Bright Lights Film Journal

“Who Owns This Place?” Clashing Values in Sunset Blvd.

This is one close-up Louis B. Mayer wasn’t ready for

There was a time when it seemed that Billy Wilder would live forever. Although he stopped directing films in 1981, he remained sufficiently cogent many years thereafter to believe a return was imminent. It’s now been four years since his passing, and he would have been 100 this June (2006). Wilder, despite his many achievements, never quite won over certain critics. The joke used to be that he had lived long enough (i.e., longer than many of those critics) to see his critical assessment improve. There’s no more Wilder — as he once remarked to William Wyler about Ernst Lubitsch following the latter’s funeral — but there are Wilder films. That many of them have endured may be the most significant indicator of his legacy.

One criticism of Wilder (right) is that he lacked the visual style of such contemporaries as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Orson Welles. Wilder is somewhat unique, however, as he was a screenwriter who became a director. To that end, Wilder’s films, which he continued to co-write, were always driven more by dialogue than camera angles and mise-en-scene. He seemed to think more like a screenwriter than a director. If that was a weakness from a technical standpoint, it was a strength from a literary one. Wilder from the start had a penchant for stories that were both novel and, for the times, daring. Double Indemnity (1944), his third film, had protagonists who commit premeditated murder, while his next, The Lost Weekend (1945), proved to be Hollywood’s first serious treatment of alcoholism. In theory, neither film should have been particularly successful. Not only were both box office hits, they garnered a combined twelve Oscar nominations and four wins.

At the point Wilder turned his gaze on Hollywood itself, the film industry was in the midst of one of its periodic transitions. The studio system was being laid to rest, while television was beginning to have a negative impact on the number of filmgoers. Against that backdrop, there’s an element of adding insult to injury to Sunset Blvd. (1950). Or at least Louis B. Mayer may have thought so. Following a screening of the film, Mayer told Wilder he’d disgraced the industry that had made and fed him and that he should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood. There are enough accounts of Mayer’s rebuke, as well as Wilder’s obscene retort, to conclude that the incident is not apocryphal. The confrontation is certainly striking for its anecdotal value, and it’s been recounted in most Wilder biographies. Mayer always comes off as the villain, not merely because he was the instigator but because Hollywood moguls occupy a place in our collective psyches somewhere between dictators and used car salesmen. But, in terms of its symbolism, Mayer’s tirade was something more than that. In hindsight, it seems like the dying gasp of an individual who realized his day, like those of the silent film stars portrayed in the film, had passed. It wasn’t merely the studio system. It was Mayer himself, who would be ousted at MGM the following year by Dore Schary.

That Sunset Blvd. is still considered the most famous film about Hollywood is something of a misconception. There are a number of memorable movies that are more about the actual business of making films, including The Player (1992) and The Last Tycoon (1976). What can be said is that Sunset Blvd. captured Hollywood’s mystique in its starkest terms — a mystique more about failure than success, more about trying to get to the top than actually being there. The drama is amplified when the quest is not simply getting there, but getting back. Norma Desmond’s stay at the top was, in the scheme of things, much too short, swept away by the advent of talking pictures. What she’s seeking, a generation later, is something that hadn’t been accomplished in reality. There were a number of actual silent film stars who made the transition to talking pictures. There were none, however, who disappeared for twenty years only to return to stardom. Hollywood, of course, has never shied away from characters who accomplish feats unprecedented in reality. And that, perhaps, is a good starting point for the differences between Mayer and Wilder. If it can be said that such characters were never in short supply at MGM, it can also be said that they never seemed to make their way into Billy Wilder films. Sunset Blvd. was no exception. It proved to be a film about Hollywood without the Hollywood ending.

Scott Eyman, in Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, relates that Mayer’s objection to Sunset Blvd. was premised on his belief that pictures ought to be beautiful, not vulgar. That belief appears to have been a continuous concern for Mayer. According to Richard Schickel, in his recent Elia Kazan: A Biography, Mayer lectured Kazan during the filming of The Sea of Grass (1947) that “[w]e are in the business of making beautiful pictures of beautiful people and anyone who does not acknowledge that should not be in this business.” That’s the mentality that helped make MGM the grandest of Hollywood studios. It’s also a mindset that’s at least somewhat at odds with the direction film was being taken by the likes of Wilder and Kazan.

