A down-on-his-luck screenwriter (William Holden) goes on the run from some pretty nasty creditors. He flees in the very car they are trying to repossess. When it blows a tire, the screenwriter, Joe Gillis, stashes the vehicle inside the garage of a large, dilapidated mansion on Sunset Boulevard. Mistaken for a man bringing a coffin for a pet monkey, he is called inside the mansion by Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an old, silent-film star who was swept aside by the movie industry when sound entered the pictures and nearly forgotten by her once adoring public. She is now accompanied only by Max (Erich von Stroheim), her butler and general assistant.
When Ms. Desmond learns that Joe is a screenwriter, she enlists him to edit the massive script she has written for herself, an adaptation of Salome, which she believes will be her grand comeback (or should I say return, as Ms. Desmond hates the word “comeback”). Joe agrees to the job and as his own apartment is filled with creditors, he begins living in the room above her garage. Over time, she begins buying him nice things and he eventually moves into the main house, slowly becoming a kept man. Together, they begin to lose themselves in her strange fantasy in which she’ll become a great star again.
Directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, Sunset Boulevard is a joy to watch from beginning to end. It is a dark satire of the Hollywood system, yet never depressing. It's hilariously funny and impeccably made. The first time I watched it, just a couple of years ago, I was completely knocked out by it. Made in 1950, it is very much a part of the old, classic-film style, and it's pretty much perfected it. It is loaded with terrific, quotable lines and Wilder’s direction, while not flashy, is pitch perfect. Holden and Stroheim are great as Joe and Max but it is Swanson who steals the show. She has the exaggerated expressions of someone used to performing in silent films (and indeed, she was a great star of the silent era), which makes her both sympathetic and grotesque.
There are all sorts of fascinating behind-the-scenes stuff that serves to enhance the film for screen buffs. As mentioned, Gloria Swanson was a huge silent-film star who had a difficult time transitioning with the advent of sound to the movies. By all accounts, she was nothing like Norman Desmond and remained a perfectly happy human being though her career had waned. Erich von Stronheim was a great director of silent films as well. In fact, the film that Joe and Ms. Desmond are watching in her living room was a real movie directed by von Stronheim. Various bit players and extras are played by stars of the silent screen as well including Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner, and Henry Wilcoxon, and of course, Cecil B. DeMille has a small role playing himself.
As part of their monthly "classic movies on the big screen" series, TCM and Fathom Events are showing Sunset Boulevard in theaters nationwide for one more night only, May 16. TCM host Ben Mankiewicz gives introductory remarks. For a full listing of theaters and showtimes, visit the Fathom website.