Sunset Boulevard

The movie Sunset Boulevard by Billy Wilder highlighted the screenwriter’s ability in making a film reflexive more than relying on aesthetics and style. The movie revolved around the life of Norma Desmond, a fallen silent film star, and her delusions of fame. With the coming of sound to the film industry, she was forgotten and brushed off not only by her colleagues but also by her fans. This change of lifestyle caused her to be sucked into a world of luxury and superstardom that she created for herself in her mind. Her universe is her mansion full of framed photos of herself and memories of her past. She identifies so strongly with her status that once it’s over, she fights tooth and nail to hang on to it, all the while being encouraged in her fantasies by her butler Max, who we later learn has been in love with her all along.

One day, Joe Gillis comes along to write a movie about her which only furthers her insanity. Somehow, she manipulates him into staying with her and becoming her umpteenth husband by threatening him with suicide and showering him with extravagant gifts.

The film’s reflexive nature is seen in its storyline. The whole story is set within the film industry of the period. Through dialogue and the various professions of each character, the fact that they are watching a film is constantly at the attention of the viewer. Audiences are repeatedly exposed to the process by which a screenplay is made with the secret meetings at the studio and Norma Desmond’s movie script constantly being referred to by the various characters in the film.

Related Links: - Sunset Boulevard - Sunset Boulevard
Interview with Billy Wilder
Senses of Cinema - Billy Wilder

Submitted by: 053611


Narrated by an obviously dead author, Sunset Boulevard is not merely the story of how some B-movie writer Joe Gilis died and the great Norma Desmond's involvement with the affair. It's a story of a disillusioned writer who once believed himself to be talented. However, poverty and ambition forced him to sell out his ideals for bread. His pragmatic personality is nevertheless unable to wake up the great Norma Desmond from her illusion of continued marketability/fame. Nor is he unable to crush Betty's ambitions of becoming a writer of talent and substance in a superficial town like Hollywood. It is in fact, these two women who open his eyes to constructions of identity and reality.

Norma blames everyone for her situation and reclusion. Her manservant (a rather appropriate term) Max feeds her already growing delusion and she chooses to believe that she is, is still and will forever be “the greatest star of all”. Joe finding pity and affection in himself admires how she retains this perception of herself (which is merely a construction) despite the signs which are becoming rather obvious. Meanwhile, Joe discovers that Betty is not as innocent as she may seem. She reveals that she once conformed to Hollywood's standards yet decided that it wasn't for her. She gave up her dream of becoming an actress and decided to aim for something else. Both women choose (to differing extents) what is real to them, how they should be and how they should react to it.

Since meeting them both, Joe has learned to sacrifice his own immediate desires for Norma's continued survival in that state she both relishes and despises, constructs and believes in. He sees himself now as a tool for both women to gain what they desire and at the same time find his happiness within that construction. In the end, he does get his original ambition to become famous in Hollywood for his story - a story of his life which he constructed.

Further sources of Sunset Boulevard's reflexivity:

  • To further what has already been said, about how the film is reflexive because it is "set within the film industry of the period", it should be noted that there are many similarities between the characters and the actors who play them.
    • Gloria Swanson, for instance, was a silent film star who worked with Cecill B. DeMille and Erich von Stroheim. When the era of the silent film ended, she went into semi-retirement. (It should be noted that she did not become like Norma Desmond in her delusions).
    • Erich von Stroheim was once a film director but he also faded into obscurity before the film was made. It was his film with Swanson that was being played during the scene where Norma and Joe watch a silent film right at her living room.
    • Norma's waxwork friends were actual silent film stars Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson.
    • Greater detail about the reflexivity of this film can be found here
  • Reflexivity can also be seen in that particularly telling final scene in which Norma Desmond has finally accepted her delusions. Believing herself to still be a most famous and most wanted movie star, she breaks the fourth wall, (a concept from the theatrical beginnings of film in which the actors pretend as if no one is watching them, as if what they are doing is not real) by literally reaching out for the audience.

(Note: this scene is best watched in a dark room with a lot of people. It never fails to make quite a number of them recoil).

  • The reflexivity of Sunset Boulevard is also in how the film empowers the author (despite the fact that he is dead), the author is able to tell his own story the way it actually happened, the way that he wants to. In its empowerment of the author, it also empowers each individual to be the master of his fate.

This movie, although done more than half a century ago, is still very much relevant and appreciable today. Apart from the fact that it's a black comedy about Hollywood and its ruthlessness beneath all the glamour, or that its an ill-fated love story for all the parties involved, Sunset Boulevard has a wonderful script, enhanced by the fact that its narrator/main character is dead. The lines, shine and rhyme, adding another layer of brilliance to itself. The simile, metaphors and other layers of meaning that even now cannot be completely counted. The performances of the actors are still very much admirable as they are able to successfully pass of the campy nature of the subject into a movie worth watching.

As a further testament to this, Andrew Lloyd Webber (he of the Phantom of the Opera fame), Don Black and Christopher Hampton have created a musical based on the movie, retaining most of the dialogue from the film. A movie for the musical is slated to be produced soon.

More Reviews:
The Independent looking back at the time the movie was first released
A comparison between this movie and Citizen Kane

The forum discussion for Sunset Boulevard can be found here.

This includes quite a number of reactions (and further insights) from the class which watched this film (of which I am a part of).

