Tips for Thought

Sunset Blvd. (1950): The Shadows of Hollywood’s Glitter

Is there something eerily timeless about Billy Wilder’s 1950 masterpiece, “Sunset Blvd.”? Starring William Holden and Gloria Swanson, this film isn’t just another noir drama. It’s a deep dive into fame, success, and the costs they entail. Despite its age, this movie resonates with modern audiences, and its lessons are as relevant today as they were seven decades ago.

A Quick Recap

Before we look at the lessons, let’s recap the plot. Joe Gillis, portrayed by William Holden, is a down-and-out screenwriter in Hollywood. He’s faced with unpaid bills, relentless debt collectors, and the harsh reality of struggling to make a name for himself in the ruthless world of filmmaking. Joe’s character is representative of countless aspiring artists who come to Hollywood with dreams of success.

Norma Desmond, brought to life by the legendary Gloria Swanson, is a relic of Hollywood’s silent film era. Once a radiant and celebrated star, Norma’s star has faded into obscurity as talkies took over the film industry. But Norma lives in a world of her own making. She resides in a decaying mansion that is a time capsule of her past glory, surrounded by memorabilia and the remnants of the silent movie era. This mansion becomes a symbol of her isolation from the contemporary world, both physically and mentally.

When Joe inadvertently ends up at Norma’s doorstep while evading creditors, he enters a surreal realm where time seems to have stood still. Norma’s delusion about her continued relevance is evident from her lavish lifestyle, even though her career has long been forgotten. She believes Joe can help her pen a script that will catapult her back into the spotlight, and she offers him wealth and comfort in exchange for his writing skills.

As Joe becomes entangled in Norma’s web, he initially sees it as a way out of his financial woes. He starts working on her screenplay, titled “Salome,” while enjoying the opulence of her mansion. However, he soon realizes that he’s not just a hired writer; he’s become a pawn in Norma’s desperate bid for a comeback. This realization sets the stage for a dark and tragic turn of events.

What are the timeless lessons from the movie?

The Danger of Living in the Past

Norma Desmond embodies the perils of dwelling in the past. She refuses to accept that her time in the limelight is over, living in a world distorted by her memories. This serves as a stark warning against excessive nostalgia. While cherishing the past is natural, getting stuck in it can lead to self-destruction.

The Illusion of Success

Joe Gillis, initially chasing the Hollywood dream, falls into a trap of debt and despair. Yet, when he encounters Norma, he’s seduced by the allure of her former success: the mansion, luxury, and the promise of riches for his screenplay. This serves as a cautionary tale that success isn’t always what it seems, and pursuing it blindly can be perilous.

The High Cost of Compromise

Joe sacrifices his principles and artistic integrity by working on Norma’s vanity project. His initial excitement turns into a self-made prison. The movie illustrates that while compromise is sometimes necessary, there should always be limits one shouldn’t cross.

The Perils of Codependency

Both Norma and Joe become increasingly dependent on each other. Norma seeks validation, and Joe seeks financial security. This toxic relationship leads to their downfall, emphasizing the dangers of relying too heavily on someone else for self-worth or stability.

The Evolving Nature of Fame

In today’s world of fleeting social media stardom, “Sunset Blvd.” feels remarkably prescient. Norma’s descent into madness over her lost stardom is a stark reminder that fame is often short-lived. Staying relevant requires adaptability and an understanding that the spotlight can shift quickly.

This movie depicts a balanced viewpoint.

While the film exposes the dark side of Hollywood, it’s essential to remember that many in the industry find genuine fulfillment and lasting careers. Not everyone succumbs to egotism, delusion, or unhealthy relationships. Many navigate the industry with grace, maintaining long-term relevance and creating meaningful work.

These unsung heroes often toil behind the scenes, shaping the industry’s creative landscape without succumbing to the pitfalls illuminated by “Sunset Blvd.” Their commitment to storytelling and artistry reminds us that genuine success need not come at the cost of one’s moral compass.

What are other lessons that provide valuable insights into the human condition?

  • Norma Desmond’s isolation from the real world is a stark reminder of how fame can disconnect individuals from everyday life. Her mansion becomes a gilded cage, highlighting the loneliness that can accompany celebrity status.
  • Norma’s delusion about her own importance and potential comeback serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of self-deception. It underscores how unchecked delusion can lead to personal tragedy.
  • The movie portrays how fame can strip individuals of their humanity. Norma is seen as a commodity by her fans, and Joe becomes a mere object of her desires. This dehumanization can have profound consequences for celebrities and those around them.
  • Joe Gillis, as an aspiring screenwriter, represents the vulnerability of newcomers to the entertainment industry. His willingness to compromise his principles highlights the pressures faced by young talent trying to break into Hollywood.
  • “Sunset Blvd.” teaches us that life can take unexpected turns. Joe’s chance encounter with Norma changes the course of his life dramatically. This reminds us that we can’t always predict or control the events that shape our destiny.
  • Norma’s inflated ego plays a central role in the film’s tragedy. Her belief in her own greatness and entitlement ultimately leads to her downfall. This emphasizes the importance of humility and self-awareness, even in the face of success.

Takeaway

“Sunset Blvd.” isn’t just a film; it’s a profound exploration of human psychology, a commentary on the fleeting nature of fame, and a reflection on the American Dream. Through its tortured characters, the movie lays bare the darker aspects of ambition and success while offering a cautionary tale. It also encourages us to question our definitions of success and integrity. This film remains a huge part of cinematic history, a mirror reflecting both a bygone era and the timeless human condition.

Watch Sunset Blvd. on Amazon Prime Video.