Sunset Boulevard released in 1950 by Paramount Pictures is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest American films in history. Gloria Swanson is outstanding in the lead role of Norma Desmond, a star of the silent screen who clings to that past and lives in denial of a changed world and her lack of significance in 1950s Hollywood. She represents the primary message of the story, which is the over-the-top and false nature of Hollywood.
William Holden is equally as good in his role as Joe Gillis. The movie opens with Gillis dead, face down in Norma Desmond’s pool. He narrates the film in a flashback that takes us from their accidental meeting to his death.
Six months prior to his death, Gillis was a disillusioned screenplay writer at the end of his financial rope and in danger of losing both his apartment and his car. He ends up in Desmond’s empty garage in an effort to escape two men sent to repossess his car. His first encounter with Norma Desmond is both creepy and humorous. She and her butler mistake him for the undertaker they sent for to come collect her dead pet monkey. She tells him she laid him in front of the fire when he died because he used to love to poke the fire.
The monkey is used to foreshadow several things in the movie. Gillis comes to enjoy “poking the fire” Desmond creates in his life. He hates her but can’t leave her and often “pokes” at her. When Gillis wakes the following morning, he says he had a dream about an organ grinder and a monkey. The monkey would dance, and people would throw money at it. In a sense, this is what happens in his relationship with Desmond. He works on a script for her, placates her by dancing with her, watching movies with her, and becoming her companion, in exchange for her paying off his debts, giving him a home, and buying him nice things.
Gillis also falls for a much younger character, Betty Schaefer, who is the opposite of Desmond. Besides her youth, less than half the age of Desmond, she has no desire to be in front of the camera but rather prefers being behind it.
Sunset Boulevard is entertaining from beginning to end. The cinematography creates a dark, noir feel I love and the acting by all the main characters is fantastic. Besides the main plot about Norma Desmond, the movie is largely about Joe Gillis struggling with who he is, what he wants, and what he’s willing to sacrifice to get what he wants. There are many memorable lines, the most famous of which is “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
Norma Desmond is big. Her presence fills the screen in an unforgettable performance. I highly recommend this movie for people of any age.
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