When the old man I used to live with was still alive, we would often watch Wheel of Fortune (1975-present). It came on at the time that I was usually making dinner, so my attention was occasionally divided. This did not bother me much as I have never been a fan of the show. It is a particular failing of mine that whenever there is something in media of which I am not overly fond, I poke fun at it. With the gameshow, this came in the form of guessing William Holden as the answer to every puzzle. It did not matter if it fit, if the category was different, or the number of words did not match. I would blurt out “William Holden!” as soon as resident letter tile turner Vanna White finished displaying the elaborate game of hangman. If a contestant seemed stuck, “William Holden!” After getting bored with this, William Holden became the star of every film that would come on the broadcast television stations Rick (the old man) used to incessantly watch. I pray that he is watching a William Holden movie right now in Heaven. In the meantime, please enjoy this review of Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Lucky for this review, William Holden, who plays struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis, is the first person you see in Sunset Boulevard. Unluckily for him, he is dead. How we find him floating face down in the pool he had always wanted is the subject of the rest of the film, narrated by him. It starts six months previously. Two finance men, who are basically cops working for loan corporations, knock on Joe’s door as he labors away at his typewriter. They have come to either collect payment for his car loan, or the car itself. While he manages to convince them that the vehicle had been loaned to a friend, Joe knows that he needs to find the money quickly. His first move is to go to Sheldrake (Fred Clark), a producer at Paramount Pictures. He is hoping that they will purchase a script he is developing for a baseball film, but the idea is panned, particularly when one of Paramount’s readers, Betty Schafer (Nancy Olson), critiques it. She does so not realizing the author is sitting in front of her, though she is a fan of his earlier work. Thus, it is back out onto the streets in search of a temporary loan in order to keep his automobile from being repossessed. Everywhere he turns, including Morino (Lloyd Gough), his agent, he is rejected. Making matters worse, the finance men spot him driving and a brief chase ensues. He evades them by turning into the driveway of a seemingly abandoned Hollywood estate. He soon finds out, however, that it is very much occupied. As he gawks at the near ruins, a voice instructs him to come inside. It is not a ghost, though it might as well be, but rather former silent film megastar Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). A confused Joe is ushered into her private rooms by her servant, Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). Norma believes Joe to have brought a coffin for her recently departed pet chimpanzee. He protests by telling her that he is a writer. She is about to summarily dismiss him when she has a change of heart. Instead, she brings him into her drawing room. Surrounded by pictures of herself, she imperiously commands him to take a look at a script she has been working on and plans to send to famous director Cecil B. DeMille (as himself). Given that Joe is trying to evade collection agents, he agrees to sit down and take a look. Given what you already know of the ending, I would have taken my chances outside. Her invitation to read her work, turns into a veritable order that he continue working on it with her, despite it being awful. What keeps him there is the promise of money. He figures he can keep stringing her along until he can get enough cash out of her to pay off his debt. Before long, even though he protests, Max has brought Joe’s stuff to the mansion. The weeks turn into months, and soon it is New Year’s Eve. She plans a party for the two of them, despite him expecting others, and while they dance she admits her love for him. He refuses her advances, causing her to flee to her room. Joe takes this opportunity to escape, ending up at a party hosted by his friend and assistant director Artie Green (Jack Webb). With him at the shindig is his girlfriend, Betty, who still feels bad about what she said about Joe’s script. Her and Joe end up talking privately and it seems like they have chemistry. In fact, Joe is about to kiss her until he calls back to the mansion and learns that Norma has attempted suicide. He frantically returns to her, and it is back to work. She eventually sends it to DeMille, and goes to meet the director personally at the studio. He does not have the heart to tell his former collaborator that the potential movie will not be made. Instead, he sends her off believing that everything is good to start filming any day. While she confers with DeMille, Joe has a run-in with Betty. She wants him to help her with reworking a script of his that she feels has some promise. Though she puts her off at first, soon he is sneaking out at night to meet at the studio to work. It is during one of these late-night sessions that they finally admit their love for each other. In fact, Joe is about to leave for good when Norma calls Betty to try to scare her away from Betty. Until this point, Betty had no knowledge of Joe’s odd living arrangement. Thus, feeling like he misled Betty, Joe invites her to Norma’s home to admit the truth. She leaves on the heels of this admission, and now it is Joe’s intention to go home to Ohio and forget the entire sordid affair. Yet, as Norma gets more frantic, she shoots Joe, who then stumbles into the pool to die. The next morning, a crazed Norma thinks the assorted press is there for her to be in a movie, and she gets one last close-up before it ends.
This final scene in Sunset Boulevard gave me the origin of a sometimes-used phrase in movies whenever someone is acting out of sorts: “All right, Mr. DeMille. I’m ready for my close-up.” This is the last line in the film before Norma is taken into custody. She makes a great villain. One like her also makes for good practice as a Christian. I do not know about you (if you have seen this movie), but I kept wondering if maybe they would find some way for Joe to live. At the same time, I continued trying to figure out who it is that will ultimately shoot Joe. I did not immediately guess Norma because I got taken in by her desperation. The movie does a masterful job of riding the line between making you want to despise her and care for her at the same time. This matches the emotional roller coaster that Joe endures. You want him to leave her and be with Betty, or at least I did. To his credit, he does go back to Norma to comfort her when he learns that she had attempted suicide. Such acts are, as the saying goes, a cry for help, but that does not diminish the need. Norma is clearly sick and wounded, and visiting a person in such a state is a corporal act of mercy. If you cannot be with somebody in this manner, pray for them. The point is that people like Norma deserve pity. There is a Christian word with some weight. It is a handy one to keep in mind with Good Friday fast approaching. In the midst of His Passion, Jesus asked His Father in Heaven to have pity on the ones making him suffer. Thus, showing mercy to somebody like Norma can do a world of good.
At the same time, Norma clearly needed to be put in prison at the end of Sunset Boulevard. She did commit murder, after all. We can only pray that she is able to eventually find some peace. Until then, this piece of classic cinema comes with The Legionnaire’s recommendation.