Submitted by: 060876

In my personal opinion, everything was well-executed: from the dual love triangle, one involving Norma, Joe, and Betty, and one involving Norma, Joe, and Max, to the psychotic possessive tendencies that led to Joe Gillis’ assassination. This movie that kept me up my seat, waiting for the next scene to unfold; wanting to know what happens next.

Sunset Boulevard, above its underlying dark themes of possession, greed, and selfishness, is a great love story. Norma Desmond’s undying love for herself emanates throughout the film. The set design of her living room, complete with all the pictures of herself, gives a cold feeling of loneliness for most, but brings joy and pride to Norma Desmond, who is so engrossed with herself that she locks up herself in her mansion where everything is an artifact of herself. The fact that she watches her own films from time to time and doesn’t feel a wee bit awkward about it (looking at myself in pictures is fine, but seeing myself in videos, moving with life, sort of gives me the creeps), must only mean that her level of narcissism is way beyond normal. Then there’s her unhealthy love for Joe Gillis. She imprisons Joe by touching on Joe’s need for financial assistance.

In a way, her lavishness for Joe’s material wants and needs kept Joe around like a dog wagging its tail for a bone. And she seems to have found out Joe’s knight in shining armor tendencies, and uses it to manipulate him all the more. Whenever she feels that she is losing her leash on him, she retreats to her poor pathetic self (and she does seem to be aware of her pathetic existence after her Hollywood fame has passed) and mourns for her lowly state. This obviously makes Joe come back for her every time. She knows Joe’s buttons, and she’s not afraid to use it. When you know someone’s buttons, it is indicative of your deep understanding and knowledge of the other. And one could only attain this through the love of the other. That’s why aside from the apparent obsession of Norma Desmond with Joe Gillis, we can easily deduce that with all that aside, she does have sincere feelings for him.

And then there’s the Joe Gillis-Betty Schaefer tandem. I have to say this follows the template of most love stories, guy meets girl, girl throws away everything in her life for guy, guy shoos away girl. Not that her character needs development of any sort, but Betty was a pretty boring and patterned character, and Joe Gillis only fell in love with her as a means of escapism from Norma Desmond’s clutches. Other than that, their love story is very typical of that where the girl is head over heels for this guy who is completely wrong for her, yet in the end she gets dumped by him for dense reasons.

Lastly, and this one comes as a shocker, Max’s past relationship with Norma. How he was the one who discovered her, and raised her to Hollywood stardom, and continued to maintain her delusions in the cloud of his deception, but through all that, he still stayed loyal to her. Even though she treats him like a rag, he still stood by her until the end, feeding her ego through and through. He alone had deep understanding and knowledge of Norma Desmond’s nature. And it’s just so poetic how the concept of unrequited love is brought to film without tagging along the usual drama and sappiness that comes along with it. Definitely one of the highlights of the film.

Speaking of highlights, a great deal is given to the ending scene where Norma says her most famous lines “All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up," before appearing to reach into the camera and fading out. For me, it was highlighted just because it was the end of the movie, but that wasn’t the first time thought that she faced the audience with her eyes coming out to dominate the world. If fact in the scene where Joe Gillis gets mad at her and slams the door at her face, and she faces the door pleading to Joe Gillis, and it just so happened that there was a mirror in the wall, was the most terrifying two minutes of my stay in this film class. From where the camera was angled, it appeared as though Norma was looking at the audience, and Gloria Swanson’s powerful eyes instantly wrecking the fourth wall that divides the cinema and the audience. And from where she stood, we could see the side view of her eyes while in the mirror we could see the front view, it was just too much to handle. And in that way the movie was able to bring out its dark and horrifying aspects perfectly.

Overall for me, it was a feel good movie despite its dark content.

submitted by 072791

One of the many testaments to the screenplay genius of Sunset is when Joe first sets foot on Desmond property and he says, “The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis—out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion.” It was along the same lines that went through my head when Barton first sets foot into his hotel with Steve Buscemi roaming its seemingly endless empty corridors. It’s as if these ominous places heralded the uniting theme these films have, the creeping paralysis of a kind of insanity that only the extreme loneliness of a human being may ever experience.

What interested me most was that, after choosing which films I would most like to analyse, it immediately became clear to me a distinct characteristic between all of these “main” characters were. As I think in many reflexive movies, they are very much character- as opposed to plot-driven. And these characters are so larger than life because of one emotion that all of them are bursting at the seams with: loneliness. They have only vastly differing ways to show it, and wholly contrasting ways of dealing with them, as well. Norma has never been able to get over the end of her career and tries to kill herself. Max feeds her insanity, becoming the quintessential enabler to an already-disturbed mind. It makes one think twice about the next time one spares another’s feeling by outright lying. What is most puzzling about Norma is that she is consumed by this utter loneliness and yearning to go back to her precious silver screen, and yet is blind to the one person that would do anything for her. Norma is made even more pitiful as Joe Gillis enters her life, and the pathetic is tinged with the faintly creepy when the two have their affair. Gloria Swanson’s now iconic line “All right, Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up now” is as fitting an end to Norma Desmond’s life as any other, I think, if only for the fulfillment (at least, in her mind) of a fantasy and the end to this loneliness.

(Interesting note, but far gone from the loneliness theme:
Consider this: it is in the entering of a rundown big building that seems to signal the beginning of the end of Joe Gillis and Barton Fink (1991).)

submitted by 061484

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