Billy Wilder’s scathing satire against the self-important narcissism he probably encountered quite often (or at least perceived) among some of Hollywood’s greatest stars is as hilarious as it is terrifying. Though it could neither be classified as a comedy or a horror movie according to any normal conventions of those genres, the film strikes so many nerves as it criticizes a world that, though so foreign to most of us that it looks absurd, is a very real world for those who inhabit it.
Norma Desmond is a recluse living in a mansion off the successes of her one-time illustrious career as a silent film star. Gloria Swanson, who plays Norma, shares much in common with her character as Sunset Blvd. was her first film since the silent era. Norma is searching for any way possible to find a way back behind the cameras. The movies are her life, her love, her obsession, her god, her sense of security, her sense of self-worth, her everything. The twenty-plus years without work has spawned her reclusiveness; she is bitter and jealous yet hopelessly optimistic regarding one issue and one alone. She believes foolishly that if only she can get her close-up again, she will be alive again.
Joe Gillis (William Holden) unintentionally and unexpectedly gives Norma the hope she is looking for. The only problem is, the first time we see Joe in the film (in the opening scene), we see his corpse being fished out of Norma’s swimming pool. In voiceover narration, Joe tells us that that’s him in the pool and then proceeds to tell the story of how he got caught in the midst of Norma’s pathological obsession to make a movie.
The relationship between Joe and Norma is built on fear, intimidation, and control. Through her larger-than-life charismatic personality, her money, and her penchant towards manipulation, she takes complete control of his life. She has written a terrible script for a movie version of the story of Salome and John the Baptist where she thinks she will play Salome (a teenager) even though she’s in her 50s by the time she meets Joe. Joe is a small-time Hollywood screenwriter so when his car breaks down outside her mansion, it is time for madness to be unleashed, to get her movie filmed, and to be a star again.
The control and abuse we see Norma exhibit are the tragic results of an un-lived life. She only knew one thing in the world and was so consumed by it, that to get it back she would stop at no end. Her conscience has become so seared by this obsession that she has no regard for human life (which we know before we even get to know her thanks to the scene set at the pool). She doesn’t even respect her own life. The descent of an addict is vividly shown in this movie, even though her most dominant addiction is not a substance (though she is probably an alcoholic). When any one thing in life is allowed to rule every part of a person’s being as the idea of making another movie does for Norma, a descent where that person give up priorities, values, and once-held moral foundations is inevitable.
Billy Wilder’s career began shortly after the transition from silent to sound. Because of that timing, he probably saw this type of a descent many times. Sunset Blvd. is likely based on many personal experiences. It takes us into a world so dark and so absurd, it is hard for people outside of the Hollywood world to understand how honest and real the movie’s depiction of that world is, but we hear of film and music stars’ lives spiraling out of control all the time in ways that look very much like Norma’s descent. People whose lives are so consumed by one ambition desperately need, and are often crying out for, a sense of normalcy. They desire a life no longer controlled by the demands of their obsession but see no way out. Sunset Blvd. gives no hope for Norma to find that normalcy and to escape, but it does give her what she thinks she wants most: her close-up.
Reviews of Other Billy Wilder movies:
Stalag 17 (1953)
Some Like It Hot (1959)