A few weeks ago I resumed my ongoing mission to explore films I haven’t seen before, primarily of the classic genre, with a viewing of Sunset Boulevard. This one, admittedly, threw me a few mental curveballs on its own accord, but with an unexpected bought of pneumonia to go along with those curveballs, the accompanying fever, and the inevitable cold medicine inebriation that followed, it’s taken me awhile to recover enough to feel like writing a review.
I guess I should say, before getting into this, that Sunset Boulevard is an excellent film. It’s listed on IMDb’s ranking of movies as #54 of all time—which is pretty significant. Likewise, it won three Oscars in 1951, while being nominated in just about every category that existed at the time. With that said, this is not a light-hearted film. It does have some wit to it, and a sprinkling of charm here and there, but it’s also deeply introspective of some subjects that are not very pleasant to think about, and whatever humor does exist, I believe it only serves as a bit of sugar to mask the horrible taste of the medicine it offers.
Set in the world of early 1950s Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard opens with the narration of the main character, whose body happens to be floating upside down in a pool. We’re told right from the beginning how the story will end, before being transported back six months to watch as this tragedy slowly unfolds in front of us. It’s not really fair to pin Sunset Boulevard down into any one particular genre; it dabbles in several. However, from my personal point of view, this is most definitely a horror film. Like many of the classic horror films from the 40s and 50s this movie tells the story of a monster, made hideous by circumstances beyond its control, desperately seeking a redemption that is just out of reach, and falling in love with its inevitable victim. From King Kong, to Frankenstein, to the Wolf Man, to the Mummy, to Dracula—all the classic horror films follow the same general pattern. What makes Sunset Boulevard shockingly different is that the horror is real, not pulled from the pages of archetypal fantasy and fairy tales, but instead culled from the bones of early Hollywood, specifically the silent film era of Hollywood and the phantoms it left behind as the shift was made to talking pictures. The Monster is Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson), an aging has-been of the silent film era, living secluded in her mansion, running on the fumes of her once profitable stardom that has since faded into the past along with any meaningful relationships she may have once had. She has no family, no connection to reality, and spends her days lounging in opulence surrounded by portraits of herself as a young star. Her only companions are her butler and a pet chimp. Our introduction to Norma finds her in the midst of extravagant funeral preparations for the chimp who is subsequently laid to rest during a midnight ceremony in an ivory coffin in the backyard. Yes, this movie is very strange, and it is very creepy. As I said, the horror is uncomfortably real, though it presents Norma almost like a giant spider, her mansion a black burrow of death and dust, with an insatiable need to feed on the worship of fans who have forgotten she even exists. Into her web stumbles the doomed protagonist, Joe Gillis (William Holden), a struggling screenwriter who is down on his luck. As mentioned, we know the story isn’t going to end well for him—he’s the corpse floating in the pool at the beginning, narrating the tale of his demise from beyond the grave. Did I mention this is a horror flick? It’s definitely NOT the kind of movie anyone should watch while running a high fever.
While the movie itself has gone down in history as Billy Wilder’s indictment of Hollywood’s dark underbelly, hidden away by all the glamor and lights, I think it holds something much darker in its depths. The questions that are being silently asked of the audience throughout the film, are questions we all must ask ourselves at some point in our lives—what is integrity, and is there a price for which mine can be bought? Joe falls into Norma’s web because she needs a writer to edit her script. She’s produced it for the sole purpose of trying to grab back a piece of the fame and stardom she has lost in the years since she faded from the spotlight. It’s a terrible script, and a terrible waste of time and effort for Joe. We know from hearing his internal narrative dialogue what Joe really thinks, what he really believes, and how he really feels. But we watch haplessly as he deliberately ignores his own thoughts, goes against his own judgment, and allows himself to become Norma’s slave—because doing so means he doesn’t have to worry about paying the bills. Joe has many opportunities to escape Norma’s web, but in the end, he’s willing to give up his freedom, his artistic integrity, and even the love of a woman who is much more suited to him, all for financial security. By the time he realizes his mistake, that it wasn’t worth it—it’s too late, and he pays the cost with his life. The spider doesn’t let him leave the nest without blood being spilled.
The moral of the story is something worth thinking about—however uncomfortable it may be: If you know what the truth is, but you act in such a way that denies that truth, you are, in effect, killing yourself on the inside. There’s nothing more horrific than sacrificing your integrity. I think our society, as a whole, must have had a better grasp on that concept in 1950. Nowadays, I’m not so sure.