by Kevin Faber
Sunset Boulevard is, deservedly, one of the most iconic films ever made. Unfortunately, since the movie is over seventy years old, many people don’t know a lot about this masterpiece. Therefore, here is an in-depth review of the fifties classic Sunset Boulevard.
The plot of Sunset Boulevard is, in its most basic sense, fairly well-known. An aging former starlet (Norma Desmond) latches on to the young screenwriter Joe Gillis, hoping to create a film that will restart her career. While Joe is initially excited about the opportunity to work with a star, especially due to his own lackluster career, he begins to realize that Norma is unwell. She is stuck in the past and unable to move on. Eventually, he attempts to leave Norma and move on with his life. This results in his death at her hands. Although this film doesn’t deal with things like the 1950 census records, its plot can seem fairly old-fashioned. A modern version of this movie would likely include more violence, more horrifying sequences, and more concrete plot points. However, Sunset Boulevard isn’t a film that needs a busy plot. It’s an extremely character-based movie. Instead of the characters serving the plot, the plot serves the characters.
Speaking of characters, Sunset Boulevard has some of the best that movies can offer. In particular, Norma Desmond is a standout. This character represents the tragedy and morose humor of the movie. Unfortunately, she also represents an issue that women are still facing in Hollywood. When women begin aging, they are pushed to the side and cast far less. Because she was a silent film star, Norma experiences this sudden neglect on an even more profound level. In any other film, Norma’s character would likely have been played for laughs. She would be written off as the crazy hag who couldn’t let bygones be bygones. While Norma certainly doesn’t come off as sane in any sense, she is afforded a great amount of empathy. She is by no means a villain.
Joe Gillis is a less-discussed character from Sunset Boulevard. Despite this, his body floating in Norma’s magnificent pool (the sight of which may make you want to look for pool builders near me) is one of the most well-known images of the film. Joe’s arc revolves around getting inspiration and writing a perfect script. Therefore, he is initially using Norma, not the other way around. Once he realizes that leaving will break her, he allows a relationship to start. Yes, he is being manipulated by Norma the entire time. Yes, he does seem to have good intentions. However, he still has agency and, like so many other men, uses Norma to get what he wants. This sets him apart from the usual movie protagonists, as well as allows his character to better serve the story’s themes.
The themes of Sunset Boulevard are, unfortunately, as old as time. Fear of aging, abuse and neglect of women, mental illness and perfecting art are all issues that still permeate society. Because of this, Sunset Boulevard has in no way lost its impact on viewers, especially those familiar with the film industry. It also manages to drive home these themes without spelling each one out. If you’re looking for an example of this, look no further than the film’s iconic final scene. The scene starts following Norma’s murder of Joe. This violent act causes her to lose any grip on reality. Therefore, in order to get her to the police without any violence, Norma’s loyal butler Max brings her fantasy to life. He pretends that everyone is there to film her movie. This results in Norma majestically descending the stairs, greeting imaginary fans and coworkers along the way. The look of pure joy on her face is both unsettling and utterly heartbreaking. She then gets to the bottom, where she says the famous line, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”. Without saying anything explicitly, this scene perfectly portrays the tragedy inherent in Norma’s story.
If you haven’t seen Sunset Boulevard, it’s definitely worth a watch. Grab some popcorn, dim the lights and get ready for your close-up.