Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Hello everyone,

This is an exciting post for me as it’s the first movie recommendation I have ever written for my blog. Therefore I thought it would be appropriate to start with one of my favourite movies of all time, Sunset Boulevard. I don’t claim to know as much about films as I do about the theatre, which is why this is a recommendation and not a review.

The eleven-time Academy Award nominated film was released in 1950, and starred Gloria Swanson as the faded silent movie star Norma Desmond, and William Holden as the struggling screen writer Joe Gillis. The timeless story and the acclaimed performances make this one of the best and most famous films ever made.

Joe Gillis is a struggling screen writer who has had little success in his career and cannot afford to keep living in his apartment. Upon his car breaking down, he pulls into a seemingly disused garage on Sunset Boulevard, subsequently realising it belongs to a huge mansion. The owner of that mansion is Norma Desmond, a faded silent movie star, looking to make her return to the screen. Norma invites Joe into the house, mistaking him for someone else. When Joe realises that the person whose house he has entered was once an incredibly famous movie star, he exclaims ‘You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big’. This invites one of the most famous lines of all time, spoken by the illustrious Gloria Swanson; ‘I am big. It’s the pictures that got small’.

Norma asks Joe to look at a script she has written – the story of Salome. She insists he stay with her during the time he is working for her, and as he cannot afford to pay the rent on his own apartment, he readily agrees. Over the course of the time they spend together, Norma falls in love with Joe, but Joe does not reciprocate the feeling. He clearly cares for her, but is in love with another woman, Betty Schafer. Joe constantly sneaks away from the mansion at night to see Betty, eventually driving Norma to attempt suicide.

Her delusions of returning to the screen are encouraged by her butler, Max, who will do anything to prevent her from finding out she is forgotten. During the climactic ending of the film, Joe tells Betty he cannot be with her, and also tells Norma he is leaving her (only after revealing that her dream of return to the screen will never come true). In a fit of rage and hysteria, Norma shoots Joe, and his dead body ends up face down in Norma’s swimming pool. The police and the press arrive at Norma’s mansion. The cameras that accompany the press cause Norma (who at this point is completely delusional and has no real bearing on her surroundings) to think she is at Paramount Studios, ready to film her supposed comeback. She descends the ornate staircase, revelling in the glory of the rolling cameras. The film comes to a close as she utters the famous last words ‘Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up’.

Although Gloria Swanson was not the first choice for the role of Norma Desmond (Mary Pickford and a few other actresses of that era declined the role before it was offered to her), she was without a doubt the right actress to play the role. Her career path is strikingly similar to Norma’s, with one notable difference. Norma had delusions of returning to the screen and making a big comeback, which ultimately did not succeed. Gloria Swanson had had no intention of relighting her career, until Sunset Boulevard was offered to her. And when she did accept the role, that is exactly what happened. Where Norma failed, Gloria succeeded. It is also interesting to know that Norma’s butler, Max, was once a director, and directed all of her early pictures. He gave up his career and became a butler to be able to stay with her. Max is played by the Austrian-American actor Erich Von Stroheim, who earlier in his career had been a director, and directed many pictures starring Gloria Swanson (one of which – Queen Kelly – is actually shown in Sunset Boulevard).

Earlier I described the story of Sunset Boulevard as timeless. Not because aging actresses often kill the younger screenwriter they have manipulated into staying with them, but because older actresses are very often forgotten about. Maybe not by their audience, but by writers. There are very few good, strong roles for older women – a problem which does not seem to effect men. I think Betty Buckley put it best in her song ‘Hymn To Her’ when she lamented ‘they do write strong women, I’ve played them both’ (referring to Norma Desmond and Mama Rose in Gypsy). It’s an issue that was apparent in 1950 and is still inherent today. The critical reception of Sunset Boulevard upon its release was mixed, as some were not comfortable with the cruel image of Hollywood it presented.

Another film released in 1950 was the hugely successful All About Eve, which to date still holds the title of being the most Oscar nominated film ever. This record has never been surpassed, and has only been equalled by Titanic. The lead role, Margo Channing, is also an incredibly strong woman, and was played by Hollywood matriarch Bette Davis. The two films naturally rivalled each other at the Academy Awards. Both Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson were nominated in the Best Actress category, but surprisingly, neither of them won. The general consensus is that the performances of the two Hollywood titans were so iconic that they were impossible to choose between. The award was instead given to Judy Holliday for her performance in Born Yesterday. A win for Bette Davis would have made her the first actress ever to win three Oscars (a title Katharine Hepburn would later claim), and a win for Gloria Swanson would have provided her with her first Oscar. There has been much controversy and speculation about who should have won the award. Personally I think Gloria Swanson should have won, as Norma Desmond is a much more challenging role to play than Margo Channing. But that’s just my opinion.

Thank you so much for reading. I’m sure if you watch the film you will enjoy it as much as I did!

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