Of this past year’s films, two that achieved great success, both at the box office and at the 2012 Academy Awards, were stories that documented major transitions in the history of cinema. The Artist depicts the abrupt shift from silent films to the “talkies”, or sound films, that seemingly happened overnight–and the effects that the transformation had on the actors of the previous era’s silent films. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo tells the story of how early film pioneer Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) fell into obscurity following the disruption that the first World War had on cinema. But before The Artist and Hugo, there was Sunset Boulevard.
Directed in 1950 by Billy Wilder, Sunset Boulevard is the story of aging silent movie megastar Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who saw her demise with the advent of sound films, but could neither adapt to the changes in the industry for want of the new skills necessary in the talkies, nor accept that her time in the limelight had come to a close. “There once was a time in this business when I had the eyes of the whole world! But that wasn’t good enough for them—oh no!—they had to have the ears of the whole world too. So they opened their big mouths and out came talk. Talk! Talk!” Norma laments bitterly at the outset of the film. (As an aside, actor Gloria Swanson was herself a silent film goddess, but in real life, she was able to adapt to the sound films, as her brilliant performance in Sunset Boulevard demonstrates.)
But beyond documenting a historically significant moment in cinema, Sunset Boulevard explores the concept of finding meaning in one’s own life, and how nothing in the world—not riches, nor fame, nor romantic trysts—can compensate for the absence of purpose.
We see this most readily with Norma Desmond, who, from director Cecil B. DeMille (played by himself), we learn was once “a lovely little girl of seventeen with more courage, and wit, and heart than ever came together in one youngster,” but whose spirit was corrupted by her attainment of celebrity. “You know, a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit,” DeMille says of Norma’s misery. Not since the days when she worked hard to earn her success had Norma been truly happy.
By the time we meet Norma, she’s exceptionally rich, and even more lonely. In an attempt to buy the companionship of young screenwriter Joe Gillis, a man at least a decade her junior, she boasts, “I’m rich. I’m richer than all this new Hollywood trash. I’ve got a million dollars. Own three blocks downtown. I’ve got oil in Bakersfield, pumping. Pumping. Pumping!” And while Norma’s money serves to stave off loneliness for a time, it fails to earn her the love, admiration, and purpose she so craves.
Joe Gillis, the narrator of the story, also grasps at meaning throughout the film, convincing himself that if only he had a few hundred more dollars and a swimming pool, he’d finally be happy. Gillis’s self-delusion causes him to abandon his craft of writing screenplays with meaningful messages in favor of pumping out a series of thoughtless story proposals that he hopes will be just barely good enough to get him an advance from a movie studio. And when Norma Desmond begins showering him with lavish gifts and cash, Gillis is all too willing to abandon his writing altogether to become a kept man.
By the end of the film, each character gets exactly what he or she wants—Joe Gillis a swimming pool, Norma Desmond the fame she lusts for—along with the rude discovery that these counterfeit virtues lead to death, in both a figurative soul-killing sense and its most literal sense.
Critics of the 2012 Academy Awards lamented the self-congratulatory nature of the Oscar nominees this year, including most prominently, The Artist and Hugo. Sure, they are beautiful, exquisitely made, and heartwarming (I even cried while watching The Artist!). But at their essence, they are feel-good movies about movies. As such, they implicitly extol fame as a chief end and laud the notion of holding a death grip on celebrity. Sunset Boulevard, though it predates these Oscar winners by more than 60 years, manages to tell a fuller, more honest story. Forsaking the pursuit of meaning and purpose to chase after money and fame only lands you face down in a swimming pool with two bullets in the back and one in the stomach.
My apologies. I just gave away the beginning.
Diane Ellis is the lead editor of Ricochet.com.