“It isn't necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice. There are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.” – Frank Zappa
“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” – Norma Desmond
Upon first seeing Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Louis B. Mayer, then head of MGM studios, screamed at Wilder for attacking the town that made him who he is (to which he simply responded “Fuck you”). But while Wilder prospered in Hollywood, going on to be remembered as one of the greatest directors of all time, Sunset Boulevard isn’t about himself, it is about paying respects to the former giants who built the city, but were then tossed aside and forgotten.
There is no question that Hollywood is a brutal town, with everybody only using everybody else to further their own careers. It’s like that today, and it was like that in the fifties. If you’re not profitable you’re out, and what’s profitable changes every year. The people who keep up with the times stay afloat, but those who don’t are likely to vanish amongst the thousands of other nobodies. And there begins the tale of Sunset Boulevard’s has-been superstar Norma Desmond (played by silent film veteran Gloria Swanson).
As William Holden’s chillingly blunt narration informs us, Norma used to be the queen of Hollywood. She was the superstar everyone wanted a piece of, receiving thousands of fan letters a day and working with only the greatest directors in the business. But by the time Sunset Boulevard takes place that was over twenty years ago, and the present day is 1950. Silent film is dead, and the idea of a “Talkie” is no longer a novelty, but the standard. She spends her days by herself brooding over how today’s movies don’t have the same heart as when she was acting, trying desperately to hold on to her former celebrity. Even if you sympathize with the character, it’s hard to not admit that she is, when all is said and done, pathetic. Her living room is adorned with photos of herself from her glory days, and she is more than happy to spend her afternoon watching an old silent film – starring her. Norma is forever stagnant, slowly deteriorating in her home while the world moves on without her.
Following Norma, Sunset Boulevard becomes a cautionary tale against the notion of living in the past, a word to the wise about the destructive power of nostalgia. She is someone who refuses change, leaving her a hollow shell of a woman. She is starved for the attention that she used to be able to feast on, and now she can’t accept a world where she doesn’t have this. She had it in the 1920s, so that is where she’d rather live.
But as the film shows, this is impossible. As I said before, Hollywood is not a nurturing entity. It will leave you behind, and it is up to you to keep up with it. Norma was so used to being on top, she never considered that she could have it all swept out from under her feet.
Wilder’s choice to have Cecil B. DeMille appear as himself serves as a vibrant contrast against Norma. DeMille began his career as a director during the silent era, making over fifty shorts and features between 1914 and 1929. Like Norma, he easily could have been left behind when sound entered pictures, still trying to pump out silent flicks that no one wanted to see. But instead he embraced this new technology and went on to make some of his most memorable films. He never held onto the past, and as a result he achieves success. He ensures his legend lives on, while youngsters have only heard of Norma Desmond in passing.
Wilder is careful to make it clear that he doesn’t dislike the past. In fact, he makes apparent that he loves this bygone era. Just as Norma’s old coworkers flock to admire her when she crashes DeMille’s set, Wilder has the utmost respect for the classic masters like Erich von Stroheim and Gloria Swanson. But he accepts that this period of Hollywood only exists as history now. As Joe Gillis (played by William Holden) tells Norma, “There's nothing tragic about being fifty, not unless you try to be twenty-five.”
Nostalgia is a powerful and if unchecked, an unforgiving force. There may be nothing wrong with looking back fondly on an old photo album, but when you try and keep things from moving forward things become stagnant. Norma lives in a house lost in time, forever stuck in 1925. It’s just as how we today can still watch a film like Sunset Boulevard, and for that hour and a half be back in 1950. But if we stop living in reality, and pretend that it’s 1950 all the time, we’ll find ourselves alone and living in a fantasy world.