Billy Wilder: Sunset Boulevard

The USPS recently issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We shall explore the lives and work of these directors. In this post LR Simon discusses Sunset Boulevard (1950).

When we first see William Holden’s Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, his body is floating face-down in a swimming pool. The deceased Gillis narrates the story of his own demise, a device that is difficult to do at all well. Director Billy Wilder pulls it off in his 1950 classic, usually listed as one of his best films, and one of the best films about Hollywood ever made.

In Sunset Boulevard, aging silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) dreams of a comeback and hires struggling screenwriter Gillis to edit her screenplay. Gillis believes the script is bad, but editing a bad script is preferable to moving back to Ohio. Desmond’s fragile state of mind and her equally fragile ego keep Gillis not only in Desmond’s employ, but also in her mansion.

Many details distinguish Sunset Boulevard from other films of the early 1950s, including the romanceless romance between Gillis and the significantly older Desmond, as well as the fact that so few of the characters are likeable. Wilder ensures that the audience will understand or sympathize with the characters, who throughout the film engage in damaging or self-destructive behaviors; the director then serves up one of the great unhappy film endings.

Film students and writers in every medium should watch Sunset Boulevard as an example of how to do (almost) everything you’re not supposed to do as a writer.

References and Recommended Reading