Famous silent movie star Norma Desmond’s career has faded to oblivion. Eager to make a comeback she chooses young B-Movie screenwriter Joe Gillis to fix her script. But during the process, Norma starts to fancy him. Financially dependent on her, it becomes more and more difficult for Joe to refuse her.

This film noir was directed by Austrian immigrant Billy Wilder (1906-2002) who is considered to be one of the top directors and writers during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Among his credits are classics like “Double Idemnity” (1944), “The Lost Weekend” (1945), “Sabrina” (1954) and “Some Like It Hot” (1959).

Although not all Hollywood “insiders” – some older movie stars and in particular MGM studio boss Louis B. Meyer – were very fond of Sunset Boulevard, it managed to garner 11 Academy Award nominations and 3 Academy Awards (Best Script, Best Art Direction, Best Score). The critical reception was tremendous, and also financially the film had a moderate success (it did well in the metropolitan areas, but poor in the countryside). In 1998, Sunset Boulevard was selected to be number 12 of AFI’s 100 best American movies.

Director Billy Wilder gathered a great crew – eight time Academy Award winner Edith Head for the costumes, composer Franz Waxman, art director Hans Dreier, make-up artist Wally Westmore – and cast: Gloria Swanson, herself a faded star from the silent era, as Norma Desmond, the up-and-coming William Holden as the young writer, and legendary silent filmmaker and actor Erich von Stroheim as Norma’s servant Max. In special appearances one can see other greats of the silent era: Comedian/actor Buster Keaton, director Cecil B. DeMille, actress Anna Q. Nielsen and British actor H.B. Warner.

The film’s story is said to be inspired by the life of actress Norma Talmadge – a superstar of the silent screen that did not succeed in making the transition to the talkies, had an affair with actor Gilbert Roland (who was 12 years younger than herself) and spent her later days in wealthy retirement. Another reference is to the mysterious murder case of film director William Desmond Taylor.

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11 thoughts on “SCREENING #4: SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) – 110 MIN.

  1. There is a potential “Norma” in everyone’s mind.
    Sunset Boulevard, an American black comedy film directed by Billy Wilder in 1950, presents how a former silent-film star who has faded into Hollywood obscurity. Her name is Norma Desmond. She used to be a super star that possessed everything – reputation, fame, money, status…. However, things change, and she is not the attractive Norma Desmond that everyone adores anymore.
    The film starts with the male lead narrating his struggle with car renting issue with the policeman. As he tries to escape, he randomly goes into a luxury – where Normal lives. She suddenly falls in love with this young strong guy nameed Joe Gillis. And the story of these two poor “couple” begins. Norma keeps watching over Joe leads him to suffer. Joe, on the other hand, always goes back to this women since he needs to rely on her in order to live as a falling writer.
    Norma Desmond not only gives the character a vivid personality but represents a large number of people who have the “Norma’s” kind of characteristic. These people all share several things in common. For instance, they all have reached certain great positions in their life that allow them to possess lots of advantages, receive applause, and get compliments from people. Once they know how good it feels, they are addicted to it. In the film, what make Normal to be who she is today are her crazy fans, the director, and the media. The entertaining industry has built a distorted Norma Desmond, making her to believe that she is the center of the world and she will always be the center of the world. However, this is not the truth. The truth is that the queen Desmond that everyone is dying to see has already become history. Now, she is merely a 50 years old has-been woman, desperately looking for a last hope of returning to the spotlight.
    On the other hand, Joe Gillis who plays the writer is the male lead that allows the audiences to understand the story from another point of view. Although his sickness towards Normal can be clearly seen, he will always go back to the house whenever she is calling. He knows that Norma can give him everything that he needs. Therefore, no matter how hard he is trying to escape from the old lady, he cannot live without her support. In my opinion, these two people are merely in a mutual beneficial relationship – Joe needs Norma for economical demand; and Normal is keeping Joe to show off her attractiveness. Both of them are pitiful. As a man, Joe is supposed to be responsible for things that he has done and be economical independent; as a woman who used to be a superstar, Norma should be thankful for what makes her successful and realize that things do change, this is not her generation anymore.
    After watching the film, there are a lot of new perspectives toward life in my mind. The idea of how reputation can seriously lead a human being to be successful, but at the same time slowly lead us to suffer. Perhaps, the housekeeper in the film is the one who understands this idea the most although he does not give Normal a hand but indifferently watch her fail. Kristen stewart, the famous actress who is very active in many Hollywood films implied that “fame is the worst thing in the world”. This quote can be the best explanation to the film, as well as what I believe after watching the film.


