#4 in my Ranking of Billy Wilder movies.
Sunset Blvd. is probably the Billy Wilder movie that Hollywood loves the most because it’s about Hollywood. The problem that Hollywood movies tend to have and occasionally fall completely into is that they are insular without appeal to those not of the business. Sunset Blvd. is definitely full of the kinds of references Hollywood movies are tend to carry, but the central story is as relatable and fascinating from a basic human point of view that really gets the audience involved from beginning to end.
Everyone is just out of place in this movie. The most obvious example is Norma Desmond, the silent star who’s desperate to make it in the new Hollywood, but the rest of them are looking to move from the place where they reside to the place they wish to be. In the process, they have to play parts that they don’t feel quite comfortable with. That conflict, which is present through every major character in the film, is what gives the film such a rich narrative texture.
Joe Gillis is a down and out writer from the Midwest trying to make his way in Hollywood, but nothing he writes appeals to anyone anymore. He’s on his last dollar and beginning to think about going back home. Running from repo men, he drives into a seemingly abandoned driveway which happens to be owned by Norma Desmond. In his desperation, he ends up as effectively her pet, replacing the pet monkey she buries on his first night in the house. What develops is an odd relationship (implied sexual) where Norma lords over Joe and Joe becomes completely subservient to Norma’s whims. He accepts it to a certain degree, but he still chafes under it.
He escapes nights at a time and meets with Betty Schaefer, a low level reader at the movie studio, to hammer out a screenplay that could make both of their careers (or not, Joe admits). Betty grew up in a Hollywood family and wants to be a real screenwriter instead of just a reader. She’s on one end of the writing career path (Joe is on the other), and they’re trying to meet in the middle. She’s pretty, smart, a realist, and engaged to someone else.
Through all of this, Norma is trying to get back into the spotlight. Her isolated life with only her butler, Max, has warped her mind. Max has directed her life in the background, writing fan letters for her every week and managing her day to day existence. She’s writing an overlong screenplay of the Princess Salome (who was a teenager at the interesting points in her life) whom she plans to play (despite being in her fifties). She’s the ultimate portrait of self-delusion, wearing a mask that she can’t see through but everyone else can. She’s convinced that she’s just one writer and a single meeting with Cecile B. DeMille from getting her Salome on the screen. Joe is obviously that writer (admitting to us in voiceover that the script is terrible and no amount of his work on it will improve it). All along the way, even through her meeting with DeMille, everyone admits to themselves and to others Norma’s delusion, but no one will shatter it for her.
Joe’s cynicism is what carries him through his experience overall, but it’s also what allows him to finally be the one person to shatter Norma’s vision of herself. The decades of her delusion, though, don’t mix well with the revelation and Norma shoots Joe in the back, ending the movie where it began with Joe floating in Norma’s pool.
The movie is a wonderful look at delusion and deception, a very common motif in Wilder’s work. The characters are rich with a great mixture of characters across the cynicism spectrum, each dealing with their own desires to be in their ideal places. Acting is great across the board, and the writing is elegantly assembled and witty all at once. It’s a great piece of entertainment that thematically rich, visually resplendent, and just a fantastic time at the movies.