PARIS: “Sunset Boulevard” is, of course, a movie named after a street. Yet so unforgettable, iconic and perceptive is this film — so devastating and endearingly prescient its portrait of Hollywood and the people that live there — that the make-believe and reality are imperceptibly, mythically intertwined.
It’s a noir-ish set-up. We meet our narrator — a hack scriptwriter played by William Holden —floating face down in the pool of a grotesque Hollywood mansion. We learn that six months earlier, he stumbled upon the home of forgotten silent movie star Norma Desmond — played by Gloria Swanson, herself a silent movie star — and was soon seduced into the life of a tragically kept man, a soul-selling script doctor mercenarily feeding his benefactor’s illusions of a dramatic comeback.
The meta is ubiquitous. Silent comic pioneer Buster Keaton shows up as one of the “waxworks” at Desmond’s has-beens’ card games. Erich von Stroheim, the auteur of silent masterpiece “Greed,” plays Desmond’s unnervingly devoted butler/driver (and the sole source of her continued inbox of fan mail). Heart-creakingly, von Stroheim once directed Swanson in “Queen Kelly” (1929) before being outcast from the chair — footage from which his character rolls in Desmond’s private cinema.
By 1950, director Billy Wilder had already authored a definite film noir in “Double Indemnity” (1944) and would soon be remembered for later crafting some of the most enduring comedies in Hollywood history — “The Seven Year Itch” (1955), “Some Like It Hot” (1959) and “The Apartment” (1960). But for its gritty mix of style and substance, self-referential poise and psychological insight, “Sunset Boulevard” remains Wilder’s crowning achievement.