Sunset Boulevard ★★★★

There are more intimate, relatable threads in Sunset Boulevard, but the one that grabbed me is the one that’s least knowable—firsthand—to most of us viewers, the one right there on the movie poster: "A Hollywood Story." Emphasis on Hollywood. It didn't take too long for the town to become famous, or infamous, or hell, maybe even legendary. It’d been a movie-making Mecca for less than 50 years by the time Wilder made this film, and what surprises me is what an immense and oppressive sense of history already looms over it. It makes sense, though. A supremely faddish and youth-obsessed town, anything that's not right now in Hollywood might as well be ancient history. The early revolution of sound in film really amplified the passing years, marking a sharp division between before and after. A young industry, it already had veterans, second-generation insiders. That’s why the 20-some years that have passed since Norma Desmond was a leading actress are more like a lifespan. That’s why people treat her like she’s dead, even though she’s only 50.

Maybe Russell Crowe was thinking about Norma Desmond when he made those comments about 50-year-old actresses still trying to be ingénues. My guess is that most 50+ actresses aren't delusional; they just want roles that treat them as interesting, well-rounded human beings. (Maybe even roles that regard their sexuality with something other than disinterest or outright disgust!) Of course, Hollywood doesn't have a ton of time for that, still less at the time of Sunset Boulevard, and that’s why it occasionally makes for such uncomfortable viewing. Norma Desmond, less likable than pitiable, makes the same outsize demands on the world as she did when she was a starlet, is willingly blind to the fact that she’s not, and the rare times she acknowledges this are moments of abject humiliation. It might have been easy to relate to her on a simpler human level—because who doesn't struggle to let go of the past sometimes?—but Gloria Swanson, with all her eye-rolling, witchy demeanor, doesn't want to let you in. It’s one of the few performances I can think of that can truly be called "larger than life." I spent most of the movie wanting to shake Norma, but at the same time, I sort of understood. Her humiliations are sad and frustrating, but not as much as the idea that growing older and less pretty is a tragedy, something so shameful that it can’t even be acknowledged.

And there’s Cecil B. DeMille, 20 years her senior, still making pictures. It's the other side of the camera, but still.

It's such an incredible, cynical story. Opening in death, its gloominess lingers over the proceedings and obscures scenes that would otherwise be lively, like those late-night screenwriting sessions with Betty. It's fitting that most of the action takes place in the most sumptuous mausoleum you've ever seen, and I can't believe how dingy it all looks. Amazing, but dingy. Even the least spectacular black and white photography usually looks at least superficially clean and crisp, but between the woolly grounds of Norma's mansion and the ostentatious, dated interiors, the movie breathes a palpable deterioration. But man, it does it with flair.

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