“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
Billy Wilder is undisputedly one of the greatest directors to have ever made movies. This AFI Top 100 list includes several of his movies. His total here is only beaten or rivalled by legendary names like Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick. I knew I liked and respected Wilder’s work before I started this countdown, but now I know I absolutely love it. And while his silly comedies, like The Seven Year Itch, are great, it’s his dark, cynical streak that I really dig. Movies like Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend. And possibly the greatest display of his darker sensibilities, Sunset Blvd.
A dead body floats face down in a pool. But this is how Sunset Blvd. will end, so first, it’s time to flash back. Down on his luck Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) hasn’t sold a script in a while and is broke enough to consider skipping town and heading back to Ohio. Doing his best to evade debt collectors and avoid having his car repossessed, he loses them by turning into the driveway of a rundown old mansion and hiding his car in the garage. Before he can leave, Joe is summoned inside by the home’s butler Max (Erich von Stroheim). Mistakenly believing Joe to be the monkey mortician (yep, I said “monkey mortician”) they’re expecting, Joe is sent upstairs where he meets the mansion’s owner, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).
A former silent film star, now a has been, Norma is the only person who doesn’t know she’s a has been. When she learns that Joe is a screenwriter, she recruits him to write her great comeback picture. Through various machinations, some natural, some clearly orchestrated by Norma, Joe ends up moving into the ramshackle old house. Eager to exploit this crazy old bird, Joe indulges her eccentricities and writes her terrible movie. But when he meets aspiring young writer Betty Schafer (Nancy Olson) and the two begin working on a promising screenplay, it’s clear that Norma has no intentions of sharing Joe’s attention.
Like Double Indemnity, this is another Billy Wilder movie that literally gives away its ending in the opening minutes, then spends the rest of its running time being extremely intense and suspenseful, even though you know exactly where it’s all headed. And like Double indemnity, that’s a major part of what makes Sunset Blvd. so riveting and rewarding. Does Joe deserve his ultimate fate? Maybe not, but we definitely get to see how he makes it inevitable. Step by step, decision by decision.
But as great as Williams Holden is as Joe, this movie wouldn’t still be so well remembered and regarded today, without Gloria Swanson. Norma Desmond is one of cinema’s great tragic villains. She’s big and broad and over the top, but at the same time vulnerable, tortured and believable. Which is kind of a great description for Sunset Blvd. as a whole. The story and look is so big, broad and over the top, yet that never gets in the way of it being vulnerable, tortured and disturbingly believable at the same time.
Best Picture (nominated, lost to All About Eve)
Best Director (Wilder nominated, lost to Joseph L Mankiewics for All About Eve)
Best Actor (Holden nominated, lost to Joe Ferrer for Cyrano de Bergerac)
Best Actress (Swanson nominated, lost to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday)
Best Supporting Actor (von Stroheim nominated, lost to George Sanders for All About Eve)
Best Supporting Actress (Olson nominated, lost to Josephine Hull for Harvey)