Floating Face Down: Death and Decayed Hollywood Glamour in Sunset Boulevard
The year was 1950. Two films were released that have become synonymous with the trappings of show business. One was Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve, set in the backstage world of New York theatre. The other was Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, which looked at the decayed old glamour lost in the 10,000 block of Hollywood's most prestigious area. For all of their similarities, opportunism is the strongest common thread, portraying characters desperate to get ahead by any means, and ultimately suffering the cost of such ambition.
Both honoured by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Eve's was the favourite and won Best Picture at that year's ceremony. Unsurprisingly, the much darker and sardonic Boulevard did not take home the prize; perhaps having ruffled some feathers among the Hollywood community it was commenting on. Thankfully, the film did win three Oscars from its eleven nominations for its Art Direction, Franz Waxman's score and the script.
Entering pop culture lexicon rather instantly, both films have been remembered for such memorable quotes as Eve's "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night" and Sunset's "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close up," just to name a few. Such memorable quotes often eclipse the films they come from, but nearly sixty-three years after its first theatrical release, Sunset Boulevard stands the test of time visually and artistically.
Upon every viewing of Sunset Boulevard, I am always struck by the same image, only minutes into the film. We are led into a lot on Sunset Boulevard, guided by police cars with loud sirens. They finally reach a dilapidated old mansion, whereupon a body is found floating lifeless and face down in a pool. The narrator tells the audience that it is his body floating before our eyes, shot by some deranged old silent film star. As the revelation is made, an unforgettable image appears.
Suddenly, we are transported into the water, looking up at the lifeless body. We see a slightly distorted image of a man who happens to be Joe Gillis (William Holden), the film's protagonist. Neither Holden's narration nor the distorted image gives away who we are actually looking at, creating an auspicious, intriguing and ominous opening which then flashes back six months.
Billy Wilder explicitly wanted the audience to be in the position of a fish, and requested that a tank to be built to experiment shooting such a shot. As the proper underwater technology was not exactly available at the time, a mirror placed at the bottom of the pool facilitates the underwater viewpoint.
Looking up at freshly shot Joe with a smidge of blood trickling around his dead body summons a multitude of cinematic reactions. The audience is intrigued by the unknown figure. Who is this man? The narrator has told us that he is no one important, just a B-movie writer with a couple of credits to his name. Perhaps this man is not too imperative to the story.
Beyond the expository reveal, the framing of the image positions Joe as a martyr, his arms expressed outward as he floats lifeless in the pool. It is not the only imagery of death in the film however. When Joe stumbles into Norma Desmond's (Gloria Swanson) mansion six months prior to his demise, he is mistaken for an undertaker hired to bury the body of Norma's beloved chimp. The recently deceased chimp, lying on a bed, looks even more disturbing than the view we get of Joe fifteen minutes prior. No exact explanation is given for the chimp's role in Norma's life, but we can imagine that it served as a companion; a role in which Joe ends up replacing.
This shot of a lifeless body lying face down in the cold, murky waters of Norma Desmond's pool amidst her palatial residence represents more than just the death of a screenwriter. Joe's untimely end is symbolic of the death of the American Dream. In a land where power prospers and opportunism lingers, youthful hope and idealism is no match. In dying Joe failed in the most literal senses of achieving that American Dream, but a more poetic failure exists in the failed silent stars of yesteryear.
Forgotten by the public, scores of actual stars like Norma Desmond were cast astray. This is most poignantly evidence in the bridge-playing scene where Norma hosts some similarly discarded stars including Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilssen and H. B. Warner. The foursome show what decayed old glamour looks like, and it is rather devastating.
Luckily for Swanson, Sunset Boulevard provided the actress with a rare second-chance opportunity, which would ultimately eclipse her former fame as a silent star. Erich von Stroheim played her butler Max, whose career as a film directed had come to its own untimely end. Strangely enough, the film that ended his career was Queen Kelly starring Gloria Swanson. Even stranger, Norma plays the film for Joe midway through the film, in a moment of very early intertextuality.
As the film plays out, we see the lengths to which opportunism operates in Hollywood. Ed Sikov, author of On Sunset Boulevard - The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, acknowledges the lengths in which people go to get ahead, "even if it means sleeping with a has-been that's creepy and demented." It is a cynical and dark view of the film business, especially during the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Before Norma quickly descends into madness having killed Joe, we return to the image at the beginning of the film: Joe's dead body in the pool. If you did not know it was Joe from the distorted image before, you would definitely know now. It is a disturbing ending to a disturbing film, chronicling the dirty underbelly of fame, celebrity and success. There are no winners by the conclusion: Norma loses her mind, Joe loses his life, and presumably, Max loses his main reason for living.
Quite frequently regarded as a filmmaker who favoured the script over an image, Billy Wilder's opening scenes to Sunset Boulevard cement both the film as a biting piece of commentary and the filmmaker as one of the great visual artists of the Golden Age of Hollywood.