The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Why Sunset Boulevard still matters 63 years later

with 30 comments

SUNSET BOULEVARD

There’s nothing tragic about being fifty. Not unless you’re trying to be twenty-five.”

I was chewing on the famous line and the bite kept growing on me, filling my mouth with a bitter taste. Finally I swallowed it down, deciding that it didn’t refer to me. I may have some hobbies, preferences and habits that are different to what you expect from a 45 year old, but I’ve never obsessed over my wrinkles or hair colour. I carry the inevitable breakdown of my body with equanimity.

But even if I shrugged away that nagging quote, I still felt rather sad after I had watched Sunset Boulevard at my local film club. It exposed the dark side of the machinery of Hollywood, the cynicism that grows from it and the inevitability that everyone who enters this wold at one point will be spit out and thrown away when it’s been decided that they’re too old. And this moment will come a lot earlier in your life if you’re a female actor than if you’re a male.

It made me even more depressed to think about how up-to-date this film is, more than 60 years after it was made.

My initial reaction had been to think: why couldn’t they make it the reverse? Make it about a man who clings to dreams of his glorious past and who in vain pursuits the love from a younger woman. But then I realized that the movie isn’t showing the world as it should be. It just holds up a mirror to let us see the ugly truth, the way the system works.

Still relevant
All it takes to see its relevance today is to throw a glance at the tabloid press and you’ll see dozes of articles about current actors who expose themselves to treatments that are more brutal and far reaching than the ones that the former silent movie star Norma Desmond submits to during the movie. Like her, they fight their wrinkles fiercely to keep themselves employable, prolonging their time on the screen. And they’ll do anything to keep their real age a secret, including suing IMDb for displaying it.

So little has happened since Sunset Boulevard opened. Youth is still worshipped in Hollywood and the rest of the world. A love affair between an older woman and a younger man is still frowned upon (while the opposite, an older man dating a younger woman is perfectly acceptable.) It brings down my mood to think about it.

And yet, for all of this darkness, I cherished every second of the movie. While it is a tragedy at core, it’s got a lot of humour in it too. And the writing! Don’t get me started on it. It’s far from the natural, improvised style that I enjoy in modern movies, but I enjoy it for what it is: a show number by someone who knows how to dance with words.

There are so many great lines in it that it ends up to several pages at IMDb of memorable quotes.

Joe Gillis:

Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors make it up as they go along.”

or

Joe Gillis: [voice-over]

You don’t yell at a sleepwalker – he may fall and break his neck. That’s it: she was still sleepwalking along the giddy heights of a lost career.”

But I need to pick just one it will have to be this:

Joe Gillis:

You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”

Norma Desmond:

I *am* big. It’s the *pictures* that got small.”

Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, US 1950) My rating: 5/5

filmspanarna

This post is a part of a blogathon run by the Swedish film blogging network Filmspanarna. The theme was “films about film”. Here’s a list of links to the other participants (all other posts in Swedish):

Addepladdes filmblogg
Fiffis filmtajm
Filmitch
Flmr Filmblogg
Fripps Filmrevyer
Jojjenito
Rörliga bilder och tryckta ord

Written by Jessica

May 8, 2013 at 8:00 am

30 Responses

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  1. Great review about a movie I haven´t yet seen. The quote about ageing, about being fifty (and twenty-five) is more relevant than ever.

    Fiffi

    May 8, 2013 at 8:53 am

    • Thanks! The entire film feels highly relevant on so many levels. Not only in the world of movies are the wheels spinning – and faster and faster. Yesterday’s celebrity is a nobody tomorrow. How tempting isn’t it to stay in the bubble?

      I hope you’ll like it once you get to see it. Maybe you’ll not fall for it as much as you did for Roman Holiday, but at least I don’t think you’ll end up hating it like in the case of Queen of Africa.

      Jessica

      May 8, 2013 at 8:42 pm

  2. Fantastic post, Jessica. Those are some great quotes there! Really curious about this classic.

    fernandorafael

    May 8, 2013 at 9:01 am

  3. Great post. I think you’re totally correct about the film’s relevance to today’s Hollywood and felt exactly the same when I saw it a few months ago. It seems nothing has changed and if anything the themes have become more apparent.

    biggreenjelly

    May 8, 2013 at 9:40 am

    • Thank you! Yes, it felt very much up-to-date. I wish more people got to see it, outside of film clubs and such.

      Jessica

      May 8, 2013 at 8:50 pm

      • I’m trying to watch all the greats and had this one ear marked for a long time. I recommend it to anyone with more than a passing interest in film. You’re right, it’s a shame it isn’t more widely watched.

        biggreenjelly

        May 9, 2013 at 7:47 pm

        • I’ll join the club of people who recommend Sunset Boulevard straight away! We’ve got a mission: to make more people see it!

          Jessica

          May 9, 2013 at 10:19 pm

          • If only Ryan Gosling had somehow been in it. Then we’d have no problem.

            biggreenjelly

            May 10, 2013 at 9:00 am

  4. This is truly a golden oldie, love the characters, the cinematography, the writing, the cynisim. Great choice! Well, maybe something has changed, I feel there are quite a lot of movies nowadays that tell the tale of pathetic middle aged men who refuse to grow up

    Sofia

    May 8, 2013 at 10:14 am

    • High five! I’m glad we can agree about this one!
      It’s true that there are more movies made about middle aged men who don’t grow up, but aren’t they more forgiving? You smile at them, thinking it’s silly but also a little cute, while women who don’t grow up are judged as pathetic?

