Sunset Boulevard – Billy Wilder
These legends from Hollywood’s pioneering days are clearly opposed to the new Hollywood, represented by a down-on-his-luck young screenwriter named Joe Gillis (William Holden). When Joe pulls into a driveway in an exclusive residential section off of Sunset Boulevard to elude two men who intend to repossess his car, his luck takes a fateful turn; the driveway leads to Norma’s decaying mansion. Norma first mistakes Joe for an animal undertaker, but when she learns his occupation, she tells him of her plans to return to the screen in a version of “Salome,” which she has scripted herself. Joe finds the script unbearable, but he sees an opportunity to make the money he so desperately needs. He tells Norma that the script has potential, but needs the kind of contemporary slant that he can provide. Norma hires him and soon moves him into the mansion, making him her “kept man.” Joe lets Norma pick up the bills while he fuels her delusions of a comeback and makes love to her.
It is significant that Norma mistakes Joe for an undertaker, for his presence at the mansion will eventually lead to his death by her hand. The mansion itself intensifies the foreshadowing of doom. Its gothic ambience is established by rats in the empty swimming pool, the midnight burial of Norma’s chimpanzee, and the eerie organ music that punctuates the musty night air.
Joe’s death is a result of his romantic involvement with Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a Paramount script girl. The relationship induces Joe to reach beneath his cynical veneer and draw upon his innate decency. Joe’s admission to Norma that he has been lying to her and his attempt to make her face reality only serve to make her mind snap. Ever the prisoner of inescapable self-delusion, Norma shoots Joe, and he falls into the now-filled swimming pool, a symbol of filmland status providing Joe with a watery grave.
Wilder continually points out that both Joe and Norma are victims of Hollywood. We are told that Joe has talent, but the studio doors are closed to him because he refuses to turn out hack work. A Paramount producer and. Joe’s agent, representatives of Hollywood business practices, are both callous individuals. The power structure is presented as unfeeling, while those who toil in the ranks, such as Betty Schaefer and Joe’s friend Artie Green (Jack Webb), are depicted in positive terms. Norma’s victimization results from her refusing to leave. the Hollywood past behind. She believes that her legion of fans are still anxiously waiting her return, but we later discover that the fan letters she has received over the years have been forged by Max (Erich Von Stroheim), her butler. A call from Paramount convinces Norma that her comeback is assured.
The call leads Norma to visit Paramount, and this constitutes the most poignant scene in the film. When Norma enters a soundstage to visit her mentor Cecil B. De Mille (played by himself), she is mobbed in adoration by the technicians and extras who worked with her during the old days. But even here her victimization is suggested, as the mike boom on the set con¬tinually casts a shadow over her. It finally swings down to her, and she pushes it away as if it were a pesky insect. Yet Norma cannot get rid of what the mike boom represents—the progress made by Hollywood. Certainly, Norma is one of the inevitable victims that progress must leave in its wake. After Norma leaves, we learn that Paramount had called her to request the use of her vintage automobile in a film. De Mille demonstrates the decency of the Hollywood pioneer when he orders that Norma is never to be told the reason for the call.