Filmlab: Best Movies about Writing – Sunset Boulevard
The old sexist joke about the stupidity of the actress who sleeps with the writer to get ahead was never funny, but it did contain some tragic truths about the contempt Hollywood has traditionally had for women and screenwriters. Never have these truths been better expressed – or the joke more artfully inverted – than in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. This tale of a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who becomes the kept man of a faded silent-era film star remains a merciless skewering of the way the movie business destroys those who let dreams and nostalgia blind them to the reality of their own powerless positions.
Wilder – working for the last time with regular screenwriter Charles Brackett – sets out the film’s cynical stall from the off by having the corpse of the writer narrate the action. Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, introduces himself as “nobody important, just a movie writer with a couple of B-pictures to his name”. This says plenty about the lack of respect his profession engenders in the industry – more so as this self-loathing assessment accompanies images of his own body being fished out of a swimming pool, its lifeless form treated more respectfully in death than it ever was in life.
Shot in the back by the rapacious Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an ageing star driven mad by the head-on collision of irrelevance and illusion that has defined her life since the talkies destroyed her career, Gillis isn’t any more reliable a storyteller than the Hollywood gossip columnists destined to distort the facts of his murder for the sake of a juicy headline. Yet as he proceeds to fill us in from beyond the grave on what actually happened, the film becomes a satiric catalogue of writers’ indignities and compromised ideals. Is Joe’s precarious employment a result of banging out spec scripts that are too original or not original enough? Is talent a virtue that should always be expressed or a curse that needs to be overcome for the sake of a paycheque?
Wilder explores these questions during a deceptively savage pitch meeting in which Joe tries to resurrect a long-dead project with the head of Paramount Pictures. Getting into a condescending argument with Nancy Olson’s idealistic young script reader about whether movies should have a message or not, Joe – bristling at having his work so casually dismissed by this underling – sneers: “Whaddya want? James Joyce? Dostoevsky?” But it’s the studio boss who cuts them both down to size with the ultimate insult: “You sound like a couple of New York critics.” In this business, quality is an abstract concept to be debated on the East Coast, far away from the empty opulence of Los Angeles, with its mausoleum-like mansions and golf-obsessed agents who think nothing of lecturing writers on the motivational benefits of working on an empty stomach.
But Wilder shows how dark the movie industry can really get by having Joe literally prostitute himself for a few luxuries. Slyly coercing Norma Desmond into hiring him to plot her “return” to the big screen (she hates the word “comeback”), he’s supposed to be shaping her terrible self-penned adaptation of Salome into a workable script for Cecil B DeMille. Of course he knows the movie is never going to happen, that it’s just another facet in the bizarre fantasy life she’s constructed for herself in her memento-filled Sunset Boulevard hideaway. He knows too the self-loathing he’s going to feel as he submits to her whims, becoming the boy she can be mad about as she showers him with solid-gold cigarette cases, custom-made suits and vicuña overcoats. What he doesn’t know until it’s too late is how delusional he’s become about his own situation. Even while telling Norma that the only tragedy of being 50 is pretending to be 25, he’s convinced himself he can regain his self-respect by reliving his own past and escaping Hollywood for the $35-a-week copywriting job he left on his local newspaper in Dayton Ohio. As such he’s just as tragic as Norma, if not more so. She’s ready for her close-up. He’s not.
Alistair Harkness, Film Critic, The Scotsman, 10 December 2015