Decades Later, Sunset Boulevard Is Still Accurate About Hollywood and Art The Talks Today

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Decades Later, Sunset Boulevard Is Still Accurate About Hollywood and Art
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Decades Later, Sunset Boulevard Is Still Accurate About Hollywood and Art

When the black comedy film noir Sunset Boulevard came out in 1950, it predicted many concepts, people, and scenarios that still exist almost a century later. Director Billy Wilder places the movie on the strip that is the center of the American film industry in Los Angeles: Sunset Boulevard, a street that cuts directly through Hollywood. In the movie, Gloria Swanson made a comeback in the role of Norma Desmond, an aging silent film star unable to cope with the reality that she has become irrelevant in today’s world. Paired opposite her is William Holden in the role of Joe Gillis.

Joe, a transplant from Ohio, is a screenwriter down on his luck. He is submitting work to major studios, like Paramount Pictures, but no one wants to make a movie off his scripts. In an attempt to escape the men trying to repossess his car due to the lack of payments, he ends up at Norma Desmond’s mansion. After wandering inside by accident, he increasingly gets sucked into Norma’s world, especially as she is suffering from mental health issues and an inflated ego. But after she starts to become obsessed with him, their game turns deadly, leading to an ending that can only end in murder. Sunset Boulevard has a lot of knowledge to impart about not only Hollywood but creative industries as a whole.


Chasing After Money and Prestige

Paramount Pictures

Some say that for one to get what one wants in life, especially when it comes to status and power, one should be willing to do whatever it takes. In Sunset Boulevard, this manifests in the character of Joe. He’s tired of living life on the edge of poverty, and when the studios keep rejecting his scripts, he becomes dejected about what his future may look like. However, when Norma offers him a job, a room in the mansion, and all the things he could ever want, he slowly begins to become more selfish. After Norma’s suicide attempt, he agrees to engage in a relationship, which will ultimately lead to his downfall.

On the other hand, Norma has more than enough money to keep her afloat for multiple lifetimes, but she has become obsessed with the notion that the camera brings her that fortune. Thus begins a game where not only Norma is using him to supposedly edit her script, but Joe pretends to be in love with her so that he can continue this comfortable life. Although this dynamic is presented under the pretense of the moving being a black comedy film noir, these kinds of situations are very real.

Related: Best Classic Comedy Movies of the 1950s

Screenwriters in Hollywood are still paid salaries that aren’t comfortable to live on in Los Angeles, and situations where people working in the film industry are exploited, are unfortunately common — especially in the period where the movie is set. Both characters in Sunset Boulevard are driven to the point of breaking by the circumstances they’re placed under, and, in reality, Norma Desmond most likely was a teenage star who struggled with fame at a time in her life when she simply couldn’t handle it.

Who Will Remember Us?

Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond drinks in Sunset Boulevard
Paramount Pictures

One of the biggest conflicts for Norma Desmond is the fear that no one will remember who she is. She declares she is a star that is fit for the big screen, and genuinely believes her fans are still writing to her. This is what leads her to write a massive script she thinks is the next greatest movie, and when she hires Joe upon finding out he is a screenwriter, she begins to fall in love with the attention he is giving her. The character of Norma Desmond may be presented as insane for her era, but, in actuality, she’s a woman struggling with her mental health and lacks the resources and care she needs.

Her conflict is driven by a need to be recognized by the people who surround her, whether it is her fans, her former director now butler or Joe. When allowed to present her script to one of her former directors, she is over the moon when she believes he wants her to star in an upcoming production. Joe, at the same time, is driven by the financial benefits of his association with her, but is unable to write anything on his own that actually can stand the test of time, hence his rejections from the studios.

Related: Why Are Modern Movies Obsessed with Old Hollywood?

Even in Damien Chazelle’s 2022 movie Babylon, which also deals with topics about Hollywood, Brad Pitt’s character is unable to cope with the fact his fame and prosperity are vanishing. Norma’s situation may be handled differently because of the 1950s and the fact she is a woman — it plays directly into the trope that she is a madwoman in the attic, a frantic, hysterical woman who slays a budding star.

Both characters in Sunset Boulevard are two sides of the same coin, but there are more people like Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis out in the world today. Psychology says that some humans have the desire to be famous and understood by the people around them, but Sunset Boulevard takes it to the next level. Hollywood is a system that may make a movie about these kinds of people working in it, but they still exist.