If All About Eve, the last of the films we’d reviewed, was a study of theater people with the rose-tinted glasses removed, then Sunset Boulevard is the x-ray of what life is truly like in Hollywood. The only thing not present is the casting couch, but that’s pretty normal in a Code film.
The irony, for those in the know, is heightened to almost unbearable heights by the fact that so many of the characters are played by themselves. Some are wearing their own names (Cecil B. DeMille is the most notable), but the most impactful are the ones that are slightly disguised.
Gloria Swanson plays a silent movie actress who thinks she is due for a comeback but is actually even more washed out than she knows. Erich Von Stronheim is a failed former director. Buster Keaton and other former silent stars play Swanson’s card friends, a group she refers to as “her waxworks”. It is funny in the most bitter, self-referential way.
Fortunately, the film rises above the navel-gazing and the story of the three characters involved in the love triangle at the center of the plot are intriguing in themselves, and only Swanson is grotesque.
The gothic sense of this one is heightened by the lush décor, which reminds one of the silent era, as well as the huge, rambling house. It pays homage to film noir in many of its aesthetic and narrative choices, and the ending is pretty much a noir staple, even if the film itself isn’t necessarily something I’d classify as noir.
It’s not surprising that Lloyd Webber, with his past success in studying the shadows of show business, would have adapted this one to the stage. It is pretty much of a type–if of a different era–with the Phantom of the Opera, with many of the same emotions at work.
despite the ehaviness, it is an eminently watchable film. It is also a great one. Perhaps not in the conversation for the greatest of all time, but it towers above the other films I’ve watched recently in that indefinable category of “greatness”, with only The Third Man beating it out of the films I’ve seen recently.
Finally, the lead love interest in this one was played by Nancy Olson, who is with us still. If you’re reading this, hi!
Anyway, this is one of those no-doubters. Among the greats.
Gustavo Bondoni is a short story writer and novelist. His literary work is collected in Love and Death, a series of intertwined stories that function as a single cohesive narrative. You can check it out here.