William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim
Director: Billy Wilder
Nearly half a century before David Lynch portrayed the dark underbelly of the sun-drenched California film world in Mulholland Drive, Billy Wilder wrote and directed Sunset Boulevard, his story of a former silent movie star and her short, tumultuous relationship with a down-at-heel screenwriter. Part film noir, part black comedy - and at times carrying an anti-establishment message - it is widely considered one of the classics.
It opens with a narrator announcing he has been found dead in a swimming pool of a large mansion on Sunset Boulevard. ('Poor dope. He always wanted a pool,' he remarks of himself, dryly.)
He is writer Joe Gillis (William Holden), who had earlier wound up at the residence of one-time starlet and faded glamour queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson, above right with Holden) after escaping some bailiffs who are chasing him for US$300. He has failed to get his scripts off the ground and has all but given up on a career in Hollywood, which to date had amounted to 'waiting for the gravy train'. Fate had pulled him into Desmond's bizarre and nightmarish world of faded glories and wild delusions. As Gillis remarks, with little remorse, Desmond is still 'waving proudly to a parade that has long since passed her by'.
With no choice but to take advantage of Desmond financially, Gillis is soon trapped in her sprawling house. He acts as both her ghostwriter and her love interest as she attempts to woo the great Cecil B. DeMille (played by the man himself).
Desmond has written a script she hopes will catapult her onto the silver screen and back into the limelight. But her advancing age and lack of experience with the 'talkies' gives her little chance of making a comeback.
Her melodramatic gestures - head thrown back, eyes ablaze, teeth bared - are a throwback to the silent pictures she once starred in. They are also a sign of her increasing torment and anguish. She is a has-been, and the pain this causes is slowly destroying her. As she uses Gillis as a crutch for her loneliness and a tool for her return, the story descends into tragedy as the inevitable downfall of the desperate writer and the former star begins to unfold.
Sharp dialogue like 'Rudy never asked questions about your finances, he'd just look at your heels and know the score' is arresting. So are the nuanced performances. Swanson's maniacal evocation of a woman scorned and Holden's quiet portrayal of the 'poor dope' are impressive. But the fascinating insight the film gives into the murky world of Hollywood is the most interesting aspect.
There is purity and corruption, hope and despair, success and failure, and chiaroscuro.
In many respects, the film is a quasi-documentary posing as a cagey fictional thriller. That it ever got the green light in the first place is a small miracle, as the gross excesses of a bygone age are laid bare in spectacular fashion. They ultimately lend the whole picture a grain of truth that makes it all the more devastating.