Sunset Blvd. (1950) – rewind

Title: Sunset Blvd.
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Released in: 1950
Genre: Film-noir, Drama
Running Time: 110 min.

Let us start by clearing up something: Sunset Blvd. is most definitely one of the best films Hollywood has ever produced–and if we were to specify that spectrum to “Hollywood film about Hollywood,” it is without a doubt the best in its league. David Lynch graced us with his own version of Hollywood in 2001 with Mulholland Dr., but it is mere tribute to the masterpiece the Great Billy Wilder and his ever-so-precise performers Gloria Swanson and William Holden created (something Lynch not only alluded to, but probably takes pride in doing so). Moreover, unlike the typical Lynch-esque perplexing nature of Mulholland Dr., Sunset Blvd. is in its essence one of the most Hollywood dramas ever made–it is easily accessible, comfortably addictive and instantly enjoyable. It is not to say Mulholland Dr. is a bad film–far from it–but rather that Sunset Blvd. is so singularly significant.

There is something inherently special about Sunset Blvd. As with all “inherently special” films, it is one where the viewer finds a new meaning in each viewing, making him/her snap his/her finger and yell out “I got that!” and feel superior to everyone else in the room with the newfound knowledge for about 15 minutes.

In my last viewing, that moment occurred when Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is playing bridge with her friends from the bygone era. Holden’s character, in the typical Wilder-narration style, refers to these “friends” as the “waxworks”. That is quite an understatement of who these people actually were.

Of course, Gloria Swanson needs no introduction, but her wingers, Anna Q. Nilsson and H. B. Warner were also stars in their heydays. Nilsson was named the most popular woman in Hollywood in 1926, but her career soon declined with the coming of sound. Warner fared better–he even garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Capra’s Lost Horizon. But he did also play Jesus for one of De Mille’s epics during the silent days, so there is that.

Then there is the star, sitting quietly, with a face that is so devoid of emotion, almost as if he will soon break down and cry on his knees for his downward career. He is, needless to say, Buster Keaton. However, in Sunset Blvd., his role (who lasts a single line) does not perform impossible stunts to save the day–neither in the movie or for any depressed viewers still looking for his films to combat the side effects of 21st century modern life. All Wilder allows him to do is for him to say a single phrase: “pass.”

This moment means so much that somehow it has travelled 65 years into the future and snapped something inside me. It is not that before this viewing I could barely recognise the name “Buster Keaton” when it was brought up, and now that I actually love his films and recognise his signature stone-face with my heart that I instantly find my recognising his cameo an excuse to feel better about myself; it’s deeper than that.

Keaton’s The General was appreciated properly only after his career had a positive turning point in in early 50s. By the time Wilder–then the budding director with several Academy wins and nominations under his belt–invited the filmmaker to the Sunset Blvd. set, Buster Keaton still had not fully recovered from the career damage he suffered in 30s and 40s.

Sure, we have seen–and most importantly in this case, heard–Keaton during 30s and 40s, but compared to his heydays, they were lacking to say the least. And Keaton was a comedian who first and foremost earned his right in the annals of cinema history through slapstick performance and impossible stunts. However, the only shot of him Wilder allows the audience is the man sitting idly, saying “pass” twice. There must be some significance in that, beyond the superficial idea of making the forgotten star look even more miserable.

Keaton is first and foremost denied of doing what he wants: direction, stunts and slapstick. He is being directed by Billy Wilder in the set, while he is being urged to speak louder by Nilsson in the scene. He is forced to speak–both in reality and in the scene–when his strength was from his emotionless face and body that moves to achieve impossible feats. No longer in control, the Great Stone Face not only has to “pass” his moment in the scene, but has to confirm such status again with his own words.

I will not venture to guess what he was thinking while filming the scene. However, Wilder constructs the scene so that such meanings can be drawn. It is from these little details such as this that Sunset Blvd. stays immortal and everlasting.

Let us focus on our protagonist, Joe Gillis (William Holden). Joe mentions through his narration that the only spendable cash is earned through this game of bridge they are playing. He does not play the game, but rather receives certain percentage from Norma’s winning. Only thing Joe does is sit next to Norma as a sidekick, and occasionally going to fireplace to empty the cigarette ashtray as per her highness’ wish.

There is a line where he remarks his life under Norma feels like a cigarette caught by the strange contraption of hers. Then there is the scene where Norma gives her lover a golden cigarette case. The connection is both obvious but carefully and calculatingly positioned. The image is obvious: an elaborate golden case to enclose a “cigarette” that is constantly being replaced.

Remember what happened to the last thing that was within an elaborate case in the mad house of Norma Desmond? It was a monkey–a dead pet monkey to be more precise. Who knows, maybe that monkey died of lung cancer, that would have made the metaphor even more complete (if we were to believe Mad Men teaches us right, smoking and lung cancer connection probably wasn’t that common knowledge until late 1950s).

Then there is this scene of Max (Erich von Stroheim) telling Joe that his car is being taken away. But that’s whole another story, one of seemingly infinite number in Sunset Blvd. Let’s just feel proud for a few seconds of what we’ve learned so far in a scene that barely lasts a minute. Only for a few seconds though, for I am sure that others have differing perspectives of the same exact scene. And that is the beauty of this film: for a black-and-white film, it is so rich with colour.

The best “film about making a film” is probably Fellini’s , but best “film about filmmakers” is, in my opinion, Sunset Blvd. Indeed, for a film about filmmakers, there is only one scene that involves actual filming; yet, the film encompasses so many things about films without showing us how they are made. I am sure many feel the same when I say the film offers something new with each viewing. And the most magnificent thing about Sunset Blvd. is that it is charming enough to be watched multiple times to actually experience it in such a way. Furthermore, it does not matter whether or not you pick up every tiny little homage Wilder has planted throughout the film, because it is still a marvellous standalone achievement as a melodrama and a film-noir.

Sunset Blvd. in the end is a letter from one of the greatest masters of Hollywood’s Golden Age to the industry he was part of. Sometimes, it is a love letter, lovingly and nostalgically recounting the romantic memories they had shared; others, it is an open letter, loudly and cynically criticising the way it has come to. Regardless, its style of writing is consistently dramatic, bitter, cynical, charming and of course, perfect–thus, the film remains immortal to this date.

 “This is not a Hollywood story. This is the Hollywood story.”