Mayer (right) was certainly aware that other studios had, for many years, been making films not quite so beautiful as those made at MGM. Mayer’s inability to ignore Sunset Blvd.‘s assault on his aesthetics may have been due in part to Wilder’s standing in the industry. What Wilder had to say about Hollywood, or any other subject, couldn’t be ignored. He was in the process of perfecting the protagonist who, despite being flawed and irredeemable, was still likeable. It was characters of that ilk who would assist Wilder in his continuous journey through the lighter side of the darker side of human nature. As Walter Matthau once described it, the typical situation in a Wilder film was usually hopeless — but never serious. Sunset Blvd., like Wilder’s other film noirs, would dispense with the latter half of that witticism. Any film, in fact, in which the opening scene climaxes with a close-up of the protagonist’s corpse in a swimming pool can probably be characterized as “serious.” Although it’s not William Holden’s most flattering shot, it’s a scene whose imagination surpasses the literary capacity of his character, screenwriter Joe Gillis. Gillis is strictly B movie in caliber, unsuccessful to the point where he’s contemplating a return to his former newspaper job in Dayton, Ohio. It’s while being chased by creditors that he pulls into the driveway of Norma Desmond’s mansion. What ensues is one of the more unusual film noirs.

Wilder’s contribution to film noir can be described as both significant and atypical. Of the three he made, Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd. are not merely among the best in the genre; they’re among the best films in any genre. The latter cannot be said for most film noirs, the majority of which are B films. What makes Sunset Blvd. unusual in this area is that the story has an import that transcends the usual noir plot. The habitués of noir were generally quotidian, ranging from gangsters and hoods to salesmen, detectives, and store clerks. Norma Desmond was not ordinary, and her situation was not typical of the usual femme fatale. As a former movie star, she had the import worthy of an MGM extravaganza. Despite that import, Wilder, along with co-writers Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman, Jr., opted to expose her, warts and all. This was a close-up for which Mayer was most certainly not ready.

It’s the morally laconic Gillis, a character not unlike Double Indemnity protagonist Walter Neff, who’s most representative of noir. That he’s a B movie writer is apt as he could easily be a character out of one of his hackneyed scripts. Gillis and Norma represent different Hollywoods. He’s from the one that speaks, she the one that was silent. She’s been at its peak, he struggles in its netherworld. Norma has bought into the illusion of the medium, while Gillis views Hollywood strictly as an industry. Upon recognizing Norma, he pays her the cinema’s ultimate backhanded compliment. “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be big.” Gillis, despite Norma’s response to the contrary (“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”), is right. She’s no longer big and only believes she is because of faux fan letters written by her butler Max (who is also her former director and ex-husband). Nonetheless, there are certain individuals, including Cecil B. DeMille, who accord Norma a level of respect commensurate with her status as a former star. Gillis isn’t one of them, and throughout the film he displays a tireless capacity for making cynical observations about Norma and her environs. Yet despite their appreciable differences, Joe Gillis and Norma Desmond share one particular trait vis-à-vis Hollywood. They are both, at that moment in time, outsiders looking in.

The sense of impending doom prevalent in many film noirs is palpable throughout Sunset Blvd. The viewer is aware at the outset of Gillis’ demise, and that sets the tone for the entire film. Norma’s mansion is like a mausoleum, while the endeavor that keeps Gillis there has more than an air of desperation. He’s to rewrite the screenplay Norma has written for her comeback role as Salome. What exactly are the odds of a Hollywood studio allowing a 50-year-old actress who’s never acted in a film with dialogue play the considerably younger Salome? About the same as Gillis getting out of the swimming pool and returning to the copy desk at the Dayton Evening Post.

