Regent Film Library Spotlight: Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard, directed by Billy Wilder, is a quintessential depiction of the underbelly of Hollywood. Similar to a documentary or a biopic, Sunset Boulevard gives viewers an insight into the unseen workings of the studio machine. 

The film follows Joe Gillis who is in a strange slump period in his career as a writer. By narration, he informs the audience that he had been furiously working, so much so that he claims to have an output of two stories per week. Yet, this prolific schedule yields him very little in terms of paid-for work and repossession officers inform him that they are taking his car. However, Joe, anticipating the agents, had already hid his car in another lot. The officers, unable to find the car, inform Joe that he has one day to give them the car. In an attempt to gather enough money to save his car, Joe calls on all his connections for money. After his contacts fail him, he decides to pitch a film script. He succeeds in selling his idea to a producer, Sheldrake, but then the script reader enters and disparages the script for its hack writing. 

Joe, blocked at every turn, finds himself driving the roads of Hollywood. Suddenly, he sees the repossession officers on the road with him, which spurs him to speed away with officers in pursuit. Joe initially has the lead, but his tire blows out, which forces him to pull into a driveway. The officers do not notice this and continue blazing down the road while Joe looks around and realizes that he is parked at a dilapidated mansion. Thinking the property is abandoned, Joe stores his car in the garage and starts to leave before he hears an imposing female voice from the mansion which chides him for his lateness and calls him inside.

He obeys, and, upon entering, meets a stolid butler who ominously welcomes him in. Joe discovers that he has been mistaken for an undertaker, but not a normal undertaker because the recently deceased one is actually a pet chimp. The singular mourner is Norma Desmond, a once-famous silent film actor who has seemingly been languishing in her tumbledown mansion with no companions except her butler and pet chimp, but she has not been idle. Joe finds a tomeish film script on her dining room table, which he asks to read. Norma acquiesces after informing Joe that it is her precious life’s work and he should be delicate with it. She nervously watches Joe as he scans through her laboriously written script, which instantly appears to Joe as utter schlock. Instead of telling her his true opinion, he decides to pose as a top notch expensive editor in hopes that he can get an exorbitant paycheck for his script surgery. Norma agrees to pay whatever price he will demand, asserting that money is no object. This arrangement sets off the rest of the film’s strange and dramatic plot.  

Sunset Boulevard is one of those rare movies in which over dramatic dialogue works. There is a trend of writing trope dialogue and then mocking it within the film itself. Contrary to that, Sunset Boulevard uses its overstated dramatics as a device of tragedy. Joe Gillis’s overly snide remarks and Norma Desmond’s pompous monologues, while they can be laughed at, are ultimately signifiers of the tragedies endemic to Hollywood. Joe’s jaded comments betray an intelligent, talented man broken by years of failure and rejection. Norma Desmond’s self-aggrandizing speeches point to a sensitive person who was simultaneously glorified and dragged through the mud, but ultimately abandoned by the institutions which created her. 

The film is an adult film, though it is possible for young adults to appreciate it. It requires a general knowledge of the history of Hollywood, specifically the transition from silent films to talkies (films with dialogue)—though the film could be watched without that context despite the loss of certain meanings, as it deals with loneliness, depression, and dishonest ambition.