When I think of Hollywood, there is only one movie that springs to mind for me, and that is Billy Wilder’s masterpiece “Sunset Boulevard”. Billy Wilder was the master of creating stories on screen with notable titles such as “The Apartment”, “Sabrina” and the widely acclaimed comedy “Some Like It Hot”, which will be forever celebrated by movie lovers young and old.
Wilder set out to make a movie about Hollywood and the tragic consequences that this often nasty “show business” can have. The story centres around an aspiring screenwriter who stumbles upon the grand mansion of a former silent movie star in Sunset Boulevard. A dangerous relationship between the pair ensues.
Norma Desmond is a spellbinding character, played expertly by Gloria Swanson. Swanson herself had a successful career during the silent movie era, but was considered washed-up, box office suicide by the time Wilder began his casting process in 1949.
Desmond is a complex character who becomes tragically psychotic in her need to be ‘wanted’ by the world of film. “I am big. It’s the films that have gotten smaller”. Her reclusiveness after the break down of her silent movie career, moves her to desperation as she yearns for the lights, the glamour and the fame which once dominated her life.
Wilder often created movies with a bit of bite. After losing both of his parents during the holocaust, he was no stranger to personal tragedy, and these themes were often inserted in to his work. In my opinion, the tragedy of “Sunset Boulevard” is Norma’s delusions of a great comeback which gradually consumes her mentally and ends in catastrophic consequences.
Swanson is supported by a stellar cast, including Wilder’s favourite leading man William Holden who plays Joe Gillis. Joe is an aspiring screenwriter who falls in to Norma’s clutches during a moment of desperation for cash. He struggles to escape her poisonous world. Nancy Olson (often teamed with Holden) plays the bright eyed screenwriter Betty Schaeffer, who dreams of making her big break in Hollywood. Contrary to Norma, Betty is in the early stages of her career and her future in the land of movies looks bright. When both women fall for our leading man, the audience hopes for a happier ending for Gillis alongside Betty.
This melancholy film noir is accompanied by a haunting score by Max Waxman. He manages to paint Norma’s life as a Tango- but is it a tango between the movie industry or for her dangerous admirations for Gillis? He also blends different musical styles of the 1920’s and 30’s to convey Norma’s mental confusion.
In the final showdown, Norma famously descends her staircase, surrounded by the lights and cameras that she so loves and craves, but to no applause. “Sunset Boulevard” is a spellbinding depiction of how cruel the movie industry can be, and as I visit the Paramount Studios next week, Norma Desmond’s great return through those famous gates will certainly be running through my mind.
“Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close up”.
I sadly haven’t had as much time to enjoy my pre holiday movies. Life often gets in the way (how rude) but other titles I included on my list were:
Rebel Without A Cause (1955)
Mulholland Drive (2001)
I am now just one day away from my dream holiday to California. All my bags are packed and I’m ready to go. I doubt I’ll be able to sleep tonight as I will just be too excited! Thank god the UK clocks are going back. I am looking forward to sharing my experiences as ‘Cla La Land visits La La Land’ x