Outside of, say, Scream, or the films of Charlie Kaufman, it’s hard to think of a more profoundly meta film than Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Former silent movie star Gloria Swanson plays former silent movie star Norma Desmond, in a comeback role about the desperate search for a comeback role. William Holden plays a down-on-his-luck screenwriter, who endures Desmond’s long monologues about how pictures have gotten too talky. The film was produced by Paramount Pictures, an organization which serves as catalyst for nearly every major plot point within the film. Characters take a romantic stroll through the after-hours set of a romantic comedy, and Holden’s character attends a New Year’s party for movie extras (played, of course, by actual extras). The film contains five or six major characters, one of whom is Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself), and another is Erich Von Stroheim (playing a character explicitly modeled after himself). And the film’s final scene, which finds a deluded Norma Desmond imagining her iconic return, has turned out to be one of the most iconic in film history.
All of which is to say: for a sixty-six-year-old film, which is itself obsessed with the past, Sunset Boulevard feels remarkably fresh. While frequently associated with the campy glamor of Swanson (aided by some typically jaw-dropping costumes by the legendary Edith Head), Sunset Boulevard hides a jet-black heart. We first meet Swanson attempting to buy a coffin for a mummified chimpanzee; we first meet Holden floating face-down in a swimming pool, casually narrating the discovery of his own corpse. The closest thing to a happy ending any character faces is a complete mental breakdown. It’s unsurprising that David Lynch counts it among his favorite films; its bleak Hollywood noir looms large over Mulholland Drive (to say nothing of its title), and Lynch lifted the name of Sunset studio lackey Gordon Cole for his own role on Twin Peaks. Lynch isn’t alone, either – Sunset’s DNA can be found in every dark Hollywood satire of the past half-century, from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? to Birdman.
Yet, unlike touchstones like Casablanca and Psycho, which have been referenced and parodied ad nauseum, Sunset Boulevard remains blessedly un-picked over. This is rare for a film of its stature, and today ranks among its greatest assets. Few novice cineastes can approach Citizen Kane for the first time without knowing the secret of Rosebud, but the mean, smirking heart of Sunset Boulevard still has the power to sneak up on you. Like the ornate mansion of Norma Desmond, its decadent facade hides a twisted underbelly. And no matter what Norma says, pictures don’t get much bigger.
dir. Billy Wilder
Part of the ongoing series: Prime Noir of the 1950s