In Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, the old Hollywood – in the form of Gloria Swanson’s forgotten silent star Norma Desmond – comes into uncomprehending and fatal contact with the new Hollywood, represented by William Holden’s washed-up (quite literally) screenwriter Joe Gillis.
Narrated in flashback by the corpse of screenwriter Gillis floating facedown in a Los Angeles swimming pool, he recalls that Gloria used to be big in pictures. She hisses back, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small!”.
Wilder’s savage satire on Tinsel Town came at a time when Hollywood’s horizons were shrinking, its nerve failing and its very future seemed in question.
Swanson is the ghost at this feast, in her umpteenth comeback as a mad silent movie queen haunting a decaying mansion on Sunset Boulevard where thousands of images of herself gather the dust of ages, and the ‘waxworks’ of Hollywood history – Buster Keaton, HB Warner and Anna Q Nilsson – gather to play interminable hands of Bridge.
Norma also dreams of a comeback, with her crazy script edited by gigolo Joe, and Wilder fills the picture with references to Swanson’s own past in the high summer of her silent movie fame.
The jobs of both writer and lover make Joe more and more disillusioned and he begins to lead a secret life away from Norma, sneaking out at night to write a screenplay with a cute, young, and plucky writer named Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson).
Betty is the opposite of Joe – where Joe is jaded and weary of the world (and show business in particular), Betty still believes in the magic of movies and believes that hard work is enough to get ahead.
Norma’s fantasy world where she is still a much-in-demand star is completely supported and even fabricated by her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim), who encourages her to think that her one-time director Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself) is interested in working with her again.
To Joe and the audience’s shock, it turns out that the completely devoted Max was once Norma’s director and husband.
Eventually, bitter disappointment for Norma from both Joe and Hollywood leads to her extreme breakdown which ends with Joe getting shot and reeling into that pool.
The story goes that Mae West, Pola Negri and Mary Pickford turned down the part before Swanson seized it with both hands and made it her own.
MGM honcho Louis B. Mayer apparently flew into a rage on seeing the film’s depiction of his then-decaying empire. Mayer, ever the diplomat, told director Billy Wilder, “You should be thrown out of the country tarred and feathered, you goddamn foreigner son of a bitch!”
Joe C. Gillis
Max von Mayerling
Erich von Stroheim
Cecil B. Demille
Anna Q. Nilsson