Sunset Boulevard - Billy Wilder - Erich von Stroheim - Gloria Swanson - Max von Mayerling - Norma Desmond - arches

Sunset Boulevard
1950, directed by Billy Wilder

Early in Sunset Boulevard, when Joe Gillis hides his car in Norma Desmond’s garage, he gains entrance to her mansion, her life, and her world because he’s mistaken for the undertaker of her chimpanzee. The movie has its share of weirdness, and during the chimp’s burial Joe says that “queerer things were yet to come,” but most of the odd things he’ll see will fit Norma Desmond’s story and character. We can understand where she’s coming from and what makes her so desperate to recapture her lost glory. Still, the chimpanzee is an open question. It’s exotic even for Norma’s lifestyle, and why should Joe arrive just in time for its funeral, apart from the convenience of drawing him into the story? Part of the answer is structural. The ape’s death foreshadows the twin disasters at the end, Joe’s death and Norma’s madness, bracketing Joe’s stay at the mansion with grim signifiers of misfortune… but the question remains: Why a chimpanzee?

Another strange question arises in the middle of Sunset Boulevard. Exactly halfway through, after Norma’s suicide attempt, the melody of Auld Lang Syne wafts into her bedroom, heralding the start of a new year. The movie makes a relatively big fuss over the holiday, spending fifteen minutes on it and shuffling Joe from one party to another and back to Norma again. Why should the turning of a year occupy so much attention and divide the film so neatly in two? This and the question of the chimpanzee are not unrelated.

Sunset Boulevard - Billy Wilder - William Holden - Joe Gillis

A chimpanzee is a signifier of evolution, and the new year is a shorthand for the progress of time, splitting the film equally into past and present. Sunset Boulevard is set in an evolving Hollywood haunted by its past. When Joe steps into Norma’s mansion he’s transported back into the dusty forgotten world of silent pictures, roughly two and a half decades earlier. Right after he hears Auld Lang Syne in Norma’s bedroom, the aging star’s claw-like hands wrap around his head, pulling him into a kiss – the past pulling the present back to itself. Even the mansion’s address in the 10,000 block of Sunset Blvd. is a marker of time. When Joe first surveys the swimming pool where his life will end, he imagines the film stars who swam there “10,000 midnights ago”, transporting him back roughly to 1923.

Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis embody a polarity between the silent era and modern Hollywood. The two are separated by unbridgeable gaps in age, wealth, talent, and desire, yet they are not wholly opposite. Each is desperate, one for her lost youth and the other for the security of financial independence. The film balances their stories so delicately that either could be the main character. Is Sunset Boulevard the story of his strange and fateful encounter with her, or is it a study of her, framed through his eyes? The long opening is all his, but the ending belongs to Norma Desmond. There’s also an inequality in their acting. Hers is stylized and powerful, his naturalistic and flippant. It’s tempting to imagine a stronger actor in his role, someone like Joseph Cotten or Montgomery Clift (who was considered for it), but the film has reason to make his character weak.

Sunset Boulevard - Billy Wilder - Erich von Stroheim - Max von Mayerling - telephone

Joe’s utter lack of seriousness stands out against Max von Meyerling, Norma’s butler and first husband played by legendary film director Erich von Stroheim. Max may be excessively formal, but we’re given to believe he’s a man of great talent and devotion, a consummate picture of selfless marital love. Joe’s more important foil, however, is Betty Schaefer, whose practical attitude is a more attractive model for modern audiences. Toward the end she tries to pull him out of his bondage:

“Come on, Joe.” “Come on where? Back to a one-room apartment I can’t pay for? Back to a story that may sell and very possibly will not?” “If you love me, Joe.”

Betty’s point becomes clear if we recall that director and co-writer Billy Wilder was also the author of the 1939 film Midnight. That film was also about an ordinary person who gained entrance to a world of wealth through a misunderstanding. Midnight‘s ups and downs of fortune are present in Sunset Boulevard too, especially Joe’s lucky escape from the finance men. Norma too is subject to the rule of Midnight, in which every downturn presents a new opening. When all avenues seem closed to her, her madness finally saves her from misery, and Joe’s posthumous voice-over describes life as “strangely merciful”. What Joe Gillis had lacked while living, that Eve Peabody had in Midnight and Betty Schaefer has in Sunset Boulevard, is a faith in life. When they flirt at the New Year’s party Joe tells her that “Life can be beautiful,” but he’s plainly acting and doesn’t believe it. At the end Joe walks out on Norma, but he doesn’t have the faith to face life’s hardships with Betty any more than Norma has the faith to face old age.

Sunset Boulevard - Billy Wilder - William Holden - Nancy Olson - Joe Gillis - Betty Schaefer

Sunset Boulevard does not make a hard distinction between Joe’s and Betty’s talent as writers. He’s on his way down while she’s on her way up, but he seems to rebound while working with her. Each seems modestly inspired, but it’s their views of life that separate them. He had come to Hollywood from a copy desk at a Dayton newspaper, hoping to be somebody important, whereas she was born in Hollywood and was happy enough to work her way up from the mailroom. Her family had groomed her to become a star, but the studios didn’t care for her acting, and that never bothered her. “What’s wrong with being on the other side of the cameras? It’s really more fun.”

