For anyone young enough to picture the 1950s as one extended Leave it to Beaver episode, I would respectfully refer you to the film noir classic Sunset Boulevard. It’s as dark and twisted as anything we’ve seen in the last sixty years, and it still holds up amazingly well. It’s a dark comedy, a romance, a tragedy, and a slice of Hollywood history all rolled up into one.
When we meet Joe Gillis (William Holden) he’s a down-on-his-luck writer dodging repo men and trying to get a leg up in Hollywood. Though he’s made a number of studio contacts, he can never seem to get that big break that will solidify his future. He’s to the point where he’s ready to throw in the towel and head home to Ohio when he veers into the driveway of a decrepit old estate. Assuming the place is abandoned, he hides his car in the garage and hopes he’ll be able to shake the debt collectors that are tailing him—if only for a moment. He discovers that the mansion is very much inhabited, and soon finds himself chatting with fifty-year-old former screen legend Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). It’s an absurd encounter that also involves her devoted butler (Erich von Stroheim) and recently deceased pet chimp, and it would all make for a great story had it ended right there.
But it doesn’t end there. Norma learns that Joe is a writer, and immediately asks him to read the epic screenplay she’s been working on for years. She fully intends to make the picture with Cecil B. DeMille and use it as her big “return”. After an afternoon spent sipping bad champagne, nibbling on caviar, and secretly scoffing at Norma, Joe is employed to help her polish the script. Suddenly his money woes are behind him, and he even has a place to stay for the night. In the morning, all of his belongings have conveniently been deposited in his room by the butler.
Well, wait a minute. That’s kind of forward—what if he doesn’t want to move in?! But then again, lounging around and tinkering with Norma’s screenplay while she showers him in expensive new clothes, gifts, and cash isn’t much to complain about. Joe is younger, stronger, and infinitely more sane than Norma, so naturally he assumes he has the upper hand. Sure he misses his privacy, his freedom, and his dignity, but there’s nothing to fear in a silly old dingbat who’s steeped in delusions of grandeur… is there? Soon enough he’s faced with the awful, ridiculous reality that Norma is in love with him. Eventually he’s going to have to face the even more awful task of explaining that he’s really only been humoring her in an attempt to spare her feelings. Oh dear.
The plot thickens when Joe teams up with Betty Schaeffer (Nancy Olson), a bright-eyed young woman looking to stake out a writing career at Paramount. They collaborate on a screenplay in the evenings, and it’s not long before things get serious. Though Betty is engaged to a truly decent man and Joe is practically owned by Norma Desmond, the chemistry between them is obvious and it seems only right that they should wind up together. Of course Norma has plenty to say about that, and soon she’s attempting to sabotage Joe, threatening suicide, and generally acting insane. We know from the opening scene (which shows Joe floating facedown in the pool) that things can’t end well, but watching everything spiral out of control never loses its luster. The payoff—Norma’s bizarre return to the spotlight—is nothing short of brilliant.
Though the story itself makes Sunset Boulevard worth watching, the movie also does an excellent job of showing Hollywood as a working industry. The slow rise to fame is just as dreary as the sudden fall from grace, and it’s there that Joe and Norma find common ground. Though his moment in the sun should be just around the corner, Norma’s time has come and gone. It was the popularity of talking pictures that killed Norma’s career, but it could have been anything (age, weight, unflattering gossip). Fifty-eight years later, her story is still a familiar one. How many stars have gone from the height of popularity to a mere punchline or utter obscurity just in the last few years? Having witnessed this sad reality, it’s impossible not to see Norma Desmond as a tragic figure—no matter how demented she is.
The Centennial Collection edition comes with an entire disc full of extra features. The menu alone takes up three screens, and offers up all sorts of interesting featurettes. Gloria Swanson’s granddaughter reveals that her grandmother was a curious and forward-thinking woman who in no way resembled Norma Desmond in real life, and Stefanie Powers shows up to discuss the life of her companion William Holden. Nancy Olson reminisces about her costars and the experience of making the film (still looking classy and smart), and Paramount insiders take us back to the studio’s early days. Other featurettes delve into the costumes created by Edith Head, Fifties-era Hollywood, and the history of the locations used in the film. Like the latest edition of L.A. Confidential, the Centennial Collection edition of Sunset Boulevard offers a handy map to the locations so that we can actually visit them. It is—in short—a movie-lover’s dream.