been movie star (Gloria Swanson), and we all know the result from the beginning, a guy’s body floating in the pool.
Upon entering the property, the butler (Erich von Stroheim) mistakes Joe Gillis for a mortician, tardy for his task of burying Norma Desmond’s cherished companion, which turns out to be a chimp very much wearing the pale pall of death. Repulsive.
If Joe didn’t already realize he was in for a weird experience, Norma puts the stamp of bizarre on the whole affair with her expression: big, bold, pushed forward, as if accepting a close-up, with her eyes furiously big, round, crazy, and not hinting but shouting that the hinges hang loose in her noggin.
Of course Joe should run, just like every other addled victim in film history, but then we moviegoers would be like fight fans, laying down large for two minutes of disappointment. When a fellow’s down to his last smoke and has a repro jalopy cooling in a stranger’s garage, he’s willing to endure a bit of lunacy for a few bucks.
In short order, Joe transforms into Norma’s version of a lapdog (maybe that’s a lap chimp), though more useful as he’s rehabbing a big pile of scrawled sheets she calls her screenplay for Salome, as well as, presumably, providing additional services. In other words, he completely sells out to her, assuaging her and accepting expensive gifts from her. Until he can’t stand himself for degrading himself and giving up his dream and flees one night to a party given by his best friend (Jack Webb). There he and his friend’s girlfriend, Betty, a script reader who file-thirteened an opus of his at the start of the film, generate sparks. He sneaks off to work on a script with her, and, implied, other less intellectually demanding stuff.
Joe’s skulking goes on unbeknownst to Norma, who insists on sending her Salome script to Cecil B. DeMille (himself). Finally, through happenstance, she’s invited onto the Paramount lot to see DeMille, and give us one of the greatest, most touching and bittersweet scenes in film history, the lost and forgotten star greeted and fawned upon by moviemakers. This lot scene is a highlight and worth every cent paid for the film; it doesn’t get much better.
In the end, Joe can’t live with himself, with Norma’s insanity and possession of him, with his failure as a film writer, with stringing along a girl who deserves better. He leaves Norma. That is, he tries to leave Norma, but his timing is quite terrible as she’s attached to reality by the thinest of threads. They snap. She drills him with the gun proffered earlier in the film, three times she drills him, driving him headlong into the pool, specially refurbished and filled for his enjoyment, and where we first met him.
Now, Norma’s cut all attachment to reality and revels in her psychosis as the cops prepare to remove her to jail. Her butler, really the man who discovered her, nurtured her career, filmed her, and placated her when her star dimmed, arranges for the newsreel gang to make it seem Norma’s descending the staircase, as in her version of Salome. It’s here where she delivers one of the most famous lines in film history, maybe in literary history: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
One of the American Film Institutes 100 best, and a film every movie lover should see.
Modern audiences might find Gloria Swanson’s performance a tad over the top. But as you watch her think of this: she, Norma, represents the bygone era of film, when, without words but with exaggerated gestures, actors brought their characters to life. Which contrasts startlingly with the more casual, realistic acting approach represented by William Holden. Watching is watching the big and grand beside the small and meek. Or, as Norma famously admonishes when Joe recognizes her at the start of the movie and remembers aloud she used to be big: “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.” c/w