The Fourth Golden Boy Blogathon
In Sunset Boulevard (1950), William Holden plays Joe Gillis, a once successful screenwriter. As the film opens, he’s met a tragic end and narrates the story in flashback from a watery grave. His voiceover is typical of a film noir and so is the black-and-white cinematography by John F. Seitz. The veteran cinematographer shot many noir films including classics This Gun for Hire (1942) and Double Indemnity (1944). In director Billy Wilder’s hands, it’s also a comedy, if a dark one.
The flashback to the recent past finds Gillis failing to make deals, struggling to pay the rent and stay ahead of the bill collectors. He drives off from his apartment, on North Ivar Avenue in Hollywood, just ahead of the repo men. He takes refuge in a crumbling mansion, a composite of the Janss and J.P. Getty mansions, both since demolished (The Getty Mansion, with the pool built specifically for Sunset Boulevard, was also used in Rebel Without a Cause ). For locations then and now, see the Movie Tourist blog.
What happens next is well-known to every classic movie fan. Sunset Boulevard shows Holden at his wise-cracking best. He delivers the dialogue, by screenwriters Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr., like no one else could.
In 1950, television was on the ascent. Silent film was moribund, twenty years dead, the greats of that era forgotten. In Sunset Boulevard, screen legend Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) has retreated to a fantasy world where she’s still a beloved star. She’s looked after by her European butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) who maintains the facade of past glory.
Who is Max and why does he stay, caring for an obviously deranged Norma? The reason is obvious with her new protegé, Gillis. What begins as a temporary refuge, turns into weeks and months of what appears a mixture of protection and confinement. He’s embarrassed she’s buying his clothes, tailored jackets from an exclusive shop where the smirking salesman is wise to his act as a kept man, but he doesn’t refuse them.
What makes the story unusual is the two intersecting love triangles. When Gloria takes up with Gillis, the stoic, very Germanic Max could be seething inside, but we’re only given clues to what he’s feeling. By contrast, Norma explodes when she catches Gillis sneaking around at night with fellow screenwriter Betty (Nancy Olson). Besides being much younger, Betty rekindles his passion for storytelling, further alienating him from Norma. The tragic ending is inevitable and predetermined, but we still hold out hope for Gillis to escape.
Singer Michael Feinstein interviewed Nancy Olson before Sunset Boulevard at the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival. She spoke of Holden’s “incandescent quality that movie stars have. It’s hard to describe – the camera gets it.”
Many thanks to Emily, Virginie and Michaela for hosting. For more on the making of Sunset Boulevard, see the post by Taking Up Room from day 1 of the blogathon.