Dir. Billy Wilder. Starring Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Nancy Olson
One of my favorite scenes in Sunset Boulevard, far and away the most shocking of the bunch, is the scene where Joe (Holden) has just snuck back to the Desmond estate after a writing session with Betty (Olson); Max, the butler (Erich von Stroheim), is hiding out in the garage. Joe and Max have been starting to reach a funny kind of understanding with one another, one of the changes in characters most elided by critics; at Paramount, Max almost pleasantly recalls the good ol’ days with Joe, back when an entire building had to suffice as Norma’s dressing room. He also, more importantly, confides in Joe when he discovers that the calls from Paramount had nothing to do with the script for Salome, but for her remarkable old automobile. Feet away from that automobile, Max reveals his origin, an origin that (the first time around, at least), seems totally unimportant. Max used to be a great film director, one of the “three young directors who showed promise,” a name as renowned as DeMille or Griffith. Joe is aghast, disgusted. “And she made you her servant,” he said. Max says it was his choice, not hers. He couldn’t leave her. “You see, I was her first husband.”
Joe looks at Max – we look at Max – and the oppressive sense of the past is there in his face. Here is a man who might have become a greater star in his own lifetime than the woman he directed, and he gave it up to serve her. For him to stay even after she has spurned him professionally and as personally as possible is humiliating, degrading, and the only thing that can fulfill him. He writes the fanmail, after all, and must write on enough themes to keep them fresh for her hungry eyes. The Norma Desmond Effect is irresistible even when she’s not in the room. And while Joe looks at Max, the obvious warning bells sounds: “That’s me in twenty years.” It’s a spectacular blend of past and present, blending campy melodrama (seriously? the divorced husband and great director is the butler?) with bizarre realism (how the mighty fall, etc.). And that blend is what makes Sunset Boulevard stand out from other films noirs, a distinction so weird that some people barely place it within the genre while others place it at the very apogee of film noir achievement.
The movie’s major plot points are overwhelmingly tinged with nostalgia, weariness, or plain desperation. Think about Joe’s financial situation, or Norma’s “return,” or the birth of Betty’s cynicism towards the end of the film. Joe Gillis, for goodness’ sake, is dead for the whole movie, floating in a pool until he’s finally dragged out once the pictures have been taken for the late edition of the newspapers. Norma (Swanson) gets her cameras in the end, though they’re filming her inevitable descent toward the police cars downstairs. Most of Norma’s most famous lines, as well, focus us on the past she failed to keep. “I am big: it’s the pictures that got small!” “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.” “it’s a return.” Betty’s storyline is left untold after she runs off. Can she go back to Artie after cheating on him with Joe? What has she learned about herself? The girl next door is hardly the same once we find out she’s someone else’s neighbor as well.
And yet, the movie is funny. Even when it’s deadly serious, as it is at the end as Norma vamps her way down the staircase, emoting so hard that it’s practically an aerobic exercise, it’s funny. She puts on sequins and extra eye makeup to be arrested, after all.
The script is one of Wilder’s best, a script I prefer even to Some Like It Hot. Few movies have used one-liners better. For example, when Norma chooses a day to send her awful script to Paramount:
Norma: My astrologist has read my horoscope, he’s read DeMille’s horoscope.
Joe: Has he read the script?
That line makes me laugh every time. Likewise Joe’s desperate attempt to proclaim his independence after Norma has put him up, clothed him, and paid him:
Joe: What right do you have to take me for granted?
Norma: What right? Do you want me to tell you?
It’s a rare screenwriting talent that Wilder and his crew had for this movie, an ability to be witty within the characters themselves, without needing to create a straw man to bounce a joke off of (cough, Sorkin, cough). Sometimes it’s enough just to use the person talking to get a laugh; Buster Keaton reads “Pass” about as funnily as a person can.
Aside from the wordplay, which is Sondheimesque, the situations of the film are themselves funny. Joe is mistaken for the man bringing a coffin for a chimpanzee, and gains pity for Norma when he watches her break down as she buries it in the garden. It’s ridiculous! How long was that chimpanzee in the house? How much work did Max have to put into taking care of it? Did it wear a diaper? It is a grotesque situation, but terribly funny. Or what about Norma’s wacko impromptu vaudeville show, from Busby Berkeley to a pretty fair Chaplin impersonation, complete with mustache? Joe and Max hardly even react; presumably this is any other day at the Desmond estate. That house is weird, and what goes on in there is equally strange. Sunset Boulevard is like if Edgar Allan Poe came with a laugh track.
The present is strange; the past is oppressive. Norma, even in her palazzo, surrounds herself with Young Norma, photographs and films. They watch her over and over again; she signs photos of herself and makes little shrines to the twenty-something girl in the films. The house itself is Norma, intimately connected to her past; its size and opulence is a testament to the money she made and the beauty she was, and its run-down character is the testament to a woman who has cooped herself up with a plastic bag of memories to tie around her head. We’ve covered Max already. Joe’s past is creeping up on him all the time; at the beginning of the film, he’s thinking of ways to crawl back to Dayton to beg for his old, boring job back. He stays with Norma for many reasons, but foremost, at least in the beginning, is that he is a refugee. There is no safe place for him to go, no home to return to. He’s stuck and he knows it, and eventually it becomes comforting to be stuck. Or, at least, to be stuck but able to draw moths to him, pretty, fawning, 22-year-old moths.
There’s something of Jennifer Lawrence in Nancy Olson’s face, although Lawrence has made a career on playing a far more brutal kind of woman. Olson’s Betty is not unlike Teresa Wright’s Peggy, if somewhat less interested at turning sex into missionary work; at her fiance’s New Year’s party, she and Joe concoct a curious little scene featuring Lady Agatha and a member of the Coldstream Guards, thrown together by difficult circumstances and trying not to fall for one another. Joe seems less interested in playacting by the end of their baby soap opera; Betty seems more amused than anything, even after she and Joe nearly lock lips. She’s upbeat, and sincere, and sweet, and – for any man having a midlife crisis, this is a clincher – does not want to control Joe in the slightest. That’s almost true; she would love to get Joe to write a screenplay with her, based on a short story he had written, in which she tells him how talented and wonderful he is throughout. Betty Schaefer is a fantasy, and when Joe turns her away at the end of the movie – although he does so as nastily as any man in a 1950s film can do – he does the right thing. He shouldn’t have her. It’s classic melodrama, and yet it still works. Gloria Steinem and I are glad that Betty Schaefer can’t live in the 21st Century, and we agree that Joe is a pig for making her a sex toy; the thing is, Billy Wilder seems to agree with us too, and the result is to convince us that Joe Gillis is not just playing heel, but is one. He should go back to Ohio. He’s whored himself out of any decent living in California. Exile is the most appropriate response to his behavior of the past months, although he doesn’t ever get that far.
Usually I wouldn’t approve of a shooting to end a movie (or a play or a book or whatever). It’s typically tawdry, an unworthy end to a script as good as Sunset Boulevard. Shootings at the end take up too much emotion, too much audience interest. It pulls us away from the events of the film and refocuses them on the gunfire. And that happens in Sunset Boulevard, but it is a rare case in which that kind of ending makes sense. Norma Desmond’s real life has been consumed by the pictures, by dramatic scenes; her real life is dominated by unrealities. Every action is played for maximum effect. She wrote a massive screenplay about a woman rebuffed by a man she can’t have; she then has him killed. Of course she has to kill Joe; of course she can’t let him live once he’s told her that he won’t stay with her, not for all the vicuna coats in Los Angeles. Her John the Baptist ends up in the swimming pool, closer to holiness post-dunking than he ever was before.