A classic that has stayed with the world long after it was first seen in 1950, Sunset Boulevard is one American film that is timeless. Much less like the character of Norma Desmond who wishes to be ageless. This film is unparalleled in cinematic brilliance even after sixty-six years. The credit goes to two people, first Billy Wilder and second Gloria Swanson – one who molded it, and the other who delivered with passion and panache.
Sunset Boulevard is a story set in the part of Hollywood that’s filled with enormous, ostentatious houses that can boast of green lawns (even in droughts!) and envy-generating swimming pools. Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent film star stays in one of these grotesque bungalows with her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim). With dreams of returning to the big screen, and an absolute detest for the "new kind of cinema", she is driven by the idea of her fans waiting for her to return and charm them. Sadly, it’s all a farce; the "audience left 20 years ago", and the fan mails have been doctored by the devoted Max. Norma is living her nugatory life when Joseph C. "Joe" Gillis (William Holden) drives his car into her driveway, her life.
Joe is a penniless young writer in desperate search of an assignment (he needs the dough to clear his dues), and when he discovers Norma’s plans of a comeback – a word she instantly chides him for – he takes her up on the offer, and agrees to be her in-house scriptwriter. Slowly the job becomes just a pretense and he becomes her boy-toy lured with gold cigarette cases and platinum watches, and ensnared with an attempted suicide. Sure, seems like Joe is protesting, but he also likes the riches and the shiny, glittering world that Norma uses to keep him. All is okay, till he falls for Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson). Betty embodies the starry-eyed fresh Hollywood recruit, full of dreams and aspirations to have a script to her name. They start meeting secretly at night to work on a script, when Betty falls for Joe, too.
The story follows the tussle of Norma Desmond, the desolate silent star, the devotion of her butler who was actually a promising silent cinema director of his time, and Joe, the man who has to choose between materialistic seduction, and love. The star of the film is, of course, Norma. Her character is complex and layered with just enough histrionics to make you roll your eyes, but never wince. She is entertaining, self-absorbed, consumed by her past days of glory and glamour, and yet she is vulnerable like an adolescent. You detest her at moments, but in these few moments the unfaltering fidelity of Max and the reason why Joe stays, force you to think there must be some good in Norma. Alas, it is her want of attention that gets the better of her. As Joe put it, "Poor devil, still waving proudly to a parade which had long since passed her by.”
Billy Wilder’s script is stunning with characters that have depth and personality. The performances are brilliant, and the way the story shows us the fall of stars of the silent era is masterly done without lamenting the cause. Watch it if you get a DVD. Sunset Boulevard is also a musical and has been performed on Broadway, and at various theatres. Currently, it is playing at London’s Coliseum Theatre with Hollywood actress Glenn Close starring as the lead. We hear good things about the play, and hope it makes its way to India!