(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: Sunset Boulevard
Where You Can Stream It: Crackle
The Pitch: Billy Wilder directs a deliciously macabre satire of Hollywood starring Gloria Swanson as the delusional diva Norma Desmond, who lives in a dilapidated mansion and yearns for a return to the spotlight. William Holden is the young writer Norma pounces on to engineer her return to Hollywood, and who ultimately meets a tragic end.
Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: Billy Wilder’s masterpiece of social satire, Sunset Boulevard is a Gothic horror meets film noir that is crafted like a whodunnit, but the question is less about the culprit of a crime than it is about the ruthless Hollywood system that would drive an aging diva to madness.
Oh, nostalgia, the great albatross of Hollywood. That yearning for a time before ours is built into the fabric of Hollywood, from today’s shiny repackaged remakes of beloved ’80s classics to the endless homages and tributes that turn pop culture into currency. Even in the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, people would look back fondly at the days of silent cinema and grouse about how much better it was in those days. No film has better captured the poisonous curse of nostalgia better than Sunset Boulevard and its crumbling Gothic mansion in which Swanson’s faded diva Norma Desmond lives. Described by Holden’s struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis as a “great white elephant of a place” that was like “Miss Havisham in her rotting wedding dress and her torn veil, taking it out on the world, because she’d been given the go-by,” that luxe, dilapidated mansion is one that we could all end up trapped in, Sunset Boulevard warns, if we’re held captive by our nostalgia.
The film opens with the body of Joe Gillis floating in a pool as he narrates the circumstances of his death from beyond the grave. It started when Joe, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter struggling to pay his rent, escapes a couple of repo men by turning into the hidden driveway of Norma Desmond, a former silent movie star who has all but disappeared from the world. But when she learns that Joe is a screenwriter, Norma immediately latches onto the young man and hires him to pen her big comeback vehicle.
Much like Joe, Wilder slowly draws us into Norma’s otherworldly orbit, until reality seems far away. Norma lives happily among the ruins of her former glory, dressed decadently in silk robes and served by her loyal butler, Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim), who is later revealed to be one of her former husbands and the filmmaker who first discovered her. Though the story unfolds much like a classic Gothic horror tale, Sunset Boulevard holds a cinematic conversation with the real life that inspired it — Swanson was herself a former silent star whose career played out much like Norma’s did, forgotten by the world once she was no longer a doe-eyed silent film ingenue. It’s only a little ironic that Swanson’s chilling, tour-de-force performance as Norma Desmond would be her most acclaimed and beloved role.
Sunset Boulevard is as much an indictment of the perils of nostalgia as it is of the cold Hollywood studio system that would chew up and spit out actresses once they’re past their prime. But despite its perceptive commentary on aging and the hollow concepts of beauty, Sunset Boulevard didn’t really change much for how aging actresses were treated in Hollywood, and instead would become an interesting precursor to the whole “hagsploitation” subgenre of formerly glamorous, mentally unstable women who terrorize those around her. But Billy Wilder’s incisive and disturbing Sunset Boulevard still serves as one of the best satirical commentaries on Hollywood to date.
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