No. 2: Sunset Boulevard
The candid, insider’s take on Hollywood and the human condition
1950, dir. Billy Widler. Let’s begin our review by doing what the film itself did so well and start at the very end: It’s the release party for Sunset Boulevard, and Billy Wilder, sheepish, is being berated by Louis B. Mayer. “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you!” the studio boss shouts.“You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!”
Mayer’s sentiment isn’t hard to understand: Even today, six decades after its release, it’s hard to imagine a film more brutally candid—about everything from Hollywood to the human condition—than Wilder’s tale of a has-been movie diva and the young hack writer caught in her web. And candid isn’t what Hollywood was ever about.
It was, however, what Wilder was about. Having escaped the Nazis in the nick of time, and having lost most of his family in Auschwitz, he wasn’t cut out for the fripperies of the film industry. Instead, he made his mark with dark and emotionally harrowing movies, like the noir classic Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend. Both films forced Wilder to fight against Hollywood’s strict adherence to self-censorship—and, in both cases, he won. By 1950, he was likely in a mood to turn his lens on the industry that awarded him all of its laurels but that also tried to claim large swaths of his soul. The result was Sunset Boulevard.
There are many extraordinary things about the film. For one, it is deeply concerned with authenticity: Buster Keaton and Cecil B. DeMille play themselves, and Gloria Swanson brings much of her own past as a silent movie star—including photographs, mementos, and other tchochkes—to her role as Norma Desmond. Even more profoundly, however, the film is as hilarious as it is grim. Indeed, if there’s any message in Sunset Boulevard it’s that life is tough, aspirations are doomed, people are mean, and there’s absolutely no reason not to go through the whole ordeal laughing every step of the way. Is there a more perfect summary of Jewish history?