      Jessica

      May 8, 2013 at 8:45 pm

      • Well, maybe we’re _supposed_ to think they are cute and harmless, but to me they usually come off like complete ass holes… I would however agree with you that it seems more expected of men to have a midllife crisis with the Harley/Ferrari and the way too young girlfriend.

        Sofia

        May 10, 2013 at 1:55 pm

  5. This is a classic that I desperately need to revisit. I remember liking it but I may be the only person on the planet who didn’t really love it. Definitely deserves another viewing considering the unanimous praise. Your review will probably spur that overdue rewatch!

    keith7198

    May 8, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    • I can imagine this movie changes a little bit over the years. It has a certain twist of course, which I carefully avoided to mention. But even knowing about that, I think you can enjoy future re-visits when you knowing how it will turn out can pay more attention to the superb writing.

      Jessica

      May 8, 2013 at 8:37 pm

  6. It surely is a film about films. I’ve seen it a year or two ago, they showed it on the tellie.It’s a good movie but it didn’t tick off all the marks for me, it didn’t become one of my favorites.

    Movies about movies, mmm. Last action hero comes to mind 🙂

    carrandas

    May 8, 2013 at 5:57 pm

    • I was lucky to see it on a big screen, in an theatre that has been restored to oldstyle historical condition. I think that might have improved the experience even a little more.

      I really love movies about movies, feature films as well as docs. For a moment I considered making a top 10 list but I finally decided to write about this one since it’s been floating in my mind since I watched it and I hadn’t come around to make a post about it yet.

      Jessica

      May 8, 2013 at 8:35 pm

  7. Yes – a great movie! Kind of creepy but also av depressing drama.A good choise.

    filmitch

    May 8, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    • I’ve heard it mentioned so often in the Filmspotting podcast that I really wanted to grab the chance to see it when it came up.

      Jessica

      May 8, 2013 at 9:56 pm

  8. Great choice. I saw it 10 years ago and although it was a rough watch it is truly a classic and it stays with you a long time. I would give it a 4/5 (saw it before my blogging days) but it is damn close the summit.

    Henke

    May 9, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    • It’s wonderful and I was delighted to see it so high up on your top list. It must have made quite an impression since you thought about it this long afterwards.

      Jessica

      May 9, 2013 at 10:13 pm

  9. Oh, this is a true gem. I saw it as a part of a film noir marathon I did a couple of years ago. And yes, it has some film noir elements but the themes you write about is what it’s really about. Love it and it almost got a high score from me.

    http://jojjenito.wordpress.com/2011/10/28/film-noir-fredag-sunset-boulevard/ (in Swedish)

    Jojjenito

    May 9, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    • Lovely, positive review you wrote there! It’s nice to be on the same side about this one. From all comments I’ve seen so far it’s a very beloved movie.

      Jessica

      May 9, 2013 at 10:18 pm

  10. There’s also a really great old vs. new angle- the silent star having lost her fame (and sanity) to the onset talkies.

    This is one of my all-time favorites for a whole host of reasons. Gloria Swanson’s performance is one of those reasons. Her portrayal of narcissistic insanity is a perfect fit for the film’s dark humor. Visually, Wilder and his crew took Hollywood- a bright, sunny, happy place full of money and fame… and turned it into a decaying, Gothic nightmare, complete with wrought iron and long shadows and crumbling architecture. It was sort of a key moment for film noir, taking a film about Hollywood and giving it almost a German expressionist veneer.

    Then there’s Wilder’s personal touch. As I recall, he wrote this movie when he was a young writer living on Sunset Blvd. At the time, Sunset Blvd. was known exactly for what the film portrays- a dividing line between the disappearing stars of the silent yesteryear and the young, cynical Hollywood wanna-bes with their dreams (like Wilder… and Joe Gillis).

    And then there’s the inclusion of silent stars (Swanson chief among them) in a spoof of the diminishing nature of silent film. When I saw Buster Keaton the first time I saw Sunset Blvd., I almost cracked my cheeks from grinning.

    (sorry, I could babble about this movie all day… it’s that near and dear to my heart)

    John

    May 10, 2013 at 3:09 am

    • Don’t be sorry, your comment is wonderful and bring up very good points and interesting facts about the movie. You sound like an expert; you must have watched it many times. I can definitely see myself going back to this one in the future, prepared with a bit more of backstory, ready to spot more details. From now on it will be a movie that is near and dear to my heart as well.

      Jessica

      May 10, 2013 at 7:06 am

  11. This is the kind of film where the more you know to more intense it becomes, for example that when Erich von Stroheim (who plays Max von Mayerling) was a filmmaker in the 1920s he directed Gloria Swanson (who plays Norma Desmond) and the film Norma and Joe watches is one of those films that Swanson and von Stroheim made together. It’s enough to make your head spin. It’s also typical of Wilder, to have these double meanings and in-jokes.

    I love the sequence when they visit Cecil B de Mille (who is playing himself) at the set and Norma is annoyed by a microphone, her mortal enemy, and she fights it off like it was an insect or something.

    My favourite line is probably when Joe accuses the secretary for being so judgemental and says “You would have turned down Gone With the Wind!” and the producer sighs and says “No, that was me.”

    Fredrik Gustafsson

    May 18, 2013 at 12:36 am

    • Thanks for updating me! I really know too little about this movie. I can imagine it would be great to see it with a good commentary track with somone pointing out this kind of addictional facts.

      And yes, that favourite line of yours is lovely too!

      Jessica

      May 19, 2013 at 9:32 pm


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