Sunset Boulevard: An Essay

"You are... writing words, words, more words! Well, you'll make a rope of words and strangle this business! But there'll be a microphone there to catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor to photograph the red, swollen tongues!"
-- Norma Desmond, Sunset B

Though she claims to be a radiant "star" throughout Billy Wilder's eccentric film noir, Sunset Boulevard, legendary femme fatale Norma Desmond parallels more with two other majestic entities: Hollywood, and a celestial black hole. She, like each, tends to draw quite a few characters towards her "beaming" presence, and then engulfs those surrounding her with implosive vigor. Billy Wilder, the deviant director with a keen eye for interpersonal deconstruction and brooding mystery, matches Norma's gravitation with perceptive characters that appear to be consumed by both her and the film industry. Consumption of characters, both strong and weak, virgin and jaded, are the essence of Sunset Boulevard's enduring, unquenchable resonance -- and the key to cinema's most biting and involving film about Hollywood's dizzying grasp on immortality.

Watching Joe Gillis fall prey to the whims of both the shark tank of Hollywood screenwriting and Norma Desmond's omnipresence can provide all the enjoyment needed for a compelling character mystery about Hollywood's corruption. First, Joe (William Holden) falls prey to the cutthroat world of marketable films and the soup du jour, or flavor of the week, mentality. One day, he tosses out scripts left and right with great success, while the next he is buried to such a degree that he scrounges for a measly three-hundred dollars to keep his car from being impounded. All this comes to his doorstep just so that he can stick around Hollywood in hopes of making it big again. He mentions his availability to take a steady job that pays thirty-five dollars a week back home in Ohio, but he knows that position will not satisfy him in the ways that inking a Hollywood production will. Once he brings his new work back to Hollywood, also known as a host of indiscernible faces he claims to be friends with, the industry tries to manipulate his proposed ideas into something more marketable for the time. The only way for Joe to sell his writing, case in point a dramatic piece about baseball, is to dress it up as lighter fare with women and music. Though, even with this kind of irrevocable disconcert, he still scrambles around wildly to a rolling stop in his car onto Sunset Blvd. looking for the money to continue such a life.

Once Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) gets her fingers around Joe Gillis, however, we're reminded of how enveloping and contorted Hollywood and its other-worldly children can be. For just a dash of money to save his car and the opportunity to wedge into Hollywood again, Joe gives in to personal reservations about a bizarre situation and agrees to aid a fallen silent film star in her script reconstruction. Quickly, he sees that this job opportunity comes with consequences. In his older clothes, Joe looks like a fish freshly sprung from the water. However, underneath the roof of Norma's shrine-like mansion, Joe would quickly become outfitted in the industry issue regalia of sharp suits and glistening ornaments. William Holden's demeanor changes once these new clothes encompass his frame, one of security and belonging that becomes the true paradigm in Sunset Boulevard. As he slopes into this comfort zone, he seems to fall into Norma's black hole presence much like being pulled into Hollywood's magnetic aura.

Tangible Hollywood, in Wilder's sly critical eye along the same lines as his fervor for media in Ace in the Hole, would draw Gillis away from this lush lifestyle. Controlled and able to create, Joe Gillis starts to get the itch to write once again as he grows comfortable in his newly replenished skin. He takes it upon himself to venture out towards Paramount Studios to work with script reader Betty on a new story. His chronic draw towards cinematic inspiration would, ultimately, entail his collapse. Leaving Norma's mansion to work on another project with a different woman would be endangering the well-being of both him and Miss Desmond. This is a risk he's willing to take, as he inherently gravitates towards Hollywood. His full return, alongside his relationship with Betty, would lead to the climactic scene that would bring about Joe's final moments of clarity. Only once he is completely separate from Hollywood, namely Norma and Betty, do his statements rear a pristine air about them. One of his final lines in Sunset Boulevard involves his conclusive words to Norma that show his unabashed revelation. When Joe reveals that there is "nothing wrong with being 50, unless you're trying to be 25" to Norma, it shows that he now believes honesty and openness are the core ideals that guide someone safely through life. Of course, he realizes this even though it ultimately leads to his eternal dip into that pool he always desired.

