Sunset Boulevard – Billy Wilder
In Sunset Boulevard, writer-director Billy Wilder provides us with a “behind the scenes” investigation into Hollywood. While Wilder’s caustic wit is apparent throughout, the investigation is a serious one. As such, Sunset Boulevard can be seen as an influence on many subsequent films about Hollywood. With the notable exception of A Star Is Born (1937), films about Hollywood prior to Sunset Boulevard had tended to be light comedies and musicals. These films served to demonstrate that Hollywood people had plenty of heart and were basically “just plain folks.” But Sunset Boulevard was made during a period in which Hollywood, was reevaluating itself, and audiences were re-evaluating the Hollywood product they had been accustomed to. Hollywood was steadily losing its audience, partially as a result of television, but more crucially, as a result of government antitrust action and a Supreme Court decision which forced a restructuring of studio distribution and exhibition policies. Sunset Boulevard was also made during a period when audiences were being exposed to films from Europe which were more realistic in ap-proach, as well as independently produced American films which strived for social relevance.
Sunset Boulevard responded to these shifts in the film industry by demys¬tifying star mythology and exposing the more cold-blooded aspects of the studio system. In doing so, it purports to be “realistic,” but because the film is a commercial Hollywood product, it ultimately equates star mythology with transcendent and larger-than-life qualities, and reveals that decency does exist beneath the corruption induced by working in the studio system. It is this opposition between exposing Hollywood’s “dirty laundry” and reaffirm¬ing the value of Hollywood itself that influenced later films such as The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), A Star Is Born (1954), and The Barefoot Contessa (1954). Like Sunset Boulevard, these films show movie people who are creative but also obsessed, ruthless, or deeply troubled as a result of making movies. Once having detailed these various personal problems, however, the films stress that movies and what the stars do in front of the camera—and the public—are what really matters in the final analysis. The simple message is, “The show must go on.”
What makes Sunset Boulevard truly unique among these films is its blend of fact and fiction. For the role of Norma Desmond, the legendary star of the silent screen who has deluded herself into attempting a comeback, Wilder cast Gloria Swanson. Absent from the screen for nine years, Swanson was attempting a comeback of her own. While she had made several sound films (including 1934’s Music in the Air, coscripted by Wilder), her career had never attained the heights she had reached during the silent era, when her name was synonymous with Hollywood glamour. As Norma’s faithful butler as well as former director and husband, Wilder cast Erich Von Stroheim, who in 1943 had appeared in Wilder’s Five Graves to Cairo. As a director, Von Stroheim was among the truly great innovators of the silent screen, and in 1928 he had directed Swanson in Queen Kelly, a film that was never released. At one point in Sunset Boulevard, Norma shows a scene from Queen Kelly. Norma also dresses up in a “Bathing Beauty” outfit, another reminder of Swanson’s career since she made her first screen appearances as one of Mack Sennett’s “Bathing Beauties.” To complete his casting, Wilder used several Hollywood figures as themselves. Cecil B. De Mille appears as one of Norma’s directors from the silent days; De Mille had directed Swanson in such films as Male and Female (1919) and Don’t Change Your Husband (1919). Columnist Hedda Hopper also appears, as do Buster Keaton, Ann Q. Nilsson, and H. B. Warner, all of whom were silent era stars who did not make a successful transition to sound, Wilder furthers the sense of verisimilitude by setting many scenes at Paramount Studios.