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Sunset Boulevard

January 13, 2011

229. Sunset Boulevard
Directed by Billy Wilder
USA, 1950
IMDB | allmovie

Reviewed by Ally
Umpteenth viewing


While trying to avoid repo men, impoverished screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) stumbles upon a secluded mansion. There he meets Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent movie star whose fame has long since faded. She lives with her loyal German butler Max (Erich von Stroheim), himself a forgotten director.

Norma hires Joe to rewrite her script for Salome, insisting he live with her in the mansion until the job is completed. Gradually Joe becomes a kept man, taking advantage of Norma’s desperate need to perpetuate her fantasy.

Essential Scene:

Norma visits Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount Studios, having received a call from the studio which she assumes was on his behalf.

Cecil B. DeMille: Norma, I must apologise for not calling you.

Norma Desmond: You’d better, I’m very angry.

Cecil B. DeMille: Well, you can see I’m terribly busy.

Norma Desmond: That’s no excuse. You read the script, of course?

Cecil B. DeMille: Yes, I did.

Norma Desmond: Then you could have picked up the telephone yourself instead of leaving it to one of your assistants.

Cecil B. DeMille: Hmm? What assistant?

Norma Desmond: Now don’t play innocent, somebody named Gordon Cole.

Cecil B. DeMille: Gordon Cole?

Norma Desmond: And if you hadn’t been pretty darn interested in that script, he wouldn’t have tried to get me on the telephone ten times!

Concerned, DeMille leaves Norma in the director’s chair while he goes to call Gordon Cole himself. While she waits, an electrician nicknamed Hog-eye recognises Norma and turns his spotlight on her. Soon, the cast and crew of DeMille’s film is swarming around Norma, delighted to see her.







Meanwhile, DeMille speaks to Gordon Cole and discovers the reason for the telephone calls; the studio wants to rent Norma’s vintage automobile because it’s “perfect for the new Crosby picture.” DeMille returns to find the crowd surrounding Norma.

Cecil B. DeMille: Hog-eye, turn that light back where it belongs.

As the spotlight is turned away, the crowd disperses.


If you live in France, for instance, and you have written one good book, or painted one good picture, or directed one outstanding film fifty years ago and nothing else since, you are still recognized and honored accordingly. People take their hats off to you and call you “maître.” They do not forget. In Hollywood — in Hollywood, you’re as good as your last picture. If you didn’t have one in production within the last three months, you’re forgotten, no matter what you have achieved ere this.

~ Erich von Stroheim

Sunset Boulevard is the tragic tale of a forgotten actress who retreats into her own delusions of stardom, and a vicious satire of the Hollywood system that made her that way. It’s narrated from beyond the grave by Joe Gillis, a cynical hack who begins and ends the film floating face down in a pool. Delightful!

Norma Desmond was a bright star in silent cinema’s heyday. The advent of sound ended her career, but years in the limelight left her with a completely warped worldview (à la Michael Jackson, complete with pet monkey). No one has the heart to puncture her fantasy. “You don’t yell at a sleepwalker — he may fall and break his neck.”

There are eerie similarities between the characters of Norma and Max and the actors who play them. Gloria Swanson was a silent star whose popularity waned after the advent of sound. Erich von Stroheim was a celebrated director of the silent era — his films Foolish Wives (1922) and Greed (1924) are both on The List — who later became known for playing German villains in war films. Perhaps most mind-bogglingly, the film clip Norma watches of herself was actually from an unreleased film starring Swanson and directed by von Stroheim.

I always enjoy revisiting Sunset Boulevard. Its nightmarish mood and cynical William Holden wisecracks attracted me from the off. But as I learn more about film history, the context and satire resonates with me too.

Fascinating fact: David Lynch’s character in Twin Peaks is named Gordon Cole, in reference to the man who tries to rent Norma Desmond’s car.