Joe Gillis and Betty Schaefer are two sides of modern Hollywood, and the difference is laid out at their first meeting. Betty says, “I just think that pictures should say a little something.” Always making light of things, Joe puts her down: “Oh, one of the message kids. Just a story won’t do.” His answer represents an attitude that’s probably the norm today, but a belief that movies should say something was common currency during the Great Depression and World War II, when Hollywood’s writers, directors, and producers felt some responsibility to carry the country through hard times. When Sunset Boulevard was made, the old order was changing. The studio system was in decline, and Hollywood no longer had such a monopoly on the country’s writing talent.

Sunset Boulevard - Billy Wilder - Gloria Swanson - Norma Desmond - portraits

In 1950 it may have been hard to say which type of writer would inherit Hollywood – serious, workmanlike professionals with a faith in life and a belief in movies’ capacity to “say something”, or self-important hustlers like Joe Gillis trying to get ahead. Each type has a long series of antecedents in Hollywood. For the movie script that he and Betty collaborate on, Joe suggests the premise of two teachers, male and female, who rent the same bed in night and day shifts before they ever meet. It’s a story of people who are opposite and equivalent at the same time, a bit like Joe and Betty but also like Joe and Norma, each chasing vainly after a kind of glamor, one having lost it and the other never having experienced it.

The title of Sunset Boulevard immediately evokes glamor. It’s a synecdoche for Hollywood itself, both a major artery through the heart of the movie industry and a residential address for elite movie stars. When the film begins though, instead of glamorous imagery we find the street name painted on a curb, and instead of looking up at mansions and palm trees, the shot descends into the gutter and tracks along the blemished pavement as the credits roll. Franz Waxman’s ominous opening notes help to thwart any expected glamor. We’re put on notice that the movie will tell a dark story, and by the end we might wonder whether it’s said anything positive. Joe Gillis is dead; Betty Schaefer has walked off without further word; and Norma Desmond has fallen deeper into self-deception. The last shot is a grotesque picture of psychosis.

Sunset Boulevard - Billy Wilder - Gloria Swanson - Norma Desmond - mirror

Putting the movie in context, however, we need not measure it by its outcome. The dawning of the 1950s was a time of uncertainty in Hollywood, and Sunset Boulevard helps to define the possibilities left open. The Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948, which primarily involved Sunset Boulevard‘s studio Paramount Pictures, heralded the end of the studio system, and in retrospect Hollywood’s Golden Age was coming to a close. The reasons were complex, but as television arrived and the standard of collaborative studio-made films diminished, we can trace the rise of a more juvenile brand of cinema that Joe Gillis seems to represent. Meanwhile the memory of Hollywood’s origins in silent cinema was fading, reduced to gossipy legends and vague nostalgia for a lost glamor.

At the same time that it critiques Hollywood, warning of pitfalls nearby, Sunset Boulevard is also a loving portrait of Hollywood’s culture and tradition. It honors the Paramount studio, the filmmaking process, and many icons of the silent era including Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner, Cecil B. DeMille, Erich von Stroheim, and Gloria Swanson. Norma’s home evokes the grandeur of old studio sets, and the studio is an almost equally lavish picture of cinematic wonder. The shower of adulation Norma receives at Paramount humanizes her along with all those who participate. For a few moments she truly recaptures the flavor of her past happiness. Her downfall comes because she wants it for the wrong reasons, not for the joy of creation but for the glory, and her demand is impossible to satisfy.

Sunset Boulevard - Billy Wilder - Erich von Stroheim - Max von Mayerling - parlor
Sunset Boulevard - Billy Wilder - Paramount Pictures studio

The famous boulevard in the title fits Billy Wilder’s understanding of life – sometimes straight and sometimes winding, sometimes up and sometimes down, in any case full of reversals – making it a suitably complicated metaphor for Hollywood. A street however is also a metaphor for narrative, for the kinds of stories Hollywood always tells, and the ending leaves us not at a dead end but somewhere in the middle. The two protagonists may be out of the picture, but Hollywood itself will continue to evolve. It’s somehow fitting that Sunset Boulevard, with its New Year’s midnight right in the middle, is also made right in the middle of the 20th century, capturing both the excitement and the uncertainty of an inflection point in Hollywood’s history.


Midnight – Commoner gains entrance to the world of the rich through a misunderstanding; reversals of fortune imply faith in life

The Wizard of Oz – Characterization through mind, heart, & courage (Dorothy’s companions) or “courage and wit and heart” (the young Norma Desmond); nuanced critique of Hollywood

Casablanca – Markers of time; atmospheric setpiece; Rick’s café and Schwab’s drugstore described as places of “waiting, waiting, waiting”

Mildred Pierce – Ambivalent picture of Hollywood during the decline of the studio system

Spellbound – Ambiguity as to which of the two leads is the main character

All About Eve – Contrast between two paths into show business, one born for it and the other desperate for it

Psycho – Psychosis gives the film a dramatic ending but is not the main subject

Persona – Ambiguity as to which of the two leads is the main character

2001: A Space Odyssey – Apes used as a symbolic marker of evolution

Veronika Voss – Aging actress hoping to restore her past glory

Mulholland Drive – Famous street in title that stands for Hollywood; story of glamor and self-deception