Staying Up Long Past Sunset: Billy Wilder’s Deconstruction of the Silent Era
DIRECTOR: BILLY WILDER/1950
Billy Wilder’s classic noir masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard, shines a harsh, unforgiving light on the ghosts of Hollywood. The story of an aging silent film star, twenty years past her prime, unable to survive in the world of talkies, attended by her loyal and stalwart butler (himself a relic of the silent era) was eerily close to the reality of the time for silent film actors.
Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond, the displaced and dethroned Hollywood royalty who rots in a palatial but dilapidated estate on the eponymous Hollywood road. Swanson herself was a silent film star—one of the biggest, in fact, who was venerated just as much as Desmond was, but like Desmond, had been unable, like so many other silent icons, to make the transition into talking pictures. Her butler, Max von Mayerling, is portrayed by legendary silent film director Erich von Stroheim, who is playing a very close version of himself in the film: one of the greatest filmmakers of the silent era who has now faded into obscurity. Only the name and occupation (so far as I know, von Stroheim never worked as a butler) has been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.
Von Stroheim is joined in the second act by fellow silent era filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, who is actually playing himself. DeMille is perhaps the one of the best examples of a silent era director who managed to adapt with the times. Or perhaps he managed to just keep on keeping on, muscling his way into the sound era through sheer force of blusterous will; making giant, sprawling epics for the rest of his life, even as the art form changed and evolved around him. How strange, however, that in the context of the film, DeMille, who made Desmond a star (in his own words, old enough to be her father), would be the one to stay relevant, while his former starlet has faded into obscurity.
In the third act, it’s revealed that Mayerling was the filmmaker who discovered Desmond, and became her first husband, but unlike DeMille, was incapable of leaving her and moving on. They now exist in a bizarrely codependent relationship—stuck in the quicksand of time together forever. The relationship becomes even creepier when you consider that von Mayerling stuck around as a butler for two more marriages, cleaning up after his emotional and sexual replacements. This, along with many other things, is what makes Sunset Boulevard a true Hollywood horror story.
Together, Desmond, Mayerling, and the house on Sunset Boulevard represent the faded excesses of the 1920’s; now strange, curious, and arcane to the modern Joe Gillis, played by William Holden . Gillis ekes out his own modest living in a modest Hollywood apartment; desperate for the stale crumbs from Desmond’s table. When he first meets her, he says, “You used to be big.”
“I am big!” she insists, taken aback by the young screenwriter’s impudence. “It’s the pictures that got small.”
There is nothing small in Desmond’s world. From the massive house she lives in, to the outlandish and dated outfits she wears, to the extravagances she surrounds herself with (including but not limited to a personal movie theatre decked out with dozens pictures of herself, a dance hall [once danced upon by Rudolph Valentino herself!], a bowling alley, and a pipe organ that creaks to life whenever the wind breathes through its ancient pipes), to her grandiose emotional speeches and gestures; an acting style lost to the silent era. She has sealed herself into an ornate tomb where time stands still; the Great Depression came and went, with no indication that Desmond ever took notice. The world grew up without her. She is fifty years old going on nineteen; a childish diva without a stage. She has lost touch with reality, unable to differentiate between now and then, between real life and the fantasy world she has constructed for herself.
As her grip on reality continues to slip away, and Desmond plunges further and further into madness, the film ends on a chilling and frightening, albeit profound note. The message is clear: to fail to adapt to the times (at least failure on this scale, anyway) is a form of insanity.
Perhaps it’s because of the cyclical themes of society and culture that Sunset Boulevard remains relevant today, more than half a century later. Perhaps it’s because it’s simply such a well-made film. Perhaps it’s both, and a hundred other reasons. Whatever they might be, this is a masterfully directed movie that deserves, unlike Norma Desmond, to be discovered again and again by each new generation of film fans.