By the finale of SUNSET BOULEVARD, as Norma Desmond descends the staircase and utters one of the most famous lines in the history of the movies, we've in turn witnessed one of the most shattering indictments of the medium, seen before or since its 1950 release. You could discuss how director Billy Wilder's undisputed classic is all about mental illness, how Gloria Swanson so urgently (yet delicately) creates a convincing portrait of a simmering madness. Is it medical? Neurological? Jettisoning that, I think it's closer to the disease of Hollywood itself - a complete immersal in the land of make-believe. A lifetime spent building a fantasy fed by the creative types and sycophantic assistants around her. To say nothing of an adoring (and ultimately fickle) public. Deification, perhaps?
Is there room for reality in such a life? Any real estate left in the brain to consider anything besides show business? Recall that great moment in THE PLAYER, when Tim Robbins' Hollywood honcho asks his co-horts: "We're educated people. Can't we talk about anything besides movies?" They all laugh.
Self-worth in celebrity infested Los Angeles is so often defined by fame. But they'll forget you, just you wait. You're left with memories that become your present day. You conveniently ignore the change of season. In a seeming aside, Bob Woodward wrote of an observant woman in his biography of the late John Belushi, Wired. Someone who happened upon the fading actor/comedian in public as he was watching himself on a screen, four years after his pinnacle of fame. She remarked that she was witnessing a contemporary, true-life Norma Desmond, in the flesh. While I'm trotting out pop culture icons, I can also remember an interview with Henry Winkler in which he described Hollywood as a town filled with so many has-beens, "bruised bananas".
Joe Gillis (William Holden) isn't around long enough to become such, but is one of that even larger group, the "would-" or "wanna-be"s. He is a struggling screenwriter, failing in his meetings with studio execs and outrunning those hired to repossess his automobile. But one day he seals his fate by turning into the driveway of an old mansion, owned by former starlet of the silents, Norma Desmond. He recognizes her, alright, and soon finds himself in her employ, editing a screenplay called Salome that she has fashioned to be her big comeback. He finds it an unruly mess, no doubt a reflection of its author.
Gillis, hardly in a position to refuse, begins living in the great mansion, and lavished by his hostess with expensive clothes. Ever self-aware, he grows comfortable with the arrangement, but soon learns of the depth of the seams in the facade. Norma is deeply depressed, suicidal. She will think nothing of slitting her wrists for attention. Norma's butler Max (played by director Erich von Stroheim) reveals large, telling secrets about his relationship with her. Joe later attends a New Year's Eve party she throws, discovering he is the only guest, his suspicions of her intentions confirmed.
But Joe is meanwhile falling for Betty (Nancy Olson), a script girl at Paramount who at the beginning of SUNSET BOULEVARD is observed criticizing one of his efforts. Later, she sees promise in his work and desires collaboration. Joe takes to secret late night meetings at the studio with her. Despite Betty's engagement with Joe's friend, Artie (Jack Webb, in a very entertaining performance), she becomes involved with the fledgling writer.
Things seem to brighten for Ms. Desmond after Salome is delivered to the studio. She'll even score a meeting Mr. Cecil B. DeMille. But things aren't as they seem. Comebacks are only imagined. Norma owns a gun.
SUNSET BOULEVARD is as cold and brilliant a Hollywood portrait as I've ever seen. Grim, but often grimly funny. There have been many other task taking Tinseltown sagas, most satirical, but none quite achieving the devastating coda of Wilder's film. The director, co-authoring with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr., utilizes the familiar device of having yet another actor of silent films failing to make the transition to talkies. Convenient enough, but Norma's story is timeless, and still playing out, right at this moment, I'll bet. Someone is sitting in his or her rotting Bel Air mansion (or perhaps dumpy walk up in Echo Park) surrounded by head shots and/or watching their old work, just like Norma does (in one of the film's numerous haunting images), dreaming. Dying.
The film is narrated by a character who is murdered, one who became a victim of celebrity. But Norma is left to suffer, even as she is led down that staircase, believing that she is filming a movie, at long last! She lets Mr. DeMille know she is indeed ready for her close up.