The evolution of film has generally been driven by technological development, probably never more so than during the transition to sound. Hollywood lacked the writers, the technology, and, for the most part, the performers necessary to make the transition. There was also considerable resistance to sound, including a constituency that viewed talking pictures as a passing fad. Even as late as 1930, Charlie Chaplin was giving talkies no more than another six months. Prior to Mayer’s ouster, he’d been involved in the production of Singin’ in the Rain (1952), a film that loosely recounts the transition in the guise of a benign musical. Don Lockwood, the silent film star played by Gene Kelly, has the talent to cross over into talking films. Co-star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) doesn’t because her voice is high-pitched and preposterous. That fact is not only played for laughs, but Lina’s jealousy and narcissism make her an unsympathetic character. As a result, her comeuppance is welcomed and is what allows Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) to emerge as a star. It’s a black-and-white plot in which beauty triumphs over ugliness. Although the film wasn’t Mayer’s “answer” to Sunset Blvd., it probably could have been.

Had Charles Brackett had his way, Sunset Blvd. might have served as a non-musical forerunner to Singin’ in the Rain. His taste was probably more akin to Mayer’s than Wilder’s, and he envisioned Sunset Blvd. as a comedy in which Norma Desmond, after a series of foibles, makes a triumphant return to the silver screen. Wilder’s vision prevailed, and their disagreement was symptomatic of an ongoing tension that would result in Sunset Blvd. being their final film together. What they did agree on is that the story should take place many years after the transition to sound. Brackett described that event as a “profound social change” that “had brushed gods and goddesses into obscurity.” Setting the film a generation later allowed sufficient time for Norma to become not only obscure, but also bitter and eccentric. What it also did was provide a poignancy to the plight of forgotten stars. Although it had been only twenty years since the transition, it was a period that had seen the Depression, World War II, and enough stars who talked to make those who hadn’t a faint memory. Many of the silent film stars were extant, and some probably still harbored hopes of a comeback. Norma was not merely a literal representative of such an individual. She was a metaphor for the exile into which the Pickfords, Lloyds, and Keatons had been sent. There’s an allusion to Dickens’ Miss Havisham, the character from Great Expectations for whom time figuratively stopped at the moment her fiancée abandoned her. With Norma, Wilder gave life to the notion that time had stopped for these individuals and would only recommence when those who ran Hollywood, including Louis B. Mayer, corrected the injustice.

If it’s easy to forget that Singin’ in the Rain involved the transition, one reason is that the story is secondary to the musical numbers. Another reason is that it’s a cast of characters played by actors with no connection to the silent film era. The casting of Sunset Blvd. was always going to be, at the very least, a terrific gimmick. That did not guarantee a successful film, and the genius of the decision is that Wilder took individuals who were connected to that era and created a tapestry in which reality and fiction were intertwined both literally and emotionally. Gloria Swanson was not the first choice to play Norma, and was only considered for the role at the suggestion of George Cukor. Aside from being a former silent film star, any similarity to Norma was probably accidental. Swanson had not retreated to a life of isolation in a Hollywood mansion. As of 1950 she was hosting a television show in New York. Swanson, unlike Norma, had also starred in four talking films, including 1934’s Music in the Air (which was, coincidentally, the first film on which Wilder had worked after coming to Hollywood).

Nonetheless, there are enough similarities between Norma and Swanson to blur the lines between reality and fiction. Their situations are intertwined to the point where Swanson, in playing a silent film star who dreams of a comeback in talking films, is fulfilling that dream in reality. The presence of Erich von Stroheim as Max only serves to complicate the situation. Max, like Stroheim, had been one of the formidable directors of the silent film era. When Norma, Gillis, and Max watch a film in which Max directed Norma, they’re actually watching scenes from Queen Kelly (1928), a film in which Stroheim directed Swanson. There’s a sullen resentment to Max that seems to mirror Stroheim’s actual feelings towards a Hollywood that no longer let him direct because of his chronic indulgences. Greed (1924), his most famous film, was originally 10 hours long.

It’s Swanson’s performance that raises the most interesting questions. She is, at times, emotive, as one might expect from a silent film actress unable to master the subtleties of acting in the sound era. It’s not entirely clear to what degree this is good acting as opposed to an inability to avoid overacting. Perhaps a combination of both. The reason it works is because Norma was presumably unable, at the time of the transition, to master those subtleties. Although she never acts before a camera, she’s playing the role of “former silent film queen.” It’s a title that injects a sense of drama into her, and there’s the sense her life has become a perpetual rehearsal for what she envisions as her big comeback.

