Practically all aspects of the moviemaking have been portrayed in the so called behind-the-scenes films. 1950 Sunset Boulevard directed by Billy Wilder was not the first movie that showed the moviemaking industry from the inside but it was one of the first to offer a scathing commentary on contradictions and cruelty of Hollywood. Being a sharp critique of the existing celluloid world, Sunset Boulevard pinpoints major contradictions of the film industry such as inequality in engagement between men and women due to age discrimination, the ideal of success, the conflict between the young and the old, and the obsession with happy endings.
Hollywood is all about the big American dream of success. With its mild climate, California is an epitome of a paradise, while Hollywood is a destination which ambitious people of artistic talents strive to conquer. Therefore, it is symbolical that in Sunset Boulevard the story takes place in Hollywood. Generally believed to be a dream factory, Hollywood, in fact, offers just a few to live as in a dream, while the rest has to come to terms with harsh reality. Sunset Boulevard takes on to demystify two fates common in Hollywood, one of a struggling screenwriter and another of a once-great movie star. A young disillusioned writer, Joe Gillis, seeing that he continually fails to achieve success in the field of screenwriting, agrees to a well-paid offer to edit a Salome movie script for an aging silent movie star, Norma Desmond and becomes a kept lover; his end is tragic.
At the center of Sunset Boulevard is the conflict of the old and the new, age and youth. The young Joe wanders in his limping brand new car into the old-style mansion of Norma with an unkempt yard, a neglected pool, and an obsolete mammoth of a car. Everything about Norma’s way of living is excessive. She eats caviar and drinks champagne in the afternoon, wears fur and diamonds at home, and lives in an overstuffed house. Unlike Norma, Joe got used to living much more modestly. Rending a one-bedroom he wears unattractive cotton suits. His only luxury is a chromium car that seems flimsy in comparison to Norma’s old foreign-built automobile. When breaking up with Norma Joe fishes out of his pockets a watch chain, cigarette case, and other expensive trinkets saying, “it’s a little too dressy for sitting behind the copy desk in Dayton, Ohio” (Sunset Boulevard). In a stark contrast were two New Year’s Eve parties. Lavishly decorated Norma’s New Year’s Eve party turns out to be arranged just for the two of them. The sequence with Norma and Joe dancing alone on the wide sweep of the tile floor to the playing of the live band is contrasted with a crowded young Hollywood party thrown by Joe’s friend, Artie. Brimming with mirth and gaiety, Artie’s party gathered aspiring young talents who laugh, drink, and sing satirical songs about Hollywood. An ability to sing satirical songs about their actual place of work is not a favorable comparison with Norma’s constrained and serious attitude to herself and her success.
One of the contradictions in Sunset Boulevard is the definition of success. While Norma is definitely a star and has had a worldwide fan base, she is distressed over falling out of the limelight. Norma’s success is treated by her and other people as a matter of the past that no longer has any relation to the present. While Norma is a woman of ample means, she is not satisfied with it, though. She wants to regain her place in hearts of millions of fans. Conversely, the bunch of young Hollywood people, while being penniless, look and feel happier and they imagine their success awaits them. In Sunset Boulevard, both the old Hollywood represented by Norma and the young Hollywood represented by those people at Artie’s party have illusions about their future success but Norma is embittered while the young people are hopeful. In terms of money, Norma wins; in terms of happiness and gayety the wild bunch of young people does. One of the contradictions in the fate of Norma is that she has had it all but chose not to rest on her laurels and ultimately failed.
Norma is a representative of a past golden age of Hollywood, a world of silent movies and spectacular stars. She lives surrounded by her pictures depicting her in her prime years. With the silent-to-talkies transition the emphasis was done more on spoken words than on acting. Norma reminiscences of how they “had faces” instead of dialogues (Sunset Boulevard). The transition to sound had crushed many established careers of actors and actresses. The choice of Gloria Swanson for the role of silent movie star Norma Desmond was deeply ironic because she had been a real icon of the silent film era and could not have made a glorious transition to sound movies. Therefore, the contradiction lies between the once-popular aging actress and her youthful image she continually reminds herself of.
The topic of aging is another conflict in Sunset Boulevard. The viewer sees Norma as a well-groomed middle-aged woman who desperately clings to her youthfulness. Later in the movie Joe cries out: “There’s nothing tragic about being fifty – not unless you try to be twenty-five” (Sunset Boulevard). The cruelty of the Hollywood industry is that it has demand only for young girls who ooze sex appeal. As soon as middle age approaches, a woman’s career declines into the roles of old ladies, mothers, and minor characters. As such, exemptions are rare, and one is Bette Davis, who all the more worried that she did not have as many roles as she could play. However, Norma exemplifies the fate of a beautiful actress who is cast off due to her aging. The issue of aging scared off several other actresses such as Mary Pickford and Mae West from playing the part. Swanson emphasized the unfairness of Norma’s fate by the overplaying. Norma’s gestures are exaggerated, her mimic is intense, and her self-concentration borders on insanity and eventually develops into it. Strictly following her beauty routine Norma nevertheless is not able to return the elusive youthfulness. Getting prepared for the assumed role of Salome Norma takes on an excruciating skin-care regimen. She applies various masks, mudpacks, creams and lotions, as well as sweats in a special contraption and rubs her face with a sander. The viewers might feel a pang of compassion at how hard Norma tries to return her fresh face but nothing can return her youth. Norma is unable to see that no matter what she does she is still a middle-aged woman, even if good-looking, and the tyrannical culture of eternal youth has no place for her.
