Believe it or not, unlike what we see so much of today, there was a time when Hollywood made films about Hollywood that didn’t wallow in narcissism or attempt to fool us into believing a real heart beats behind all of that “moral” depravity. Director, co-writer Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” doesn’t exactly bite the hand of an industry that made him a wealthy prince, but his cautionary tale is stripped completely of any romanticism or sentiment in showing us the grotesque underbelly of Tinseltown.
The great William Holden is all masculine cynicism as Joe Gillis, a moderately successful screenwriter who tasted just enough Hollywood success that it’s become his heroin. Now that he can’t sell anything, he faces the terrible possibility of having to leave the warm embrace of the Dream Factory and — horror of horrors — head back to Nowhere U.S.A. and the rest of his life in the real world.
Just barely a step ahead of bill collectors out to repossess his car — which, in Los Angeles, is like being stripped of your citizenship — Gillis ducks into the garage of a molding mansion: The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis – out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion. Which it is, both inside and out.
Within it is Norma Desmond (an extraordinary Gloria Swanson), a one-time legend of the silent era, who, with the help of her manservant Max Von Mayering (Erich Von Stroheim, in a piece of genius casting), has deluded herself into believing that not a single minute of time has passed in thirty years.
As fate would have it, Norma’s companion, a monkey, has just died. Now she needs a new monkey, one who can fix the mess she calls a screenplay that will usher in her great comeback. Gillis thinks he’s going to use her; that she’s his meal ticket to buy a little time until he can sell a screenplay and be his own man again. But that’s the mistake many in Hollywood make.
You don’t reach the heights Norma once did without having a PHD in human manipulation. Her looks may have faded, but not her ability to think fifteen moves ahead of any opponent in the game of getting what she wants.
Outmaneuvered at every turn but unable to let go of his piece of Hollywood even though it’s wretched, Gillis soon finds himself emotionally and sexually trapped in a circle of hell so bizarre it can only be real. He’s a whore, a gigolo — a well-dressed one, certainly, but if you look close enough — it’s a monkey suit.
We’re soon led to believe that salvation arrives in the form of Betty (the lovely Nancy Olson), one of those rare types who remains wholesome in the ugly business of moviedom. But not forever, for this is a tale of Hollywood not a Hollywood tale. Betty is Wilder’s red herring; her innocence can’t save Gillis, she can only begin the long journey to losing it completely for trying.
Maybe it’s because Wilder sees himself as Cecil B. DeMille (who plays himself in a crucial sequence), a character seemingly untouched by the dirty business of making movies. But as dark and cynical as “Sunset Boulevard” is, you don’t feel any anger or resentment from its creator. Which makes you wonder if this is less a story about Hollywood and more about the poison of ambition.
The crowd Betty keeps company with is Gillis’s old crowd — a gang of happy-go-lucky Hollywood types grateful for what The Business has given them — which is a living and the opportunity to be a part of the best part of Hollywood: the pleasure and escape its product delivers to millions. But in search of bigger and better highs, that wasn’t enough for Gillis, and he left the comfort of this herd of innocents under the mistaken belief you can sell a little bit of your soul and still make it out alive.
But I actually do think “Sunset Boulevard” is about Hollywood. DeMille, and by extension, Wilder, might float above it all, but at the same time they’re keenly aware that the power they hold creates a wake of human destruction among so many who seek affirmation of their very existence from Hollywood’s Wilders and DeMilles: Pull me up there. Make me a part of this.
It’s a squirming pit of insecurity, pain, misery, and grasping need these men hover over. Whether they’re responsible for it or not is for a different debate, but there’s no question that they and the industry they helped build are most certainly the cause.
And nobody gets away clean, not even girls named Betty.
The Bluray edition of “Sunset Boulevard” is available at Amazon.com and includes a newly restored print of the film and over two hours of extras.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC