by Jeric Llanes
Sunset Boulevard is a drama depicting the struggles of maintaining relevance in the ever-changing world that is Hollywood. With a story that is more melancholic than glamorous, the tone is set early on in the opening sequence when the body of protagonist Joe Gillis (William Holden) is found floating lifelessly in a swimming pool. The film then takes us through Joe’s tragic story, dating back to his time as a hapless screenwriter trying to find a spark to reignite his career, and his fateful encounter with Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), the former silent-film actress who is even more desperate to keep her spot in the limelight.
I thought that this was a film that had everything you can ask for from a classic movie. A brilliant story. Thrilling twists and turns. Unforgettable quotes from its dynamic characters. If you have any interest at all in dramatic theatre or cinema history, then this is right up your alley! I mean, the film is very meta (self-referencing to its own genre. In this case; filmmaking) at its core. This is a film about a fictional screenwriter and actress trying to make a splash onto the Hollywood scene. Sunset Boulevard oozes with sequences that would leave a film buff in awe, with its nods to iconic silent film stars such as Charlie Chaplin, to its depiction of movie production behind the scenes, and even managing to have a cameo appearance from the legendary director Cecil B. DeMille (Cleopatra, The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Show on Earth).
But of course, Sunset Boulevard’s biggest drawing factor comes from the unforgettable acting performances, led by Gloria Swanson and her role as the film’s main antagonist Norma Desmond. Swanson plays the character with exaggeratedly animated gestures and piercing eyes that command the attention of her costars and the audience. There were times where I felt that her dialogue was punched up and campy, but given the context of the film it couldn’t have been written or played any better. Let’s take a moment for a brief analysis of her character. Norma is a washed up silent-film actress fighting against the change of Hollywood’s new direction, which is going forward with adding sound and dialogue in movies. And as one of the stars in the old days, Norma purposefully chooses to retain her habits as an actress from the silent film-era. Not only is she fighting to stay relevant, but she’s doing her absolute best to prove that her style of acting is what audiences want to see. It’s the discrepancy between Norma’s beliefs and reality that makes her an entertaining character, but one that is also unstable and dangerous.
However, what makes Norma a brilliant character is that she is not completely a villain. I found it easy to sympathize with Norma, since her over-the-top intensity comes from her desire to be loved and adored by others. Yes, I think it’s safe to say that Norma Desmond is meant to be delusional in this film, but perhaps for good reason. Everyone deserves to be loved in some form or another, right? So why not Norma? It’s hard to be completely against this character and sometimes I even felt like rooting for her, despite her being the main cause of conflict in the entire movie. Swanson’s portrayal of this grand character is every bit as charming as it is crazy, as she is constantly walking the fine line between being a charismatic star and an insane nuisance.
William Holden’s Joe character, on the other hand, is a bit more relatable. He is not a Hollywood star like Norma, and he does not have the acclaim as a writer that he envisions for himself. Instead, he’s more of an “average Joe” (for lack of a better term). I believe this is necessary for the character, since Joe serves as a narrator as the plot unfolds. The audience needs someone to remain sensible to keep the story in line and guide us through the film.
Ultimately, this is a tragic story about the obsession with stardom and adoration. Despite the vast difference in age between the Norma and Joe, it is this common goal that ultimately links them together and launches the narrative forward. Norma wants to use Joe’s background as a scriptwriter to claw her way back into prominence, and Joe stays with Norma to live the lavish lifestyle he’d always dreamed of, despite his clear disdain for the woman.
The dynamic of their relationship doesn’t start off on the right note, which foreshadows their inevitable unhappy ending. It was a clever move to show audiences the death of Joe in the opening sequence. There is a bit of dramatic irony, as it is made clear that his run in with Norma will eventually lead to his demise. We know what’s going to happen to him, and it’s only a matter of when and how. The film does a masterful job of controlling our eyes and ears, as audiences are on the edge of their seats, catching all the minor details and subtleties as we wait for the moment that brings us back full circle.
This is truly a masterpiece film, and if you haven’t yet seen it I highly recommend that you do! A superb script is blended together with spectacular performances and cinematography, which makes for a bona fide classic that deserves all the critical acclaim it has garnered over the years.
Where to Watch This Film: Sunset Boulevard is currently available to stream on Netflix and can be rented/purchased on Youtube, Amazon Video, VUDU, Google Play, and iTunes.