Classic Hollywood Archive: Sunset Boulevard

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Love looking at old photos of yourself, thinking how much nicer you looked then, rather than now? This classic Hollywood flick reminds us not to attach too much importance to our past. Gloria Swanson and William Holden star in this 1950’s drama/noir, Sunset Boulevard, which was nominated for a whopping 11 Academy Awards.

Besides the three Oscars it eventually won, why should audiences today – most of whom seem to be more interested in Keeping up with the Kardashians than real life – watch a film made more than 60 years ago?

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Norma and Joe Gillis. Image via wikipedia.org

Firstly, the plot centres around Joe Gillis (William Holden), an unsuccessful screenwriter who gets a taste of the sweet life when he accidentally crosses paths with the beautiful yet more than slightly delusional former silent film queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). The film starts off , you could say, with a bang and throughout Gillis desperately attempts to escape the clutches of the once beautiful but ageing Norma, with varying degrees of success, or rather, failure.

Director Billy Wilder seems to make a point of warning us against the dangers of focusing too much on our past. Norma is totally unhinged by the fact that Hollywood has used and abused her and now tossed her into the pile of ‘has-beens’. She watches old films of herself, made in her heyday over and over again, and adores it when someone else will watch them with her. Norma seems to want to transcend time; to become suspended in her most successful phase. Unfortunately, time travel hadn’t been invented and (unluckily for the Norma’s of the world) still hasn’t. Norma’s actions and behaviour throughout the film are more than enough for anyone to come crashing back to the here and now. 

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Norma Desmond is partially illuminated by the light of the projector. Image via  sunsetboulevard1950.blogspot.

From an analytical point of view, the lighting in Sunset Boulevard is definitely an interesting one to watch. The low-key lighting is extremely effective and in several shots has a particularly strong impact on the viewer. A striking example of the low-key lighting is in the scene in which Norma is about to play one of the silent films she starred in. Here, the right hand side of the shot is extremely dark and at some points nearly black, while the left side of the shot is partially illuminated. This creates the artistic effect of Norma’s silhouette.

However, although the use of lighting in this shot is clearly evidence of the fact that Sunset Boulevard conforms to the classic Hollywood aesthetic, it also represents far more. As Norma’s face is turned towards the projector, which is metaphorically and literally representative of her previous successes, she is also being simultaneously enveloped by shadows, in the form of the dark contrast, creeping up from the right hand side of the shot. Could this be demonstrating that Norma is desperate to linger nostalgically looking into her past and former successes, but her impending madness and demise of popularity is getting harder and harder to ignore? It’s all down to interpretation, but this theory is certainly plausible.

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‘All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.’ Image via popsmut.wordpress.

Finally, to finish, here are some of the fabulously savage one-liners delivered by the character in the film most likely to win a villainous staring contest (Norma):

  • “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”
  • “Shut up, I’m rich! I’m richer than all this new Hollywood trash!”
  • “There are no other guests. We don’t want to share this night with other people.”

If this hasn’t convinced you to watch Sunset Boulevard – and the fact that it has a score of 98% on Rotten Tomatoes –  watch the trailer below.

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Law student at the University of Southampton.

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