It might not do any good for Max von Mayerling (Eric von Stroheim), Norma's butler, any good
to learn this lesson of dishonest reinforcement. As a famed silent film director during Norma's heyday, Max was acclimated to controlling actors, lighting, and aesthetic elements within his films. Though he claims love for Norma and has voluntarily lowered himself to her butler after years of working together and, oddly, a marriage, there's also a sense of obligation he seems to act out as the servant underneath her feet. Max seems to find little bits of narcissistic joy in his reminders of Norma's success, as if to reminisce on his achievement of creating a star. He still feels bound to Norma, however, clearly shown by the way he wears his butler's outfit in the home and intuitively does her bidding. Even in this state, Max still finds ways to direct in Norma's life, as if ingrained through the clockwork of Hollywood's machine. He controls lighting, shown as when he moves the lamp closer to Joe as he reads at the start in Norma's parlor. Max also makes comments on Norma's make-up as she approaches Paramount Studios, claiming she needs to doctor her eye shadow to keep a balance on her face.

Aesthetic points and control -- a key slate of critiques underneath Sunset Boulevard's eye -- become the focal point of a director, and become necessary evils that cannot be vanquished after Max's many years of control. Outside of his director's chair and after the fall of his silent film star, he appears to only find contentment in living the antithetic life underneath her buzzing control amid tinkering with minute tangibles. However, Max has vanquished almost complete control over to Norma, including all his actions, for all important elements in her life. When Joe inquires about Max's planning of the New Year's party, Max relays that he "doesn't know", followed by a "sir", and that "[m]adam made the arrangements". Famous directors expect these pleasantries from his crew, not for them to issue out. He even goes so far as to pick up freshly dropped items for Norma; during the dancing ballroom scene, when the veil begins to tickle Joe's face, Norma tosses it onto the Valentin-inspired tile in a prime spot for a cut of Max reaching down to pluck it from the shimmering surface.

At his most clear and explicative moment, seen as the great "turn" in Wilder's brooding tour de force, Max stands with Joe underneath the moonlight in the garage and gives explanation as to his concise care for Norma. Once Max reveals that he's responsible for Norma's stardom, profound understanding of the film's foreshadowing ushers into Sunset Boulevard. He, in a sense, feels responsible for her depleting sanity, and feels that he's the only individual with enough clout to care for her in her frail state. He owes it to her for making her fans both love and, now, ignore her presence in the film industry. Max maintains the illusion by writing her false fan letters and, in her final hour, acting as her controlling directorial hand once she gently steps down the staircase into police custody for Joe's murder. He understands the film industry's draw, clearly shown by his utilization of it to lure Norma down the stairs. Both Hollywood and, in a sense, Norma gave Max the power to be a director; he infused star power into Norma through his films, and then tries to vanquish his conscience by paying her back with limitless service once her career has ceased.

Though she's a smaller player in the grand scheme of things, the young script reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) also gets sucked into the lure of Hollywood's whims -- just like Joe and Max. Having grown up on the set with her family of production assistants, she's become privy to the ways of Hollywood as a developing script reader. However, like all proud parents, they wished for more regarding Betty. Early on, the gleam of Hollywood drove Betty to alter herself in betterment for the camera. Ironically, it cost the same amount to fix her unappealing nose that it does to rescue Joe's car from his impounders' stranglehold. That figure marks the pettiness and scraping of the barrel that Hollywood is about, because neither Joe nor Betty were successful in hurdling past that three-hundred dollar mark. Betty, instead, was able to get this money just to fix her nose; however, once she did so, Hollywood then decided to be honest and explain that her talents were the problem in the first place. Once she found her place as a reader, it's odd to see her honest talents walled off in a corner while the major exec at the beginning of the film, filled with manipulative and unoriginal ideas, has the lush office. After ten years of preparation and a stiff monetary sacrifice for a young girl, she still hasn't fully integrated into Hollywood at the end.

Unreturned and irreparable investment is the key factor across the board in Sunset Boulevard. Each character devoted themselves heftily into the industry in hopes for stardom and limelight, only to try and retrieve the glimmers of poignancy from yesteryear in desperation. Oddly enough, their deconstruction occurs amidst one of the lucky actresses that succeeded to great lengths. Norma, the embodiment of Hollywood, snatches life away from all three of these characters; Max's career fizzles with her sanity, Betty's acting skill seems inadequate to the quality portrayals of Norma's majesty of the past, and Joe literally bites the big one at the end of the film. Like Hollywood, she endures past all the chaos that she, in herself, creates. Sunset Boulevard, fully obsessed with the murky and tainting resonance of Hollywood's splendor, inclines viewers to think twice even now about the draw of its sparkling demeanor.

Full DVD Review at DVDTalk -- [Click Here]


Post a Comment

Thoughts? Love to hear 'em -- if they're kept clean and civil.