What I Learned from Watching . . . Sunset Boulevard
Dir. Billy Wilder 1950
One of my favorite films of all time is Sunset Boulevard, a true Hollywood noir in every sense of those words, with many motifs and archetypes associated with the mood of noir in general, but Billy Wilder holds the mirror up to Hollywood so specifically and precisely that it withers at its own reflection, like Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) does occasionally when she passes the mirror in the hallway outside her bedroom and realizes that Joe Gillis (William Holden), her live-in lover, might have seen her not looking her best. It’s said that Louis B. Mayer rebuked Billy Wilder outside the theatre after watching Sunset Boulevard because Mayer saw it as a scathing indictment of the very town that had been so good to Wilder. Wilder’s attempt to show the backstage/ back-lot heartbreak, raging ego and youthful ambition corrupted hit so close to home that fact and fiction met and passed each other, placing this film at the crossroads of myth and reality.
When I see this film I become transfixed by so many things in it that, taken as a whole, fill the screen with their Baroque grandeur, but here are three things I’ve learned from watching it.
1. Get it in writing.
At the beginning, Joe Gillis’s ambition has carried him pretty far for a young man who one day up and left his newspaper job in Dayton, Ohio and took off for Hollywood. He has an agent and “a few B-pictures to his credit,” but real success, the kind that consistently pays the rent and keeps the repo men at bay has eluded him. When he lands at Norma Desmond’s mansion because of a blown tire he thinks his charm and cleverness are enough to dig him out of his situation when he agrees to rewrite Norma’s mess of a script for what he expects will be a lucrative fee. Norma chafes at any mention of money however and as Joe works on the script, thinking the money will come if he keeps up his feigned interest in it and Norma long enough, he becomes entangled in Norma’s scheme instead, having to depend on her for cigarette money. He watches his car get towed away because somehow that big check he thought he’d get is never coming. He lives well, but only at Norma’s largesse and with little to no independence. Norma’s mansion at 10086 Sunset Boulevard becomes Joe’s own Hotel California, where there’s always pink champagne on ice and “you can check out but you can never leave.” There’s no contract, no rules, and as Joe discovers when he reveals his truth and tries to leave, no way out.
2. Truth is stranger than fiction, but fiction produces its own truth.
One of the most mind-blowing things about Sunset Boulevard is how closely it mirrors the real-life associations of two of its stars, Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim, who plays Max, Norma’s butler. Erich von Stroheim started his career in Hollywood playing a chauffeur, and later became famous as “the man you love to hate” portraying ruthless German soldiers in several World War I propaganda films. He then went on to direct and act in the first million dollar blockbuster, Foolish Wives, for Universal. It was then that someone from the publicity department began spelling his name “von $troheim” when the film went far over budget, giving him a reputation for profligate spending that would follow him long after. Even von Stroheim’s nemesis, Irving Thalberg, who would later fire him from Universal acknowledged his genius as a director. Von Stroheim proceeded to be fired by every major studio in the ensuing years for his uncompromising commitment to detail and for frequent run-ins with studio executives. The final time he was fired was by none other than Gloria Swanson herself, from Gloria Productions, hers and Joseph P. Kennedy’s production company, during an early morning shoot for a film Von Stroheim had written for Swanson, Queen Kelly. There had been tension on the set but the final straw was reportedly when Von Stroheim wanted her to let co-star Tully Marshall drool tobacco juice onto her hand when he kissed it in a scene. The hour was early, Swanson wasn’t feeling well, and, disgusted, she fired von Stroheim and then Kennedy fired him over the phone as well. “Von,” as he was often called, was just as disgusted at the idea of returning to Hollywood years later to work with Swanson on Sunset Boulevard, playing the woman’s butler, of all things, but his mistress, Denise Vernac, persuaded him that this would be an important picture and that he should be a part of it. In the film, the scene in the garage where von Stroheim as Max, Norma’s butler, reveals the truth about his past relationship with Norma is as shocking as it is heartbreaking, all the more because of the history the real life players share.
Still, Max gets the last word when he directs Norma, who is in a very deluded and vulnerable state, down “the staircase of the palace” near the end. His pose between the two cameras is vintage Von Stroheim, powerful and in control, a glimpse of what he really wanted to be remembered for, his directing. In this scene, Max, creator and guardian of Norma’s myth, is in charge, shedding the role of butler for that once again of auteur.
3. Tell it like it is—if you can handle the consequences.
As many times as I’ve seen this film, I never cease to wish the ending could be different, though in the high noir tradition, there can’t be a happy ending. Joe followed his heart to come to Hollywood to pursue his dream and became entangled with Norma too soon after he’d met Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olsen) who could have been his soul mate. Betty had become involved with Artie (Jack Webb), her assistant director boyfriend (and friend of Joe’s) before she met Joe, and she and Artie become engaged during the course of the story. It’s clear however, that if Betty were to truly follow her heart she’d leave Artie for Joe, and that Joe falls in love with Betty but is torn by the loyalty he feels toward Artie. It’s because of Joe’s sense of decency that he runs Betty out of Norma’s mansion that last night, and turns to meet his fate. He seeks to atone for his actions that have brought him to where he is, sacrifices his dream of success and even happiness so that Betty and Artie can go forward untainted by his choices. He tells Betty to go with Artie and be happy, but Betty truly loves Joe, not Artie, not anymore. She denies having heard a word Joe has said, denies even being in that house to hear his confession, letting him know that she’s willing to walk away from all this if he’ll just leave it behind and come with her. He sends her away anyway.
Is Joe’s chivalrous attempt to shield Betty from his earlier choices the right thing to do when Betty has already acknowledged that she knows what’s going on and loves Joe anyway, that Joe does deserve a second chance? Does he? I believe he does. It’s too bad for Artie but Betty says she’ll always love Artie, she’s just not in love with him anymore, which doesn’t bode well for that marriage. As for Norma, Joe refuses to shield Norma from harsh reality any longer and forces her to face the truth that sends her over the edge. He may have been guilty of trying to manipulate Norma at first, but since then Norma has twisted the genuine concern Joe came to feel for her into something quite warped, and for that she no longer deserves to be shielded; those around her have done it for too long and it has not served her well.
Joe’s attempt to right things at the end of Sunset Boulevard goes wrong in many ways but he cared about all involved enough to try and set things straight before catching the bus back to Dayton. Joe made mistakes but if it was his sense of decency that in the end caused his death (which starts the movie, by the way—no spoiler here!), Joe wanted to end by telling everyone the truth, for as we all know, the truth will set you free. It can also get you shot, fired, burned at the stake, crucified, exiled, and shunned. Joe knew this, too and did it anyway. Perhaps that’s why in his voiceover that both begins and ends the film, there’s not a hint of regret or irony in his voice, only continuing sympathy for Norma, former child star and beloved ingénue transformed and not for the better by the factory that is Hollywood, a sentiment echoed by none other than Cecil B. DeMille earlier in the film: “. . . a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.”
Joe may not have achieved his goal in Hollywood but he took a shot at it, came so close, and could have made it big – if only.
No matter, to me he will always be the screenwriter’s patron saint.