Reviewed by Rachel
Roughly third viewing

Essential Scene:

Joe Gillis has missed car payments and the finance company are after him to take the vehicle away. After a close encounter with them, he turns into the driveway of an Italianate villa (which he assumes to be empty) and parks in the garage. Within minutes he is in the company of Norma Desmond, a faded silent film star who lives with her butler and her recently deceased pet monkey. Assuming Gillis is the funeral director, she calls him inside. But his true identity soon becomes obvious, and Norma demands that he leave.

Gillis: Wait a minute, haven’t I seen you before? I know your face.

Norma: Get out, or should I call my servant?

Gillis: You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures; you used to be big.

Norma: I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.

Gillis: Uh huh. I knew there was something wrong with them.

Norma: They’re dead! They’re finished! There was a time in this business when they had the eyes of the whole wide world. But that wasn’t good enough for them, oh no. They had to have the ears of the world too. So they opened their big mouths and out came talk, talk, talk!

Gillis: That’s where the popcorn business comes in. Buy yourself a bag and plug up your ears.

Norma: Look at them in the front offices, the masterminds! They took the idols and smashed them! The Fairbankses, the Gilberts, the Valentinos! And who’ve we got now? Some nobody.

Gillis: Don’t blame me, I’m not an executive, just a writer.

Norma: You are? Writing words, words, more words. You’ve made a rope of words and strangled this business. But there’s a microphone right there to catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor to photograph the red, swollen tongue.


In his wonderful book on early cinema, The Parade’s Gone By (1968), film historian Kevin Brownlow describes the fate of silent films at the time of the book’s publication:

The silent era is regarded as prehistoric, even by those who work in motion pictures. Crude, fumbling, naïve, the films exist only to be chuckled at — quaint reminders of a simple-minded past, like Victorian samplers.

Hollywood is a ruthless place. Someone can be at the top of their profession one decade and in the gutter the next. But perhaps no generation of talent have felt this as deeply as those who were at the height of their career during the silent era.

The arrival of sound was the biggest evolution the film industry has ever seen, and while some managed to continue a career in some shape or form, it left countless others on the scrapheap. Often their hard work was destroyed when studios threw away the prints they thought were no longer of any value. When silent film was finally recognised as an art form, many stars of the era had not lived to enjoy their well-deserved recognition.

I see Sunset Boulevard as their big “up yours” to Hollywood. Not all of them were bitter, and it’s very probable that none of them were as melodramatic as Norma Desmond, but she still had a valid point to make about their unique experience — as seen in my essential scene.

The plot may be a little wobbly, and Gloria Swanson’s acting purposely hammy, but Sunset Boulevard is a film that sent shockwaves through Tinseltown and continues to have an impact. Wilder didn’t soften his blows. He exposed industry for the magical yet venomous business it is (and pissed off a lot of people while doing so) — and the silent era’s Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H.B. Warner all get a chance to be part of the story that tells of the Hollywood that brought them all happiness and pain in equal measure.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 13, 2011 10:49 pm

    This is one of my all-time favorites. There are a lot of things I find amazing about it. First, it’s got a noir setting. Norma Desmond’s house has wrought iron fences and stonework, and the shadows are long, and it’s bleak… That’s not necessarily a huge feat until you realize that this was filmed in Hollywood, California- one of the sunniest places on earth. It might as well have been Bela Lugosi’s Transylvania, but the setting was Hollywood.

    There’s another layer here. I read something about Billy Wilder coming up with the idea when he was an aspiring, struggling screenwriter himself, living on Sunset Blvd. Apparently, the Blvd. was loaded with these old decaying mansions occupied by people like Desmond- lost, out of work, somewhat vampiritic (is that even a word?) former silent stars. So here’s the youth of Hollywood, vibrant and struggling and working hard but not quite making it… juxtaposed against the decaying Hollywood guard, not quite completely useless but clearly beyond their prime and former glory.

    The whole thing plays out like a really amazing Gothic horror movie, specifically aimed at Hollywood wanna-be folks. And Joe Gillis’ dialogue keeps it funny and light while you’re being horrified by things like monkey funerals and Norma Desmond’s full-on insanity.

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