  2. Among the film genres, Film Noir is something I don’t usually come across with. For some reason, it does not appeal to me much. The same goes for Black Comedy. I do not like the morbid and satire comedy that much. However, I was surprised that Sunset Blvd is falls under the film noir/black comedy genre because I really enjoyed watching the film.
    Sunset Blvd (1950) is an interesting film because it depicted the life behind the camera. It goes to show what happens to fading actors, albeit not everyone. However, it shows how drastic measures are made in order to get their fame back. It is a sad reality, and somewhat tragic because people like Norma Desmond will do anything to get back to the limelight, even foolishly believing that she is still an important star after decades. But what is sadder is that there are people like Joe Gillis, who only wants to be successful in what he loves doing: writing. Although it can be against his will, Joe had no choice but to buy into Norma’s wishes because he has no other income. Another interesting point is that this film has cameos from different actors who actually play themselves (i.e. fading silent actors, real-life directors) and I think it adds to the element and humor.
    As for the cinematography, I really liked the pool scene in the beginning. I read about how it was made and it was creative of Billy Wilder, the film’s director.
    It goes without saying that this film has a sad ending. I think the fact that Norma’s servant, Max, and the police officers played along, pretending to film Norma as she is about to be taken to police custody is a good closure. Good revelations, interesting idea, another black and white film has captured my attention and approval.


  3. After seeing this movie, I thought the narration plays a significant role in the film. What makes it more compelling is the fact that the narration is done by one of the main characters, Gillis, who is murdered at the end of the film; meaning the audience is told the story by the dead person. This little sarcastic twist draws our attention because I think it also kind of pushes back against the traditional style. It was also interesting to see things from Gillis’ perspective, especially when he describes Norma through the narration. Probably his characteristic as a writer is what composes the unique way of expressing elements in the film. For instance Gillis depicts Norma as “poor devil” and “silent drama queen”.

    Throughout the movie, I got some kind of dark impression. That is probably because this film puts emphasis on the poor side of Hollywood and filmmaking, and characters’ feelings are well portrayed in the movie. For example, the story derives Norma’s loneliness, sadness and anxiety, behind her extreme enthusiasm as one of the movie stars who is forgotten by people as time passes. It was clear to see she is driven by greed for retaining her career as well as her lover. Music is also one of the elements that contributes the gloomy mood to the movie. Almost every time Norma is on the screen or Gillis is at her house, the music consists of a minor key is repeatedly played. I thought the layout of Norma’s room also creates atmosphere of patheticness. It seems that the space is just stuck in the moment when she had a glorious life as a real star. By seeing the room filled with a tremendous amount of pictures of her, I could determine how she lives her life as clinging to past glory.

    At first I thought the story contained a classic love triangle dealing with all its jealousy, heartbreak and tragedy; but I noticed that there is something unusual in the relationship among the characters. When we have a rich character in a relationship, it is usually natural to see a rich guy buying girls. However, in this movie, it was interesting to see that the rich woman is actually the one who sort of buys the young guy and keeps him by her side.


  4. What I like about this film the most is the acting of Norma Desmond. I thought it was very unique. The film was unpredictable in a good way. The beginning scenes was creepy and I thought it would be either horror or suspense film. With the dead body in the pool and chimpanzee and the burial at night. I really like the narration of Joe Gillis even if it was shown in the very first scene that he was going to die at the end of the film.  

