It’s hard to pin down just when the Golden Age of Hollywood was – but few films demonstrate the more harder edged City Of Stars quite like Sunset Boulevard.
This article contains spoilers for Sunset Boulevard
When was the Golden Age of Hollywood?
Technically, we class it as anything from the 1920s to the 1960s. However, you can say each generation has its own era it looks back on with glistening dewdrop eyes. Nowadays we look back at the 1980s and mine it for nuggets of nostalgia. The 80s itself, looked at the 1950s for its movie aesthetic. The 50s looked at the 1930s for ideas and blueprints. And the 30s rode in on the coattails of the silent films.
So, when was the true Golden Age? You could argue there never was one. Now the Cynical Age of Hollywood? Well, that’s been around forever.
And it has never been as dark and scathing as it has been in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.
Released in 1950, this darkly comic film noir revolves around a young man named Joe (William Holden) who’s a struggling writer in Hollywood, producing only B-movies. Keen to get ahead of the game, he comes across long-forgotten silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who is working on a comeback script for an adaptation of Salome (a very raunchy myth as well.)
Feeling that her company and fame could help him get ahead, he begins to work on her script. All the while, Norma falls deeply in love with him, lavishing him with gifts and clothes. But whatever could go wrong with this new relationship?
I’ve mentioned in previous Old Movies articles that Wilder’s work here is a scathing indictment of the film industry. It’s insanely critical of the gnashing and gnawing Hollywood machine. Sunset Boulevard is not the first of its kind either: movies such as A Star Is Born (1937,) Make Me A Star (1932,) and What Price Hollywood? (1932), all have a glean of pessimism. Yet none ever cut deeply and coldly as Billy Wilder’s swansong.
Sunset Boulevard is a particular favourite of mine when it comes to film noir. Told in Joe’s narration, the film is a cutting indictment of that city of stars. Everyone here is either clinging to scraps or chomping up the hungry and ambitious to make thousands.
The film is filled with commentary about fading starlets, their subsequent gigolos who hope to find succession into stardom, the foul, fiends called producers, and rotting away in fortune and fantasy. There’s even a joke about Joe being the Black Dahlia suspect; a terrible unsolved murder which showed how reprehensible celebrity culture can be.
Norma Desmond, played hauntingly by Gloria Swanson, is a different kind of femme fatale but is still somewhat of a light to bait an unsuspecting moth. The audience is introduced to her in a rather crass manner as our narrator Joe compares her to Dickens’ wilting Mrs Havisham. That being said, we cannot fault the comparison, Norma waits for an unrequited love except it is not a suitor, but an acting career that has long gone.
Therefore, Desmond isn’t cool and calculated as a femme fatale seemingly ought to be – she’s deluded, deranged, and desperate. Desmond isn’t young but no less glamorous; and Joe falls suddenly into her world of folly. He uses her painted wings to fly closer and closer to the sun.
“All right, Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” Norma whispers, the now iconic line from the film. Her eyes are wide with a melancholic and murderous madness as she seemingly emerges as the battered and bruised butterfly she’s always wanted to be. As Joe floats, dead on the surface of the pool he has always wanted, it turns out she wasn’t a butterfly or a moth. Instead, she was the flames luring our wannabe writer into her rabid incandescence with a promise of fame and fortune.
Of course, in death, Joe gets exactly that – forever etched in stone alongside Norma…
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