Sunset Boulevard (1950) is about how the motivations for actors can get really twisted. Released in the same year as All About Eve, it is a darker and more psychologically complex story; you’d expect nothing less from Billy Wilder, who co-wrote and directed the film. If All About Eve conveniently dispensed with the outside world, Sunset Boulevard shows how the outside world can both threaten and offer promise. While All About Eve was the top film at the Oscars that year, Sunset Boulevard now tends to be regarded as the more interesting film: not so much for how it skewers Hollywood myths, but for its stylish flair.
Sunset Boulevard is often categorized as a film noir: it has a femme fatale and a voiceover that tells us the story of a murder that has already happened. A down-on-his-luck Hollywood screenwriter, Joe Gillis, decides to head back to Dayton, Ohio and start over, going back to his old job at the copy desk of the local newspaper. He plans to hold onto his car, on the verge of being repossessed, just long enough to make the drive. But his creditors spot him and give chase. Trying to avoid them, he drives onto the grounds of an old mansion owned by a once-famous silent film star, Norma Desmond. She has been planning her comeback (although she hates the word, preferring “return”) and needs a screenplay for a movie in which she intends to star to be doctored. She hires Joe, and schemes to make him a permanent addition of her entourage with tragic results.
Furthermore, the theme of the film is grounded in the social criticism and downward trajectory of the film noir. Norma’s vampire-like tendencies reflect Hollywood’s feeding off of the energy of youth. And she is in fragile condition, prone to depressive moods that lead to suicidal thoughts. Joe, who seems broken by Hollywood from the start, is a drowning man who finds what he thinks is a life preserver but turns out to be an anchor that sinks him for good.
The ending (which, of course, we know already) is delayed by an extended meditation on love and acting, or better yet, love as acting. Joe lets himself be seduced by Norma, who has remained rather physically attractive, and she takes care of what she thinks is his every need. If his needs were just based on comfort and style, he would be set. But Joe needs something more—which most if not all people need: social interaction. And Norma cherishes her twilight dream world of solitude.
Norma, like most actors, desires an audience who loves to watch her act. And Joe is her ideal audience for many obvious reasons. Gloria Swanson, who plays Norma, shows us how her character’s love for a younger man is a reflection of the love of her younger self. Her house rather heavy-handedly symbolizes this, overfilled with mementos of her glory years in show business.
Norma and Joe’s relationship, as far-fetched as it may appear, works just as long as love is viewed in such an absolutely pragmatic way. But when romantic love enters the picture, there is trouble—and the film asks, would an actor be so driven to hold on to the love of her audience that she would be willing to kill for it?
What turns up the film’s dark comedy a notch is that the trouble begins when Joe starts moonlighting, working on a screenplay that appears to have commercial promise. We sense (and Norma would surely agree) that this is a form of cheating, because her own screenplay is so obviously flawed. Although the person Joe is secretly working on this screenplay with is the young and attractive Betty Schaefer, she happens to be engaged to his best friend, an assistant director who is mired in a location shooting.
One night, during a work break, Joe and Betty take a walk down a Hollywood backlot. She tells him her story. Her parents both worked in Hollywood, and she aspired to be an actor. After undergoing cosmetic surgery, she failed a screen test and, wanting to get on the “other side” of the creative process, ended up as a reader of screenplays for a studio. She longs to break into the screenwriting trade and needs Joe’s help.
Few people watching the film would not see Betty as Joe’s obvious love interest, because Joe (played by William Holden) is far more attractive than her fiancé (played by a young Jack Webb, who would go on to be the stone-faced detective Joe Friday in Dragnet). After working with Joe on the screenplay, she tells him she is no longer in love with her fiancé.
A number of questions can and should be asked at this point. After Betty has already been chewed up and spit out by Hollywood (making her a character foil for Norma), why does she still want to work there? Is Joe and Betty’s co-written screenplay, which she instigated, really any good? And what are the consequences of Joe’s betraying his best friend, her now ex-lover?
But these questions don’t get answered, because Joe’s cover gets blown. Norma finds a copy of the screenplay with Joe and Betty’s names on the front page and telephones Betty, telling her where—and how—Joe lives. The problem Joe faces is difficult, but not insurmountable: this kind of scandal, after all, happens all the time, and is typically associated with Hollywood.
Joe now shows his true colors. He decides to escape. As he leaves both women, he is needlessly cruel to both of them. Thus there is a sense of poetic justice in his being fatally shot by Norma: he really is an asshole.
The film’s rising vitriol becomes absorbed by a camp aesthetic. After shooting Joe, Norma has the delusion that the lights of the cameras photographing her during the murder investigation are the spotlights that illuminate the first day of her acting in a new movie. This unfolds in a long, and technically dazzling, sequence that shows us how Norma has finally gotten what she has wanted.
Do we feel for Norma, now completely and forever lost in her dream? It is an escape from the outside world, turned back on itself in the form of a fantasy of an everlasting moment of public recognition for her acting. Again the parallels with All About Eve surface: if that film suggested that fame for a woman actor is fleeting (and recommends marriage as a solution), Sunset Boulevard demonstrates that Hollywood will promote the dream of success no matter what the outside world tells us.
For me, the ending of the film is a grace note to the existential bleakness that Warren Zevon (a tragically underrated singer songwriter) sang about in “Desperados Under the Eaves,” the last song on his self-titled album (a masterpiece IMO) that conceptualizes Los Angeles as a setting for desperate lives that plays out like film noir outtakes: “But except in dreams you’re never really free.”