Sunset Boulevard ★★★★★

No one ever leaves a star. That's what makes one a star.

I've seen many films with the same premise as Sunset Boulevard: an aging film star down on his or her luck tries to come to terms with the loss of their youth and fame. And yet, I believe that there has never been a more biting, contemptuous, yet loving portrayal of one such star with leftover delusions of grandeur.

Norma Desmond is a silent movie star who hasn't acted in a film for twenty years. One day Joe Gillis, a writer down on his luck, arrives at her doorstep and allows himself to be drawn into the web that Norma weaves around him. Nothing bodes well for either of them, and why would it? Neither of them are admirable human beings. They are simply using each other: the man for easy money, the woman for her ego.

The third player in the film is Max Von Mayerling, perhaps the only sympathetic character in the film. He is a dignified presence, despite the fact that he has been reduced to a butler to a woman who regards him as nothing more than a servant. He is the only one who can make us believe that there may be something to love about Norma Desmond after all. The love and respect that continually shines in his eyes for her cannot be for nothing, can it?

The acting is top-notch from everybody involved, but the obvious standout is Gloria Swanson. Her theatricality teeters very close to parody but somehow never crosses the line. Her grabbing, claw-like fingers, her wide staring eyes, the way she speaks, as though she's royalty and nobody else matters - it's all a wonder to behold.

You start out smirking at Swanson's Norma Desmond, because nobody likes egomaniacs. And then you start disliking her for the clingy, jealous thing she is, so insecure in her looks when she has actually aged wonderfully, and besides, she's filthy rich. But by the end, you can only feel pity for her.

The other star of the film is the writing. At various points throughout the brilliant voiceover I could imagine myself reading in novel form the very words I was hearing, flipping through pages and pages of elegant, satirical prose, occasionally punctuated by brilliant dialogue. What gorgeous wordplay. It hasn't aged a day.

Films about films are always fascinating, especially when they explore the illusion of celebrity. It isn't star worship that's poisonous, it seems; it's only truly fatal when actors start to believe the myths about themselves.

You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!

Sunset Boulevard is a brilliant film. It lays bare a morbid picture of the industry that has entranced millions and millions of people for a century. It satirizes its subjects by drawing rather frightening real-life parallels, but it loves them too, in a grudging manner. Sort of like the way you love your family, even if you don't like them very much.

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