However, the issue of aging did not refer to men at all. This contradiction is highlighted in the scene when Norma goes to Paramount Studio to see Cecil B. DeMille, a director she used to work with, and one of his assistances casually remarks: “She must be a million years old;” DeMille responds with “I hate to think where that puts me. I could be her father” (Sunset Boulevard). Even being older than Norma DeMille was able to work and be successful. The crew on the set of Samson and Delilah DeMille was shooting looked much older than Norma, yet she was denied work in the field. The reason for this paradox is that actresses were valued for their looks mainly, not for their acting abilities. Christopher Ames explains it by “the vary factors that once made actresses the center of the screen world: the mixture of innocence and youthful sex appeal, that ‘fresh, dewy quality”. Actors had no difficulties to continue working well into advanced age. Aging male actors were still able to play romantic leads while actresses were given minor roles or had to retire.
The contradictions of the film industry are highlighted by the contradictions of the behind-the-scenes genre. Remembering that they are watching the great illusion of a motion picture, the viewers are tricked into believing that they unmask it and reveal the truth as it is. The contradictory nature of the genre is emphasized by self-referentiality of the movie. The major reference was the idea to engage an actress who had a similar lot of being a has-been silent-screen star. Gloria Swanson introduces the “intentional double focus” to the movie because the public still remembers her as a silent movie actress. Although Swanson plays a fictional character, it was virtually written off her life. She was one of the greatest stars of her era and she managed to capitalize on it. She did not live in seclusion though and continued filming, but she never rose to the height of her previous glory. With money and married several times, Swanson was a prototype for the role. In Movies about the Movies, Ames reveals that Swanson also unsuccessfully attempted to regain her popularity in the 1934 musical Music in the Air, about which the New York Times reporter Sam Zolotow wrote, “the aged Swanson vainly trying to recapture her lost youth in Music in the Air had first planted the seed of Sunset Boulvard in [Wilder’s] subconscious”. The fact that Zolotow considered the thirty-five-year old actress as “aged” adds a meaningful detail to the discussion on age and women in Hollywood.
A multidimensional aspect is added through the image of Max von Mayerling who used to be a director and shot Norma in her best movies and now he takes care of her as a butler. The role was played by the Austrian-American director Erich von Stroheim who indeed used to be a silent film director and worked with Swanson. His movie Queen Kelly starring the young Swanson is projected in the scene of home screening in Sunset Boulevard. Similar to a reduced role of Max the butler, von Stroheim also had a career decline and after the transition to sound was typecast to play Nazis. Among other references inside the movie were celebrity cameos. Billy Wilder managed to cast Swanson’s colleagues for the roles of Norma’s bridge partners. The stars of silent era such as Anna Q. Nilsson H.B. Warner, and Buster Keaton, as well as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper add authenticity to the movie.
As a rule, the genre of “the view from inside” is contradictory in itself. This kind of movies sets out to demystify the subject while in reality it mystifies it even more. While criticizing certain myths such as pursuing of material success at any price or satirizing certain roles such as an aspiring screenwriter or an aging actress they promote them and make people want to take part in a myth or a dream. While commenting on stereotypes, they profit from them at the same time. The contradiction is that while the behind-the-scenes movies certainly reveal something, at the same moment they conceal another thing. Aiming to give a realistic perspective the movies of the genre are illusionistic and set up. The illusion of realism is inevitable, and all the more it is an illusion.
In its genre, Sunset Boulevard is believed to mark a watershed moment. Before, Hollywood-on-Hollywood films “celebrated success” of the industry, while after 1950 it “criticized the evils” of Hollywood. Showing a stunning yet fading star Sunset Boulevard offers a biting critique of business-like film bosses who want only to cash in on movies. In the golden era of Hollywood a recipe for a profitable film was to gather a solid team of good actors and a good director and a good scriptwriter and, as it goes, ‘good wine needs no bush;’ the movie will sell itself. In modern days, producers “try to figure out how to sell it first and then try to make the picture they’ve sold”. Apart from being a contradiction in itself, this approach is contradictory in a sense that it attempts to “make a tidy profit as well as a statement”.
The love story of the rich aging film star and the poor young screenwriter ends with a murder. Norma shoots Joe and falls into dementia thinking that she is resuming her acting career. Thus, Norma secured a happy ending for herself. The visible contradiction between the murder and the happy-go-lucky actress is a bitter commentary of Hollywood’s obsession with happy endings. Hollywood producers realized that movies should be as much entertaining as escapistic, and happy endings provided it. Seeing that her happiness eludes her, Norma encloses herself in the eternal world of illusion. She returns back to her fans whose letters she had been receiving daily. Taking reporters for moviemakers Norma steps back into the limelight believing that now she will be happy and make many more new movies with her director.
Highlighting the Hollywood’s representation of women Sunset Boulevard portrays the contradiction between being a female star and aging. Despite Norma’s crazy behavior, she represents an old generation of female movie stars who were abandoned by the film industry. The career of a female actress was extremely restricted by age. Norma’s insanity is a response to unfairness and cruelty of the women’s lot in the world of moviemaking. In contrast, director DeMille of the same age with Norma or older is still working in the film industry. Being of the same age, men can continue working and gain respect, while women are forgotten and limited in what careers they can pursue. This contradiction represents the tyranny of the cult of female youth in the movie industry. The madness of Norma represents her unwillingness to accept this rule. Thus, the contradiction happens between Norma’s desires and reality check on behalf of Hollywood.
At the time that Sunset Boulevard was released, it stirred a hot debate on contradictions of the film industry. At the time the movie offered a sharp satire on the industry, while not revealing too much to frighten the viewers from the screen. The Hollywood-on-Hollywood genre allowed the viewer to lift the curtain and take a glimpse behind the scene. The collision of the old and new, aging and young, and the past and the present has shown conflicts and paradoxes existing in the celluloid world of illusions and dreams. Shot on the Californian hills Sunset Boulevard is a perfect commentary of the ideas of success and happy endings as they are represented by Hollywood.