Movies about the magic of movies tend to feel a lot like rock songs about the power of rock music in that they’re generally excuses not to explore either.
You know, the sort of song where Dee Snider keeps saying “I Wanna Rock!” when none of us are stopping him. If you wanna rock, Dee, you can start any time you like. Or Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away,” probably the least rockingest song of all time, wherein Gray tells some boys to give him the beat, and then repeats that plea ad nauseam. Then there’s Boston’s “Rock And Roll Band, everybody’s waiting, getting crazy, anticipating.” Again, delaying the rock itself to write a hokey song about how awesome it’ll be when they start rocking sometime in the nonspecific future.
So it would seem that the more songs talk about rock and roll, the less interested the artists are in making the songs themselves rock. I blame white people.
There is exactly one exception to this rule: AC/DC. “Let There Be Rock,” “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n Roll),” “For Those About To Rock (We Salute You),” all awesome songs that deliver on their premises because they’re not afraid to get their hands dirty. There’s a safeness to the songs mentioned in the first paragraph that is extremely un-rock, like they’re afraid of the chaos the comes with it. But AC/DC embraced that insanity and raw power, as well as the filth, grime, sleaze, all of it, and it shows in their songs.
And so it is with movies. There are two sorts of movies you can make about showbiz: a thematically safe one that preserves your status as some important showbiz hotshot while “poking fun” at yourself and making us all gag, like a group of friends who won’t ease up with the inside jokes around the new guy; or you can make one worth watching, that either accurately captures the magic of cinema that is still a good film in its own right, or one that offers an interesting, down and dirty examination of how you and the world you live in are even more fucked up than the world thought.
In those terms, Sunset Boulevard succeeds on all fronts. It’s self-referential without having to wink at every reference. It’s a character study of a person who comes to believe their own hype — a hype which we, the filmgoing public, are responsible for. And taking a cue from the above-mentioned AC/DC rule, it’s not afraid of its own bullshit.
Sunset Boulevard tells the story of down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), who finds himself in the company of former silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson, herself a former silent star) while escaping his debts. Turns out she’s been cooped up in her garish mansion while slowly going mad. Not only does she believe that she’s still the biggest star on the planet, but that talking films are just a fad. She has paintings of herself, watches her old films, and has written her own screenplay for her big “return” (not “comeback”).
Norma takes Joe in and hides him on the condition that he works on her screenplay and make it a reality. Gradually, we learn more about Norma and the world she’s created for herself; none of the doors have locks on them because she’s been suicidal in the past. Her butler, Max, seems to have a vested interest in preserving Norma’s delusions rather than confronting her with reality. And worst of all, she falls in love with him. Joe can never return her feelings and thinks her lifestyle is sick, but he can never leave because of the mess he left for himself outside. But that doesn’t stop him from trying.
Aside from being extremely well-written (by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman, Jr.) and directed (by Wilder), there are two things that make the film work. One is that it focuses on the business of making movies and shows the hardworking side of Hollywood.
Though the movie is mostly centered around Desmond and her (perhaps treatable, and therefore tragic) insanity, it’s contrasted with the people who just do this for a living. They’re creative types, but they’re just trying to make a buck most of the time. Sure, they want to do something worth seeing, but that’s only if the opportunity comes along. The existence of a Desmond is baffling, puzzling, and troubling. They work in the same industry, but they have more in common with the audience than with her.
More than anything else, Sunset Boulevard is a showcase for Swanson as Norma. Like All About Eve to Bette Davis, her comeback role became her defining role. Those pictures in her house are real. There is a cameo by a host of former silent stars who failed to make the transition into the sound era (the fact that this is Buster Keaton’s only appearance on the AFI 100 while Chaplin has three is an insult). The film is good, it all works, but the reason to watch it again is for Swanson.
The second key thing is that Sunset Boulevard isn’t about the mythology of movie stars, at least not directly. It’s about the danger of validation and using it to escape too much from reality. We all love movies, but they don’t really matter. Not like a person’s soul does. And though Nora seals her own fate, we all played some role in her sick charade.
Comments: Like most Billy Wilder movies, somehow ahead of its time while firmly in its own age. An examination of showbiz that doesn’t seem too self-interested to remember that it’s for audiences more than for filmmakers. Performance-driven without using it as a crutch.
Deserves to be in Top 100: Probably the only performance-driven film I’ll say “yes” to.
Inspired: “Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup” is pretty hard to avoid in society.
Next Week: #11 It’s A Wonderful Life
Last Week: #13 The Bridge on the River Kwai
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