Jacob Olsen’s review published on Letterboxd:
Before I go any further with this review, I must inform that this film is part of my five star candidate project, where I intend to rewatch / review films that I have given the 4.5 star rating. For me, I've kept the 5 stars sacred, reserved only for those films that are favorites. Films I can watch over and over again, almost at any time or as closely separated in time as possible. Hovering under these films are, obviously, the 4.5 star films. Films that I consider to be absolutely superb, wonderful classics or, maybe, placed there by mistake after a sudden stunning movie experience? In retrospect, some of them may be degraded to 4 star films (still a very good rating). Fewer still, could over time move up to be included among my favorites, to bask in the glow of the chosen few. This is the start of a long journey to find those films.
I'm not exactly sure how and when this happened, but around the time when I was seriously getting into movies as a hobby, Billy Wilder rather quickly got my attention. And that again started with Sunset Boulevard. Buckle up for a long review, not much plot, just a fan rant.
Many people consider it a film noir, and it sure has some key elements. There's obviously been a crime, because there is a body floating in the pool already in the film's opening minutes. The lighting and the skewed takes are there. The voice-over that is so common in noir films is there as well. But there is no blonde femme fatale. And it's here the film takes a turn for something else, because there really aren't any crooks here at all, it is instead revealed that they are all just victims.
Still quite young, Wilder had at the time already been nominated for eight Academy Awards and had won two of them for The Lost Weekend. Still, to make a film about the dark side of Hollywood was a bold move even from him. But of course he was well known, too known for the anecdote from the film's premiere to be of any truth. Louis B. Mayer, the big movie mogul, is said to have stormed out of the theater saying something like: «This Billy Wilder should be sent home to Europe! He bites the hand that feeds him!»
Wilder supposedly overheard this, and returned the following: «I'm Billy Wilder. Why don't you go fuck yourself!» It's a good story, though.
Several actresses were considered for the role as Norma Desmond, names like Mae West, Pola Negri and Mary Crawford were pulled out of the hat. They all had different quirks that made them impossible for the role, such as Mae West wanting to rewrite all the dialogue (like Wilder would let that happen) and Mary Crawford who demanded that she should own the negative of the finished film. Those silent stars were big! It wasn't until a garden party at George Cukor's that suddenly Gloria Swanson's name came up, and everything fell into place. Swanson was perfect for the role. Exactly like her character in the film she hadn't really been acting since the silent age, so this was indeed a comeback. Or in Norma Desmond's words: «Comeback! I hate that word! It's a return!». This is casting of a kind that surpasses what Quentin Tarantino is doing these days, by giving roles to cult or former actors from his youth.
To act as Norma Desmond's faithful servant, Max von Mayerling, Wilder struck more casting gold. Erich von Stroheim. As director in the silent age, von Stroheim made a few classics of his own. And lo and behold! During a movie night at the mansion, the picture that is shown is Queen Kelly, a film von Stroheim directed in 1929, starring none other than Gloria Swanson in the title role. This has to be repeated to understand the greatness of it - Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond is watching an actual film starring herself, and directed by Erich von Stroheim / Max von Meyerling.
Today I find it hard to think of a better man to play the protagonist than William Holden. This is also a work of art. Remember that Joe Gillis is a bit worn out, he hasn't really struck gold after a few moderately successful screenplays, and that is now already a few years behind him. He is sincerely considering leaving the business.
Well, so did Holden at the time. He had his breakthrough ten years earlier, but had drifted into supporting actor hell and was, if not forgotten, at least faded. Wilder considered Montgomery Clift, but was turned down. So, in a bit more concealed way than Swanson / von Stroheim, even Holden plays 'himself', or surely a part he could easily identify with.
Talk about playing themselves. Several actors actually does do that in this film, and one stands out in particular. You see, Norma Desmond, as did Gloria Swanson, used to be the star in Cecil B. DeMille's productions. Therefore, who could possibly be better than DeMille himself to play that role? It is very moving when Desmond goes to visit DeMille on his set, because we can so easily imagine that it is actually Gloria Swanson meeting her old acquaintance. The set she is visiting is the actual set of DeMille's Samson and Delilah and the crew is real, they were actually making that film there and then. So, on top of everything else, there's a behind-the-scenes sequence hidden in this film.
There is one more actor that should be mentioned, Nancy Olson, who plays the young aspiring screenwriter Betty Schaefer. Even she is perfectly cast, as a rather unknown, up-and-coming star of Hollywood. Perhaps for Olson, things didn't turn out exactly as planned later in her acting career, but that doesn't degrade her efforts in this one.
There are several heart breaking scenes, but for me The New Year's Eve party at Norma Desmond's mansion stands out in particular. When we realize, along with Joe Gillis, that there aren't any other guests coming, Norma Desmond's incredible loneliness jumps out of the screen and punches us in the gut. The orchestra hired for the event keeps on playing even if there's no one on the dance floor, the very dance floor once honored by Valentino's presence.
And the tragic figure that is Max von Mayerling! The star's creator and former mentor, now reduced to a mere servant. He refuses to let go of her, cares for her and keeps up her illusion of still being the greatest. The secret which he reveals to Gillis when the two of them encounter in the garage is another sucker-punch, which adds to the tragic fate of both master and servant.
Gillis doesn't understand it at first, but he is about to take the role as Norma Desmond's pet. There's a bizarre event that happens when he first enters the mansion, as he is mistaken for a funeral agent. A pet funeral agent. Norma Desmond has had a pet monkey who has passed away and is about be to buried in the garden, and Gillis is quickly hired as the new, although camouflaged as ghost writer for a movie script Desmond has written for her return. I love how his attitude slowly and gradually changes throughout the film.
First it's reluctance. He gradually gives in to acceptance, he becomes her lover. Then onto exploitation, before finally the guilt and pity that he starts to feel convinces him to leave. Does he see a future with Betty after all? But then it is far too late.
And finally, as everything ebbs out, for a brief amount of time Norma Desmond regains her fame.
Yeah, and this obviously made the cut to five stars. Welcome.