Steve G 🐝’s review published on Letterboxd:
Once in a while you come across a performance in a film that not only dominates that film, but overwhelms it to the point where you wonder if they had done an edit of the finished product that only included said performance if the film would actually have been better.
Sunset Boulevard could easily have been such a picture. The magnitude of the performance of Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond can be measured in the fact that in so many ways this is not only an incredible film, but also a daring and unusual film for its time. Yet her performance as the faded Hollywood icon, left desperately clinging on to her glory days coupled with forlorn hopes for a resurrection of her stardom, is so dominating and so amazing that the rest of the film could so easily have wilted.
Trying to get to the root of her performance and judge it as you would normally judge an acting performance becomes something that you can pretty much forget about after around an hour. Initially, you're not quite sure what to make of her. Surely she's overracting? Is she meant to be like this? What had those directors seen in her all those years before? What was Billy Wilder thinking?
Then it all clicks into place. Why should a film, any film, have to conform to what we expect of it in all of its elements for us to judge it as great? Swanson's performance here is absolutely not what I was expecting and absolutely not what I would have thought beforehand would be what I would need from her to make her character work and for the film to work accordingly.
But here was an actress who could easily have been Norma Desmond in so many ways. A silent era goddess, adored by audiences and sought after by directors, who suddenly hit the skids, like so many, when the sound era arrived. She had only done one film in 16 years, after all. She was perfect. The audiences would eat it up.
In reality it was initially nothing more than a wonderful conceit. Certainly the sound era had changed her career, but only in that she successfully sought business opportunities elsewhere and decided on a career in theatre instead. It was a wonderful story nonetheless, and one that throws extra weight behind the quality of this performance - she was playing the character that she had meant to have been herself. In the end, if stories are to be believed, she became a lot like Desmond, too. Had we been kidded? Had she been kidding herself?
Regardless, it was wonderfully bold and nothing short of incredibly creative on the part of Billy Wilder - not that you would expect anything less from the man, of course. The confidence and ideas flowing through his work can be seen in almost every shot. Swanson bats away an infernal microphone that ruined her career as she visits the actual Cecil B. DeMille, a strong William Holden tells the lovely Nancy Olson to stand 2 feet away in a wonderful pseudo-romantic scene, and there is that exceptional near-opening shot under the swimming pool.
What of casting stars as themselves in a couple of scenes? She doesn't just invite some friends over, she invites over Hedda Hopper and Buster Keaton among others. Cecil B. DeMille really does make an appearance as himself, and actually does pretty well. Although not playing himself, Erich von Stroheim puts his acting shoes on as her faithful butler with an interesting past. Apparently, along with the use of the Paramount name and set for several scenes, this was all meant to add authenticity to the 'film about films' idea and do something that had rarely been done in films before. It's as successful as it is, still to this very day, extremely impressive.
Then again, genius and utterly enthralling vision drips off everything to the point where it's almost unfair on almost every other film ever made. It's possibly the greatest film I have ever seen.