Dir. Billy Wilder
Industry in America is unforgiving. Hollywood is no exception. Perhaps the most relevant observation about our capitalist (which has become something of a dirty word in the last half century) society is how progress is something of a double edged sword. On the one hand progress is necessary in order to compete in the world markets. On the other, progress that falls into the realm of radicalism tends to be quickly quashed. Take for instance Hollywood in the 1920s. Already, big business was becoming intrinsically intertwined with the movie making process and affecting output. Charlie Chaplin, the first seminal American comedy director, made films all throughout the 20s and into the 30s that waged strong criticisms against societal elites. Though he was critically acclaimed and hugely popular Chaplin was eventually ostracized and very nearly excommunicated by the U.S. Government in a coup to censor his strongly satiric voice. Buster Keaton suffered a similar fate, not at the hands of a culturally totalitarian government, but rather equally brutal Hollywood producers who forced him into artistic subordination when America's attention turned toward the new era of sound films. All this is to emphasize the heartless depravity of progress. There is one Hollywood picture that better illuminates the intolerable cruelty of the thin line of progress than any other. Billy Wilder's dramatic masterpiece Sunset Boulevard is the acme of self-reflexive cinema. Not just about Hollywood but about our culture as a whole, it reminds the viewer of the internal suffering of the stubborn and the anxiety of the hopeful. The film, like Wilder's whole career, is emblematic of just how difficult it can be to do “good work” when restricted by the confines of a loving but controlling body.
Joe Gillis (William Holden), the film's protagonist, is a smooth talking script writer down on his luck. He often speaks of the ambition all young people, actors and writers alike, arrive with in Hollywood, which in turn slowly dissolves into cynicism and hopelessness. Gillis is terribly observant, wry and confident even in the face of destitution. He and later-romantic interest Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olsen), an eager and earnest reader with grand aspirations, represent the film's modern half; the young Hollywood pioneers working to change the system from the inside out to suit their own needs. It is not until Gillis meets defunct silent film star Norma Desmond (played in a self-realized, semi-autobiographical style by Gloria Swanson) and her scrupulous butler/ex-husband/former director Max (played, again semi-autobiographically by tragic mastermind director Erich von Stoheim) that he begins to sense the danger in becoming to closely involved with Hollywood. Norma and Max represent the long forgotten age of silent film stars in the 20s; an age that passed, almost without notice, with the coming of sound in 1928. By the 30s these once great stars had been dismissed from the studios whose legacy had once relied upon their namesakes. Norma raves about the temporary era of sound that will, in her opinion, no doubt fall in on itself and out of the ashes silent pictures will enjoy their reincarnation. She offers Gillis a job editing her “masterpiece”, a narcissistic and indulgent historical epic which she demands be directed by Cecil B. DeMille and of course star her. From here a shocking and grotesque tale of fate and temptation unfolds, on the scale of true Greek tragedy. Norma's pathologies eventually drown any connection between her and the real world and Joe meets his own tragic, aqueous end.
Sunset Boulevard is littered with filmic references. With Erich von Stroheim as “the man you can't help but feel empathy toward”, and appearances by Cecil B. DeMille and Buster Keaton, among others, playing themselves, Wilder no doubt means to show his appreciation for the film's that defined early Hollywood. But this film is far more than a nod to the masters. It is itself a model of cinematic greatness. The film represents the meeting point and reconciliation between the now remote silent era and the blossoming sound era. By 1950 nearly the same amount of time (roughly 20 years) had passed since the inception of sound as had passed between Griffith's narrative expansion at the end of the century's first decade and the demise of silent films. One could even suggest that Wilder represents, especially at this point in his career the Charlie Chaplin of sound. Not so much because he was a great comedic director (although few films are funnier than Some Like It Hot), but because Wilder used subversive intelligence to manipulate the medium and speak his human message to millions.
If Norma Desmond represents the silent era's depressing self-importance, stuck in perpetual state of “sleep walking” having exited the dream of stardom, and Joe Gillis represents the self-aware but no less depressing reality of the modern sound film then one can only conclude that although both meant well they will never be able to coexist. This might seem obvious to those of who have grown up amongst not only sound but color and television and Blu-Ray etc. etc., but there was a time when it was believed by many of Hollywood's biggest production companies that there would be a market for sound and silent films. Few directors have paid their respects to those early pioneers more eloquently than Wilder did in Sunset Boulevard. On top of everything else, the entire film takes place within a highly taught and engaging narrative. It is gorgeous to observe with all those disenchanting but somehow still plenty glamorous behind-the-scenes shots of Hollywood back lots. However, Sunset Boulevard is not a happy film. It is a raw and powerful statement about the harsh and bland aspects of Hollywood. It shows the daily tribulation of just attempting to make a living. It demonstrates the anonymity that has only further increased as more and more talent streams to Hollywood each year in hope's of becoming the next Who Ever. It paints a picture of near universal melancholy and moral incertitude. Yet, somehow it always makes me want to pack my bags and head west...