    It was also interesting to see how things work in the Hollywood. The dark side of working there as a writer and with the actresses. It was also fun to know and see that the actresses in this film were featured in this film.
    At the end of the film it was so tragic to see Norma became crazy and hallucinate after killing Joe. She was basically thrown out of the Hollywood only because she was not the trend or she was too old. Even though she used to be one of the biggest stars. She could not accept this fact and on top of this his first husband made her believe that she still has what it takes and she is still a star. I like how it ended.


  5. This 1950 film noir was a critical successful during the “Hollywood Golden Age”, winning 3 academy awards for Best Script, Best Art Direction and Best Score. I enjoyed elements of this movie such as the narration by the protagonist, and the critique and insight into the Hollywood system. I think the two central performances were engaging. William Holden’s portrayal of Joe Gillis gave a good sense of what life as a struggling B-movie director would have been like. The other main character Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, is believable as a washed up delusional movie star from the silent age. This movie is billed as a black comedy but I find that to be a bit misleading. I guess the indictment of Hollywood in terms of how stars, writers and directors are expendable would have resonated more for audiences of the time. I guess the cameos by former silent era stars and the fact that Gloria Swanson is essentially playing an alternate version of her real self qualifies as black comedy for some people.
    On the negative side, I found the movie to be at least 20 minutes too long, especially as I found the character of Norma Desmond to be irritating. Her melodrama and overacting – although true to her diva personality – was grating by the end.


  6. Sunset Boulevard takes a sardonic angle on life in Hollywood back in the 1950s. This film was a first, since it mixed fiction with the realities of filmmaking and includes Paramount Studios, Director Erich von Stroeim, Director Cecil B. DeMille, Mabel Normand and many others. What struck me during the viewing was Norma Desmond’s raw acting. At first I was quite put off by her spotlight-grabbing presence and off-colour humor, but as the plot thickens one comes to realize it is very much a part of her character.
    The film opens with the death of Gillis, floating in a pool surrounded by paparazzi. I’m usually apposed to revealing the ending in the beginning of a film, but Sunset Boulevard manages to break many cinematic norms. The scene which was most pronounced to me was Norma Desmond’s walk down the stairs towards the end, where her husband once more takes the role of Director and guides her to what we can only assume is a life behind bars. The film manages to wrap up all questions and loose ends quite neatly, leaving the audience bitter towards Hollywood and a new pronounced view on the “glamour” of show business.


  7. I had seen Sunset Boulevard earlier in my childhood, but all I could recall was Norma’s descent from the ‘palace’ staircase at the end. Given that the film also begins with the main character’s fate dictating narration- the film possessed a certain Twilight Zone feel.

    It’s always good to review films with a new perspective. My current predicament had semblance to Gillis- a young man caught between work and play. His work in the film industry beckons him to choose between what assures money (writing for Norma Desmond) and why he got into the business in the first place (writing scripts with talent like Betty). This contrast is firsthand visible to me, because I’ll be moving to L.A. to work in film, but I have so much more going for me in Tokyo.

    As for the play aspect, Gillis is also faced with the ultimatum to leave Norma (the source of material wealth) which would result in her absurd and fatal overreaction. Eventually, he learns he has lost himself to her and leaves- but it was too late, he was in too deep and lost everything. There’s a romantic, in the Shakespearean sense, side to Gillis’s fate. There is dignity in his last action, whether or not he knew he would die. His decision to unveil to Betty the fantasy world and send her packing was particularly noble. Thankfully, my circumstances with my girl aren’t completely parallel to Gillis’s; but I’ve considered his narration as a series of excuses to stay with Norma. Won’t recommend this to vulnerable men. Regardless, way to go out Gillis!