There are many facets of Norma that Mayer no doubt viewed as vulgar. She’s jealous, acrimonious, and vain. Perhaps most distasteful is her affair with Gillis, a man half her age. There’s nothing remotely endearing about their relationship, and it merely underscores the depths of self-loathing to which Gillis has descended. When Norma shoots him, it’s almost tantamount to a mercy killing. One can only imagine Mayer’s reaction to that scene (assuming he hadn’t already left the screening in disgust).

Mayer’s charge that Wilder had disgraced Hollywood suggests, however, another concern. Norma may have been a has-been, but she was once a star. To portray a star, former or otherwise, in this light was potentially bad for a business that relied heavily on the power of illusion. One such illusion was that stars were glamorous and above the sort of behavior exhibited by Norma. The film’s sense of realism merely served to compound the problem. To wit, regardless of the actual differences between Gloria Swanson and Norma Desmond, what the public would see was an actress whose career arc was similar to that of the character she was playing. There was a possibility that a viewer could project Norma’s shortcomings, particularly her bitterness with respect to her abbreviated career, onto Swanson herself. The possibility is strengthened by the film’s suggestion that former silent film stars were a disconsolate group that had been mistreated by the Hollywood establishment.

It was Wilder who would have the last laugh, and not simply in the long term. Sunset Blvd. was a hit that earned multiple Oscar nominations and made Holden a bona fide star. Although the year belonged to All About Eve, Wilder and company received the Oscar for Best Story and Screenplay. A few years later, Holden was asked by an aspiring actor what it took to make it in Hollywood. Holden told him that you have to have “it.” The young actor asked what “it” was. “It,” Holden replied, “is Sunset Blvd.”

It could be argued that, although there were certainly differences between Mayer and Wilder, they were exaggerated by Sunset Blvd. Wilder’s sensibilities were not entirely antithetical to Mayer’s, and his oeuvre demonstrates his understanding that, whatever the message, the medium requires an element of glamour and sophistication atypical of reality. One doesn’t make films with the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Ginger Rogers without appreciating that fact. That Wilder seemed to appreciate it more after he and Brackett parted ways is something of an irony. The 1950s would see a string of romantic comedies from Wilder, including Sabrina (1954), The Seven Year Itch (1955), and Love in the Afternoon (1957). These were films that Mayer himself might have enjoyed. It’s not Wilder’s strongest period as a filmmaker, and it wasn’t until his association with screenwriter I. A. L. Diamond that he truly regained the “Wilder touch” with films such as Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960).

If Sunset Blvd. continues to resonate more than other Wilder films, it’s because of the reality into which it tapped. It’s a reality that, so long as Hollywood is around, will exist in one guise or another. Lesser versions of Norma Desmond currently proliferate on reality television shows such as The Surreal Life and Skating with Celebrities. So prevalent is the phenomenon that it was spoofed in the short-lived HBO series The Comeback. Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow), a former sitcom star, suffered a series of indignities in her attempts to recapture her prior success. One reason the show didn’t last was because actual has-beens have proved more adept at demonstrating how pathetic and desperate that endeavor can be. Like Gloria Swanson, who’s more remembered for playing a silent film actress than for having been one, many of these individuals are better known as professional has-beens than for whatever it was that brought them to prominence. The difference is that Swanson received an Oscar nomination and earned a permanent place in film history.

The one performer in Sunset Blvd. credited as playing himself is Cecil B. DeMille. He’s the film’s strongest connection to reality, a director who worked with both Norma Desmond and Gloria Swanson. Despite the brevity of DeMille’s appearance, the film’s final line has afforded him an immortality that most of his films have not. “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” may actually be more famous than the film itself. It’s a line that, as uttered by a crazed murderess, simultaneously conveys the promise and peril of an essentially heartless industry. But that’s Hollywood for you. Everyone’s looking for that close-up, and walking off gracefully into the sunset is something that only characters do. The individuals who play them? That’s another story.