We’re kicking off what was intended as a month of Christmas-themed classics with…Sunset Boulevard. HEY—a Christmas party happens in the course of this film PLUS there are so many horrible financial decisions that it’s basically the story of my Christmas every year.
Please tell me you know this. Lie if you have to.
Where to Watch:
The Uncondensed Version:
I’ll try to keep the summary short since this is possibly THE movie classic and I really feel you need to watch this if you haven’t. It’s so good, and Gloria Swanson’s performance makes life worth living. This is that film about an aging star deluding herself, grooming and controlling a much younger man, and uttering that line about being ready for her close-up.
It can’t be spoiler-y to reveal our protagonist Joe’s death—for one thing, this film is 60+ years old, and for the other, the narrator tells us within 5 minutes of the beginning that the body floating in the pool is his own.
As a result, the mystery here is not who was murdered, but how, why, and by whom. Rather interestingly, the way Joe frames his story, he offers the facts to those who want the truth. …So that may not be a hell of a lot of people in these post-truth times (to get just a teensy bit topical).
Flashback to 6 months earlier, when Joe was a broke, unsuccessful screenwriter trying to scrape together $300 to save his car from being repossessed. His last effort to make money honestly is pitching an original story about a baseball player who must throw the World Series, which is flat-out refused to his face by a woman named Betty, who will be important later.
As Joe leaves, he runs into his creditors and loses them by parking in an empty garage that appears to be part of an abandoned estate. However, as Joe quickly learns, this creepy old house belongs to none other than former silent movie star Norma Desmond. Like Miss Havisham, Norma lives in the past and, since she never appears to leave the house, she is both literally and figuratively detached from reality. God, but she’s a fucking brilliant badass and quite honestly my personal hero. In Norma Desmond’s words, “I AM big—it’s the pictures that got small.”
The first meeting is incredibly surreal as Norma believes Joe is there to bring a monkey-sized coffin for her dead monkey (not a euphemism). Things deteriorate when she discovers Joe is a screenwriter and gets the question all Hollywood types must dread: Can you read my screenplay?
Norma’s screenplay is a retelling of the story of Salome, starring its writer in her comeback role (“I hate the word; it’s a return”).
Joe agrees to this, but is immediately incredibly weirded out when Max, Norma’s all-purpose maid, chauffeur, butler, and provider of organ music, moves all of Joe’s belongings into the house overnight. Their relationship gets more uncomfortable for Joe as Norma pretty much Pygmalions him with a new wardrobe, gold-plated watches and cigarettes, and moves him to the room where her husband used to sleep. Norma is becoming dependent on Joe to the point of obsession, but Joe continues to hold her at arm’s length with a mixture of pity and disdain. But not enough disdain to refuse the rent-free stay in her mansion or the many gifts she bestows on him, of course.
The tension amps up when Joe runs into Betty again and Norma fears losing both her return to the big screen as well as her man (admittedly something of a wet blanket). All of this leads to a spectacular mess that is just so goddamn fun to watch fall apart and full of opportunities for Gloria Swanson to flash some major crazy eyes (and do her best Charlie Chaplin impression for some reason), which is of course swept along by sudden, dramatic music in true ‘50s noir style.
I’d be happy doing Noir 2.0 for this month—fuck, I love film noir.
5/5 Pink Panther Heads
There’s a reason this is a classic. This is a perfect movie AND a brilliant film noir with a career-defining performance from Gloria Swanson. I don’t like William Holden at all, but that never detracts from this film in the least. In fact, I reluctantly admit this was a good role for him as it requires a balance between being a total sleaze vs sticking to his principles, which creates some of the film’s carefully crafted dramatic tension.
That being said, Gloria Swanson is clearly the star here, and pulls off completely delusional yet sympathetic and arguably somewhat heroic. She is the underdog here, and I think it’s impossible not to root for her return to the screen. Hollywood has taken her youth and talent to leave her wasting away in her mansion/prison. No longer a young woman, Norma .
Serious question: are there any other films dealing with ageism in Hollywood or ageism at all? Advantageous, as reviewed for the collab, comes to mind, but that’s the only other movie I can think of. I’m glad we see older ladies on the screen like heroes Judi Dench and Helen Mirren, but Sunset Boulevard’s interest in Hollywood ageism still holds up.
The role reversal in this film is great too; it feels much like the inverse of Rebecca or My Fair Lady but with a much more tragic twist, esp. re: women holding the power in a romantic relationship. I imagine this story wasn’t intended to question gender roles at the time given its ending, but it leaves things just ambiguous enough for viewers to draw their own conclusions. Was it wrong for Norma to take advantage of Joe’s situation, or were they both disenfranchised by the Hollywood movie machine? Watch this film and write 500 words in response.
Did Christa think this made a big return or did it fail to make a comeback? Find out here!