    The exposition made for a good lead-in to a fantastical story. Gillis’s car trouble and preceding chase led him trapped him in a time bubble of a decaying star from another era. It’s obvious the writing behind each character was thorough. That’s what I feel made this film.


  8. Sunset Boulevard was a fascinating movie. Its fascination doesn’t just lie within the confines of the plot, characters, or its setting; but also in the Meta aspect of the film. All of the references to the state of the film industry at the time of Sunset Boulevard’s release make for an intriguing glimpse into the reality of the post-silent era of film. Utilizing real names of people in the industry, and casting actors who served as parallels for the characters they portrayed is a mind-blowing concept. The Meta aside, the noir presentation of the film is done very well. All of the cast make for entertaining characters, the main duo of William Holden and Gloria Swanson have a chemistry that is appropriately unsettling. Holden’s performance near the end as he finally gives up, and attempts to get out of his current situation entirely; breaking off his relationship with Betty, returning Norma’s gifts, and finally deciding to leave, made for an impactful scene. On the topic of Norma, Swanson’s performance, as mentioned before was very unsettling, her over-dramatization helped craft a character who was appropriately insane. From the performance of the main cast, the excellent noir presentation, and the intriguing Meta aspect of the film, Sunset Boulevard was a very entertaining movie that gives an interesting look at the post-silent era of the film industry.


  9. I am personally not a big fan of the Film noir genre; however Sunset Boulevard was at least to say an interesting film. It’s a peak in to the backside or dark-side of 1950’s Hollywood. Norma Desmond played by Gloria Swanson, the character is marvelous! And the setup is genius, casting a washed up silent film actress to play a washed up silent film actress going insane. The most innovative part of the film I personally believe is the reversed “sugar daddy” situation, she is so rich and powerful, of course a tad insane, and she simply haves her way with Joe who ends up not being able to turn her money and gifts down. I loved the almost over acting from Gloria; it made Norma into this insane washed up actress trapped in her own world, always acting and always a diva. The end scene after Norma in an act of jealousy and madness killed Joe, her mental state finally breaks completely. Walking down the stairs all made up with a glittering red carpet dress, “I’m ready for my close up”. I loved the end, it was triadic and sad but genius.


  10. The film Sunset Boulevard was without a doubt my favorite film we have seen so far. I have quite an infatuation with Old Hollywood and Film Noir so the film itself was visually appealing for me. The complexity behind Norma Desmond’s character is what truly interests me. The tragic reality behind her dream to make a big come back is evident from the beginning. Norma lives by herself until she finds Gillis, a struggling script writer, and eventually falls in love with him inviting him to live with her. Norma buys Gillis’ love with things such as new suits, shoes, etc. Gillis soon realizes that Norma is insane yet realizes that he is in a stable financial situation with her thus forcing him to stay with her. Gillis begins sneaking out in the middle of the night to write a script with another woman. Norma soon finds out and becomes furiously jealous which starts to drive her crazy. Gillis finally realizes how clinically insane Norma is and begins to pack up his things to start a new life. Norma cannot comprehend that he is about to leave her so she ends up killing him. The ending of the movie however seems to be the most iconic scene, with Norma thinking that she is shooting her come back scene with everyone watching her walk down the stairs. The movie overall is excellent and will surely stay a classic for years to come.


  11. This film was first time for me to see the story about scene behind the film. I actually do not know well about the truth of Hollywood at this time however I felt real from this film. The most surprising scene in this film was when actress shot the main character from the behind by gun. I am not used to see the result which end with the death of main character so this scene actually shocked my a lot. Overall I did not like this film so much because this film make me think that it is too unnatural. I may feel this way because I am looking this film as current point of view where movie is taken 60 years ago. This movie is about showing audience the craziness but I did not feel craziness so much from this film. The first scene of running to the house of Norma was bit awkward for me too. If I watched this film 60 years ago then I would be more surprised about the truth of Hollywood and I will sympathize more with the psychological description of characters.


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