Sunset Boulevard ★★★★★

“Madame is the greatest star of them all.”

Life can be so cruel. You start out young, healthy, attractive—the world is your oyster. But oysters spoil quickly. Soon you’re old, stricken, wrinkled—the world has forgotten you. The attention you once were given freely can barely be bought. It’s enough to drive a person mad.

As proof, look no further than Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). She was once a great star of the silent screen, adored by throngs of fans. Now she is a relic, no longer famous. Like those long spoiled, she takes no responsibility for her situation (to the extent she even acknowledges it). It’s those stupid people with their talk, talk, talk. Don’t they know she has a face?! Her abandonment has her quickly madding, but she seeks a return to glory through a production of Salome. Joe Gillis (William Holden), down-on-his-luck screenwriter, isn’t too proud to whore himself out to Norma for a while. She’ll pay for everything, and her theatrics are entertaining. He can once again make her the star attraction for an audience of one. The parasitic cycle of life in Hollywood continues.

But what of those fan letters? Hundreds of them, written by fans who have never forgiven the great Norma Desmond for deserting them. No, those were written by Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). Even after Norma divorced him, he left his directing career to be her servant. Like a self-indulgent parent convinced that his doting is for his child’s benefit, he couldn’t bear to let Norma confront life’s indifference to her. The parasitic cycle of enablement continues.

Though Max’s behavior may not be exactly noble, and his relationship with Norma is profoundly dysfunctional, his fondness for her provides a window into her humanity. Without Max, Norma is a gargoyle, a freak at whom we can gawk and laugh. Max enables Norma, but he also enables our pity and makes Joe’s tolerance of Norma plausible. But Max cannot save her. His acts of kindness are just another form of cruelty.

Sunset Blvd., Billy Wilder’s tale of Hollywood’s casual brutality, remains one of the best-written movies ever made some six-plus decades after its release. It’s classic Wilder—hard-bitten, deeply cynical, darkly funny. While my personal relationship with film derives primarily from an inborn fondness for so-called “pure cinema,” Wilder is the exception who proves the rule. Movies as an art form tend to be set apart from their closest artistic counterparts (literature and theater) by their visual capabilities—when a filmmaker can tell a story through images, it’s a truly exciting, riveting experience. Overly wordy films, dragged down by the exposition propping them up, are often correctly labeled “lazy” because they forget this cinematic virtue: Show, don’t tell.

Sunset Blvd. on the other hand, as with so many Wilder films, relies on rich writing and characterization and bright performances to bring these features to life. None of this is to say that Wilder in general, or Sunset Blvd. in particular, is visually boring or barren. On the contrary, the interiors of Norma’s mansion are beautiful renderings of decaying decadence, and the film’s final image is indelibly disturbing. But with Wilder…well, all I can say is, please, tell me more.

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