70 years of Sunset Boulevard – what does Wilder’s dream of Hollywood have to say about celebrity culture in 2020?

Partway through Billy Wilder’s seminal 1950 noir Sunset Boulevard, cynical screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) and bright-eyed script-girl Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) take an evening stroll through the Paramount lot. “Look at this street. All cardboard, all hollow, all phoney, all done with mirrors,” Betty comments as workers paint the skyline behind them, “I like it better than any street in the world.” Among other things, Sunset Boulevard is a film of fake and real, the dream-world of Hollywood, named after a major Los Angeles thoroughfare. But instead of the enjoyable escapism of Paramount’s cardboard streets, Sunset Boulevard exposes the uncomfortable reality of Hollywood celebrities’ twilight years, the film opening not on a tall street-sign but a curb-side plaque next to the gutter. Along this boulevard is the grand and hollow 1920s mansion of faded silent-film actress Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), so crumbling that Joe uses it as an abandoned hiding space from some repo men. Once it was glorious and decadent, but now like Norma it is “out of beat with the rest of the world,” a haunted reflection of its former self.

Joe and Betty’s flirtation on the Paramount set evokes a scene from another classic 50s film about the transition between silent-films and ‘talkies’; Singin’ in the Rain. In 1952, Gene Kelly wooed Debbie Reynold’s through transforming an empty sound-stage into a moonlit evening, with Singin’ in the Rain ultimately a light-hearted movie depicting a joyous leap into sound-films and affirmed hard-working adaptability. Two years earlier, Sunset Boulevard was more cynical. Joe opens struggling to get screenwriting jobs and stay afloat in Hollywood, hence the repo men, and after stumbling upon Norma he latches onto reworking her bizarre passion-project adaptation of Salome, the two becoming intertwined in a toxic co-dependence. Norma grants Joe income, room and board, and in return moulds him into her lifestyle, feeding off his attention and her necessity. Norma refuses to acknowledge change, decrying the worthlessness of “words” in film and dressing Joe up in old-fashioned 20s clothes, thinking herself still a young vibrant star despite her dwindling middle-aged fame.

She is more susceptible to such delusions than most. Regardless of her actual age, Norma is surrounded by photographs of herself and regularly re-watches her own silent-films. Her eternally young celluloid self is constantly displayed around her, distorting her self-perception as someone incompatibly superior to Hollywood’s current output. As she says in one of Sunset Boulevard’s most famous quotes; “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” All this is enhanced by how Gloria Swanson herself actually was a silent-film star, which she communicates with riveting ‘vampy’ performance of clenched necks and spidery gestures. Norma’s story has somewhat eclipsed Gloria’s in popular-consciousness, as Norma was more an amalgamation of several silent-film actresses who became reclusive after sound-recording (such as Mary Pickford, who was also approached for the role), Swanson essentially quitting on her own terms.

Still, although now remembered as a classic, Sunset Boulevard is full of references to even older Hollywood history. One of the films Norma re-watches with Joe is 1932’s Queen Kelly, an actual film of Swanson’s. Not only this, but Queen Kelly was directed by Erich von Stroheim, who appears in Sunset Boulevard as Norma’s loyal butler Max, who the film later reveals was both the director who “discovered” Norma and her first husband. Although in real life the two were never married (and actually had disputes while making Queen Kelly), Von Stroheim directed the avant-garde 4-hour silent-epic Greed, validating his claim to be among the “three young directors who showed promise in those days” before talkies. The other directors Max mentions are D. W. Griffith and Cecile B. DeMille, the latter of whom appears in Sunset Boulevard as himself. DeMille also had a long-standing relationship with Swanson, directing her in films like Male & Female and The Affairs of Anatol, and he addresses Norma with his affectionate nickname for Swanson; “young fellow”. Gossip-columnist Hedda Hopper also appears as herself, as does Buster Keaton. Even the piano-song during a New Year’s Eve party, “Buttons and Bows”, was the previous year’s Oscar-winning Best Original Song, and is being performed by it’s creators Livingston and Evans. It’s ironic that Sunset Boulevard appears to be preserving Hollywood history within its narrative, even while showing how it inevitably fades away.

Such disposability affects actresses most of all, a lesson of Sunset Boulevard that has proved eternally relevant. Today there are still stories about actresses dismissed for being ‘too old’. Norma’s obsession over youth and vitality is a symptom of an image-obsessed industry, even if Swanson herself still looks great. Indeed, sometimes it feels Sunset Boulevard wants it’s audience to be disgusted by Norma, particularly in her relationship with Joe. But while Joe becoming her gigolo is still uncommon, it has lost some of its ‘transgressive’ power, particularly since William Holden does not seem much younger than Norma (a concern Wilder also held). Regardless, the film still works because of the complicated sympathy Swanson can evoke. She delivers a riveting and commanding performance, her grandiose eccentricities always lightly veiling her deep insecurities. Fame both protects Norma and paralyses her, complicated by the fact she is genuinely beloved, becoming flocked by admirers when she visits Paramount Studios. But being fed this admiration means she cannot risk it ending. She cocoons herself against the outside world, not helped by Max writing her fake fan-letters or Cecile B. DeMille stringing her along for a film that will never be made. Both do so out of genuine sympathy, DeMille musing how many people have brushed off Norma, and Max concerned for her recurring suicidal tendencies. It becomes a question about whether to break someone out of their fantasy or leave them in it, Joe himself thinking “you don’t yell at a sleepwalker. He may fall and break his neck.”

Eventually Joe eventually yell at Norma and disturb her delusion, but it’s him who ends up dead. Norma shoots him as he leaves, and Joe falls into her swimming-pool, his floating corpse having narrated the story. Norma herself only falls further into complete fantasy, believing the homicide police and Hollywood reporters are extras and camera-men on her movie-set. The dream-machine of Hollywood has curdled into a nightmare, which Norma evades by embracing the former illusion. Max directs Norma one last time, Sunset Boulevard ending on her “close-up” as she creeps towards the audience while the screen dissolves into opacity, another blurring of fiction and reality.

Sunset Boulevard is one of Billy Wilder’s grimmest films (save perhaps The Lost Weekend), although his tight entertaining screenplay and sarcastic humour still shine through. It’s also one of his most influential, still iconic and remembered even 70 years later. Aside from countless Hollywood films about Hollywood (from The Artist to La La Land), it doubtlessly inspired (along with Michael Jackson) Atlanta’s “Teddy Perkins” episode, and has had a Broadway musical adaptation with Glenn Close. Additionally, it is one of David Lynch’s favourite films, influencing Mulholland Drive and providing ‘Gordon Cole’ (a random producer in Sunset Boulevard) the name of Lynch’s own character in Twin Peaks – a reference pointed out in Twin Peaks: The Return. It makes sense Lynch loves Sunset Boulevard, even if it is not obviously surreal. Like Lynch’s films, it showcases the hidden and grotesque underside of American culture, and the unwieldy power of dreams.