“Sunset Boulevard” – the Shadow of Hollywood

Sunset Boulevard


Title: “Sunset Boulevard”

Release Date: 1950

Director: Billy Wilder

Cast: Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Jack Webb, Buster Keaton, Cecil B. DeMille


It is certainly the most perfect film about Hollywood and the fleeting nature of stardom. “Sunset Boulevard” is a work that is both beautiful and cruel. It captivates with an unusual combination of sentimentality about a bygone era and a satirical blade aimed at the American star system.

“Sunset Boulevard” is a work created from the props of the old world, blended into a completely new era. The drama of the film is born on the meeting point of these two realities, when what is past does not want or cannot come to terms with the passing of time, and what is new cannot respect the past. Billy Wilder presents the story in retrospect, because already at the beginning we know the tragic end. The body of a young screenwriter is found in the swimming pool of one of the great silent movie stars living in Hollywood. He, as it turns out, will be the narrator of the film and will tell the audience the whole story.

A few months earlier Joe Gillis (William Holden), while fleeing from debt collectors, accidentally ends up at the estate of a former movie star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). When the actress learns that the unexpected visitor is a movie writer, she presses him to help her work on a screenplay for a film that would reintroduce the forgotten star to the big screen. Lured by the prospect of big and easy money, Gillis quickly becomes the keeper of Norma, who is increasingly enamored with him. Nevertheless, he feels cornered and isolated from the world by the half-crazed woman and her faithful butler Max (Erich von Stroheim).

Sunset Boulevard movie review

What’s more, it turns out that the servant Desmond is a former famous director and the actress’ first husband. He keeps Norma convinced of her great fame by sending her alleged letters from admirers. Meanwhile, Gillis, tired of playing the role of a henchman, finally decides to leave the star and start a life with a young girl with whom he is in love (Nancy Olson). In the process of moving out, however, the man is shot by his distraught lover.

“Sunset Boulevard” –  “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces”

“Sunset Boulevard” is still watched with genuine fascination today. This timelessness of Wilder’s work was made possible by the involvement of real silent movie stars. Thanks to this, the picture gains a fascinating ambiguity born from the play between truth and fiction. Each of the great actors of the past era is at the same time himself as well as a character created for the purpose of the film.

At the center is, of course, Gloria Swanson, who is phenomenal in the role of an aging silent movie star. What is more, her participation in Sunset Boulevard was an act of courage on her part. Suffice it to say that other great divas of silent cinema such as Mae West, Mary Pickford and Greta Garbo did not accept the role. Playing Norma Desmond – a character both funny and tragic at the same time, who cannot come to terms with the passing of her former fame – certainly required a considerable amount of self-distance.

Sunset Boulevard film amnalysis

Apart from Gloria Swanson, other great figures of the past era of cinema appeared in Sunset Boulevard. The role of the butler was played by Erich von Stroheim himself, an eminent director who unfortunately did not succeed in Hollywood (so again, he plays with the truth). Another authentic character is Cecil B. de Mille – the creator of the myth of the real Gloria Swanson, whom we see in the film on the set of his painting Samson and Delilah. And one of Norma’s friends is the legendary Buster Keaton, who utters the symbolic line during a bridge game: “pas”.

“Sunset Boulevard” – “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small”.

“Sunset Boulevard” is a film that is a wonderful tribute to old cinema and its greatness. Wilder makes no secret of the fascination and respect he has for the old masters. Norma Desmond’s lines are symbolic in this respect. The actress says that the stars of old did not need words to catch the audience’s attention – because they had “faces”. The face is one of the leitmotifs of Wilder’s film. Close-ups and mirror reflections, as well as the constant play of facial expressions – so perfectly portrayed in Norma’s portrayal of Charlie Chaplin – prove the professionalism of the actors of the past.

What is more, the greatness of the stars from the previous era is in stark contrast with the contemporary cinema, represented by the rather repulsive figure of Gillis. In this sense, the film is in a way a confirmation of Norma’s claim that she “is big, it’s the pictures that got small”. The young screenwriter fails to appreciate and understand at all who he is dealing with. There is no shadow of respect for the past in his attitude. To him, it is a collection of unnecessary old junk that is best thrown away in the basement to make room for new things. In Gillis’s eyes, Norma is not a big star and a real lady, but a mad, aging woman.

Sunset Boulevard 1950

“Sunset Boulevard” – the death of the old gods

The conflict between old and new in “Sunset Boulevard” is also a conflict of values. The exalted character of Norma with her spectacular suicide attempts represents the emotionality of a bygone era. It is a world in which passion and love were real and had the weight of life or death. Meanwhile, contemporary reality (and cinema) has lost the weight of those feelings. The relationship between Gillis and Betty Schaefer is therefore not a great cinematic romance, but rather a love affair whose breakup does not evoke much emotion.

On the other hand, it has to be said that “Sunset Boulevard” is also a satire on old Hollywood. After all, isn’t Norma, convinced of her immortal fame, constantly staring at the mirror also funny? Furthermore, the props belonging to the past are also funny, like the car from the 1930s with leopard skin seats, the bed in the shape of a boat, or the organ in the living room. These relics show exaggeration and an excessive focus on one’s own needs.

“Sunset Boulevard” is a painting depicting the death of old idols, who are suddenly knocked off their pedestal. It is also a work about the failure of the Hollywood myth of the star as a deity. The problem is that behind this façade of divinity there is an ordinary, weak man who does not grow up to his own imagined greatness and who at the same time cannot live without it. Hollywood, with its promise of eternal fame, in reality turns out to be a completely soulless and cruel machine.

Sunset Boulevard Gloria Swanson

“Sunset Boulevard” – deceptive spotlight

There is also an important symbolic prop in “Sunset Boulevard” that gives the film a deeper meaning, namely the spotlight. It is the spotlight that somehow brings the human figure out of non-existence and makes the actor the object of attention. We see this procedure twice. The first time is when Norma Desmond visits the Paramount studio. Then her old friend shines a spotlight on the actress and only then does everyone notice the star. She immediately becomes an object of interest – everyone wants to talk to her, touch her, see her.

It is an extremely significant, beautiful and at the same time insightful scene. Wilder shows that Hollywood does not discover stars, but creates them. It is the big film industry that decides about the public’s taste, it is like a deity that creates celebrities and annihilates them.

The second time Norma Desmond finds herself in the spotlight is in the final scene of “Sunset Boulevard”. She is then given the chance by fate to play her final role. She descends the stairs of her own mansion, convinced that she is playing the Jewish princess Salome, while a cordon of police awaits her below. This extremely tragic scene shows that the media feeds on scandal and sensation. A forgotten celebrity can become an object of interest only because of a personal drama.

“Sunset Boulevard” is an unusually insightful film about Hollywood – a poignant and accurate diagnosis of the Dream Factory, where a moment of fame comes at a very high price.