DVD review

The Glamour Chase

Considering it was made precisely midway through the 20th century, there's an eerily fin-de-siècle air about Sunset Boulevard. A study of an ageing silent movie queen who lives with her ex-director, husband and now manservant Max (Erich Von Stroheim), it suggests that the golden age of Hollywood has long passed, its decayed grandeur signified by 10086 Sunset Boulevard—the Xanadu-cum-mausoleum where Ms Desmond spends her days. The film (which is also re-released theatrically by the BFI on March 14) represents Hollywood's first look over the shoulder at its own past, whose follies now seem as ancient and remote as the Roman Empire, neglected and ruined.

The present day, by contrast, is a cynical one of slim hopes and bitter realities. It's the sort of sentiment we're accustomed to living with in the 21st century, a brutal separation between the faded glamour of long ago and the harsh, mundane disillusionment of the postmodern now. But this was made 53 years ago and feels like a dark jewel from a mature era whose loss is more sorely lamented than that of the golden silents. Put it this way—Gloria Swanson never made a movie a fraction as good as this in her '20s prime.

William Holden plays Joe Gillis, a struggling screenwriter who, fleeing the repo men, parks up in the garage of a deserted-looking mansion. He's spotted by the owner of the house—Norma Desmond, eyes flashing with hauteur and near-dementia. She persuades Gillis to help her work on a script of Salome she's preparing. Although 50, she plans to play the lead role. Gillis can see it's rubbish but, for the sake of the money, agrees. Obliged to lodge at the mansion, Gillis learns about the strange, sad life of Ms Desmond, cocooned in sumptuous yet empty splendour, convinced she's still a star, "still waving proudly to a parade which had long since passed her by". Max keeps alive her illusions by writing her fake fan letters. In one especially vivid scene, she plays bridge with Buster Keaton, another washed-up star from the '20s whose appearance (as himself) is startling.

Her body language is couched in the over-exaggerated melodrama of the silent era, when gestures had to convey what dialogue couldn't. All of which gives Gillis the creeps; but when his role slips from mere employee to gigolo, you sense his flesh crawling with (self-)disgust. In order to escape his gilded prison, Gillis works on another script idea in the evenings with a young, idealistic studio reader, Nancy. But Norma gets wind of his moonlighting, and dark clouds gather on Sunset...

Charles Brackett, then Wilder's scriptwriting partner, had imagined Sunset Boulevard as a light comedy. But Wilder pushed for a darker tone, and the script became a bleak, sardonic tragedy that allows for only cold, harsh truths. Gloria Swanson and Von Stroheim were indeed huge ex-stars reduced to relative obscurity by the arrival of talkies; as a young, struggling actor William Holden later confessed he had serviced older Hollywood actresses; and gossip column vulture Hedda Hopper plays herself here.

The script is encrusted with diamond-hard moments of terse dialogue: "I asked a couple of yes-men. To me, they said no." The narrative device, filched by American Beauty, is especially mordant. Wilder is a pitiless, unyielding master of irony, particularly in the later scenes as Desmond works day and night to rejuvenate herself for a comeback with Cecil B De Mille we know will never happen. But then, a final twist as she does get her moment in the spotlight—the cruellest ever exposition of the facade of glamour. When Louis B Mayer saw a screening of Sunset Boulevard, he flew into a rage at Wilder, accusing him of biting the hand that fed him. But Sunset Boulevard takes more than a bite at Hollywood. It takes a hatpin to its heart.

Rating: 5 / 10

Directed by billy wilder


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