“Alright Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”.
What a line. It sums up perfectly the fragile mindset of one of the most brilliantly realised characters in cinematic history – Norma Desmond, portrayed by Gloria Swanson. It’s also memorable, quotable (and mis-quotable) and ironically very well delivered considering it is done so by a silent-era star playing a silent era star.
I’d been putting off seeing Sunset Boulevard for such a long time for two reasons. Firstly, I was sure I was going to love it so I wanted to savour the moment. Secondly, there is always a niggling feeling that I might not enjoy it as much as the hype suggested I would, so I was fearful I would be left disappointed. My experience was certainly very much in the former category.
The film opens with a classic film noir feel, a whodunnit of sorts. We are shown the ending at the start, with a convoy of police and news reporters converging on a mysterious man lying dead in the swimming pool of an unknown rich homeowner on Sunset Blvd. (as it is famously written in the film). We don’t know who this is or who owns the pool, but just as we start to ask ourselves that question, the narration continues and we rewind to six months earlier. From here we pick up the main thread of the film – a struggling screenwriter (Joe Gillis, portrayed by William Holden) is trying to write his breakthrough piece whilst avoiding the bailiffs threatening to take his car as payment for his debts. It is a standard but perfectly pitched opening gambit and it really pulled me in as a viewer. You can view this opening scene below:
As the film progresses into the central act, a series of coincidental events leads Gillis into the path of Desmond, a faded silent-era star who takes him under employment as the screenwriter of her comeback film. It is here that the film starts packing its biggest punches and thus I will stop commenting on the plot.
I found the way Wilder and Swanson dealt with the character of Norma Desmond absolutely mind-blowing. There is no detail lacking attention. She is filmed like a silent star. She is simply one of the greatest literary characters ever created. It’s a picture made for Gloria Swanson, with the role so ominously mirroring her real life. It is generally known that she was a hard-working and studious actress and she threw herself into this surprise return to leading actress status. She clearly knew the importance of this role and it shows in her detailed portrayal. It’s a performance that really deserves to be studied frame-by-frame. That is was completely shut out in the acting categories at the 23rd Academy Awards, is one of the greatest tragedies of the awards ceremony, though it faced tough competition from All About Eve and surprising competition from Born Yesterday,
That’s not to say it’s a one-person show. Eric von Stroheim, here playing Desmond’s butler, is also playing a character ominously similar to his real life scenario. A director in his own right, it was actually a film he directed that starred Gloria Swanson that ruined his career (1929’s Queen Kelly which, if you’re really keen, is shown briefly during Sunset Boulevard). Elsewhere, Buster Keaton and Cecil B. DeMille also have memorable appearances, as well as many other huge stars often mirroring their real life selves in one way or another.
The film has also been turned into a hugely successful musical at the hands of Don Black, Christopher Hampton and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Whilst this version really is a completely different take on an unlikely source for a musical, it has many merits and does it justice, though the popularity of Wilder’s film makes it a hard task to topple it as the ultimate telling of such an important story. You have to treat them as separate entities and I’m sure the aim of turning it into a musical wasn’t to attempt to overshadow the original.
I was blown away by this film and it’s one I will enjoy watching again in the near future, along with as many of Wilder’s films I can get my hands on.
Sunset Boulevard is available on Blu-ray now.