Directed by Billy Wilder in 1950, it was daring in its cynical view of Hollywood and the way that the studio system built up stars only to tear them down. In fact, many real-life former superstars came back from the abyss to star in this film: Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H. B. Warner make surprising cameos as a group of has-beens that the film's narrator refers to as “the waxworks”. Erich von Stroheim, whose own rise to fame, infamous suspected orgies and eventual decline can be read about in the pages of Hollywood Babylon, nearly plays himself as a former movie director turned butler.
But it's Gloria Swanson's show as the deluded Norma Desmond, a woman deranged into a monster of sorts after a life of fame and fortune followed by a slow decline into madness and oblivion which she can't comprehend or accept. With her wraith-like claws, wicked teeth, pointy eyebrows, and deranged plans for a comeback, she's surely one of the most intriguing women ever put on film, though she's not the only curious character.
William Holden plays Joe Gillis, a dashing young up-and-coming writer who has a real possible future ahead of him. His career isn't soaring yet, but he's working and he's even met a nice girl he could love (the two of them share one of my favorite romantic scenes ever when he says, “May I say that you smell really special?”) Yet through circumstances he ends up in the claws of Miss Desmond and, rather than running the other way, he somewhat happily stays put.
Like many young people before and after him in Hollywood, he decides to take the easy way, in essence working as Desmond's whore rather than struggle through life on his own dime. Ingeniously, he narrates the tale of his ultimate demise posthumously and with a had boiled edge. In the opening scene we see his corpse floating face down in a swanky mansion pool. From the very beginning, we're assured of a very unhappy ending.
Turned into an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in 1992, the original film version lost the Academy Award for Best Picture to another jab at stardom, All About Eve. While both are worth a watching, Sunset Boulevard is a true masterpiece. The Academy Award winning art and set direction, the Edith Head costumes, the cinematography by John F. Seitz, are all representative of the best of the best.