Trying to come up with a fresh angle on Billy Wilder’s essentially undisputed 1950 masterpiece Sunset Boulevard is a thankless task, and probably close to impossible unless one is willing to dabble in some serious critical revisionism. Suffice to say, the film is an invigoratingly acerbic blast of Hollywood satire with a pitch-black heart that hasn’t faded at all over 60-plus years. Is it Wilder’s best dramatic film? Maybe not — in my mind, the equally dark skewering of media hoopla in Ace in the Hole is even more biting and prescient than Sunset Boulevard’s takedown of Hollywood self-mythologizing. Nevertheless, Sunset Boulevard is a towering giant of cinema — bitterly funny, immensely heartbreaking and a stunning high wire act of self-reflexivity.
William Holden stars as Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter more likely to be dodging repo men than doing any actual writing. An escape attempt from some thugs he owes money to leads Gillis to the mausoleum-like estate of faded silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), presided over by her taciturn butler Max Von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). She insists she’s just one step away from reclaiming stardom in the movie business, and though Gillis senses her delusion, he also sees an opportunity. Offering to write her comeback screenplay and live in the lap of luxury while doing so, Gillis tumbles head over heels into a toxic relationship with Desmond.
All of this is well and good for Gillis — Wilder doesn’t hedge when it comes to portraying his protagonist as both morally vacant and only marginally talented — but when an opportunity to write an actual script with the comely Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) comes along, he’s torn. Norma Desmond is as insanely jealous as she is prone to delusions of grandeur, and soon it becomes clear how Gillis’ posthumous storytelling got its start.