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Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard

By Patrick Samuel • December 10th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Paramount Pictures

Original release: August 4th, 1950
Running time: 110 minutes

Writer and director: Billy Wilder
Composer: Franz Waxman

Cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson

How fickle fame can be. One minute you’re everybody’s darling; splashed across magazines and billboards for all to adore, and your face looms from the screens of thousands of cinemas across the country. Fans clamour to catch a glimpse of you and the world can’t get by without knowing what you’re up to next. It’s what you’ve always dreamed of and you’re rich, rich, rich.

Until one day you wake up and realise it’s quiet outside. The fans and photographers have gone. They’ve stopped printing stories about you and haven’t been in a movie for movie for over 20 years. The world moved on, but there’s always a chance of a Sunset Boulevardcomeback mdash; you can be even bigger than before, you’ll show them… they’ll see what it means to be a star.

Yes, fame can be fickle. There’s no better example of this than in Billy Wilder’s classic gothic film noir, Sunset Boulevard, where an aging star hopes to re-capture her former days of glory when a Hollywood screenwriter walks into her life. Without realising it, she begins a steady descent into madness that will lead to murder mdash; making her front page news once again.

Narrated by the screenwriter in question, Joe Gillis (William Holden), Sunset Boulevard takes us behind the scenes to show us what happens when the light of a blazing star fades. Joe’s struggling as a writer and is behind on several of his payments. Paramount Pictures won’t buy his latest script and his friends won’t lend him any money. In short, he’s stuck in a rut.

When his tyre blows out in front of an old mansion, he feels his luck can’t get any worse, but the mansion belongs to none other than Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).

You’re Norma Desmond! You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big!

I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.

As it turns out, Norma’s working on a script which she hopes will herald her return to the screen and asks Joe to have a look at it. He hates it and thinks it stinks — Norma ends up employing his services as a writer there and then and instructs her Sunset Boulevardbutler, Max, to take him up to a room so he can get started.

Gradually Norma’s hold on Joe begins to tighten as she insists on buying him clothes, dictating what he should wear, insisting that he watch her perform and spend time with her, she even takes care of the problems with his car. She snaps her fingers and he jumps. He know he’s becoming a kept man but it’s hard to turn down what she’s offering him in return, it’s not as if other writing jobs are pouring in.

In the twenty years that have passed since Norma was in a movie, her world has shrunk and he’s become a desperately lonely person, living in her delusions of grandeur, still waving proudly to a parade which had long since passed her by. Joe comes to realise she’s falling in love with him and is horrified.

It was at her New Year’s party that I found out how she felt about me.
Maybe I’d been an idiot not to have sensed it was coming — that sad, embarrassing revelation.

Meanwhile he’s falling in love with Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), who works as his agent’s assistant. When he tries to escape from Sunset BoulevardNorma’s clutches, she threatens suicide and he agrees to stay with her, but secretly starts to see Betty on the side.

Finishing the script for Norma’s movie, she sends it to Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount Pictures but she gets the wrong idea when they call back. Thinking it’s about her big comeback, she has Max drive her to the studio and it turns out they only want to rent her car — though they don’t tell her this. Max insists on letting her live in her fantasy that she’s still a star, she’s wanted and adored — but the sad truth is no one gives a damn anymore. Her time is over.

Sunset Boulevard culminates in Joe’s murder which we already know about as the film begins with him narrating from the beyond. It’s what happens after she shoots him that remains in our minds as one of the most memorable endings in film history, along with Psycho (1960) and Casablanca (1942).

As the police and press arrive, Norma is in a state of shock and experiencing a complete break from reality. She’s being questioned left, right and centre as she sits Sunset Boulevardin front of her dresser preening herself, but she only responds when she hears the cameras have arrived downstairs. Her big moment has finally arrived and she’s waited so long for it. Her comeback is within her grasp now.

They go along with it and let her descend from her winding staircase in a fantastic gown and glittering like a star. Everything feels like it’s in slow motion — lights, camera and action, and she even stops to say a few words about how excited she is to be back, before delivering those mortal words.

All right Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.

Rarely have movies offered such an insightful and chilling look at the fame the way that Sunset Boulevard does. Swanson and Holden make a great screen pair in a story whose main characters are not exactly likeable but we sympathise with them nonetheless. Joe’s a man who wants to make it in Hollywood but realises he can’t do it on his own and Norma’s a woman who could’ve had love a long time ago but chose fame instead.

Hollywood has time and time again shown us that it’s not always possible to have both and Sunset Boulevard drives that message with a great story and dazzling performances.

Patrick Samuel

Patrick Samuel

The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is an emerging artist with a philosophy degree, working primarily with pastels and graphite pencils, but he also enjoys experimenting with water colours, acrylics, glass and oil paints.

Being on the autistic spectrum with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is stimulated by bold, contrasting colours, intricate details, multiple textures, and varying shades of light and dark. Patrick's work extends to sound and video, and when not drawing or painting, he can be found working on projects he shares online with his followers.

Patrick returned to drawing and painting after a prolonged break in December 2016 as part of his daily art therapy, and is now making the transition to being a full-time artist. As a spokesperson for autism awareness, he also gives talks and presentations on the benefits of creative therapy.

Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and science fiction, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.

Patrick Samuel ¦ Asperger Artist

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