Billy Wilder’s 1950 noir masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard, pulls no punches in delivering a Gothic Hollywood narrative that feels decades ahead of its time. Long before Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) or David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) used parody and surrealism to explore Hollywood’s dark side, Sunset Boulevard confronts audiences with the iconic shot of a nameless writer floating dead in a swimming pool.
The writer in Sunset Boulevard is revealed to be our protagonist and narrator, Joe Gillis (William Holden), who backtracks from the grave to explain how he ended up in the pool he always wanted. Gillis is in desperate need of a job whilst avoiding the no-nonsense debt collectors on his tale. He finds refuge in a mansion owned by Silent movie icon, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) – a contemporary Miss Havisham of sorts, though instead of being jilted Miss Desmond is chewed up and spat out by the film industry.
Everything about Desmond’s mansion screams abandon through the dry, rat infested swimming pool, the overgrown shrubbery and the infrequent card games shared with other forgotten emblems of the Silent era (including a cameo from Buster Keaton) – cynically referred to as “wax-works” by Gillis. The surreal gothic mise-en-scene is heightened by a bizarre monkey funeral, the unnerving pitched wind emanating from an old pipe organ and, of course, Swanson’s maniacal facial expressions and clawing, bird-like hand gestures.
Desmond hires Gillis to write her “return” to stardom, though he soon becomes less of a working writer and more an imprisoned gigolo – a plaything serving to fuel the self-worth and attention she ceaselessly craves. However, Gillis is no better off, as everyone can fall from stardom – assuming they manage to reach it in the first place.
If the visuals and performances fell short of capturing the unflinching sense of failure, the screenplay by Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr proficiently lands the final nail in the coffin. Gillis’ deadpan narration satirises the hopes and dreams of those unaware that such ambitions typically end up as little more than fodder for the faceless machine that is Hollywood. The lasting horror of the film drowns viewers in Desmond’s heart-breaking loneliness and isolation. The studios only want her for her Rolls Royce, everyone else thinks she has died and the fan letters she lives by are written by her butler, Max (Eric Von Stroheim). Gillis is now all she has and if she can’t have him, no one can.
This leads us back to the corpse in the pool as the media and police flood Desmond’s mansion, making it the hottest spot in town for all the wrong reasons. To Norma, this is her return. The news cameras track her as she descends her grand staircase, passing stunned journalists and police. She is elated to be back in front of the cameras, clearly unaware that this is no picture. At the peak of her denial she utters the immortal line, “Alright, Mr DeMille…I’m ready for my close up” as she drifts toward us, blurring and distorting like a ghost from a nightmare we’d wish to forget.