Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Billy Wilder (director), Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, D. M. Marshman Jr (writers) Sunset Boulevard (1950)

The film Sunset Boulevard (1950) is a film noir crime drama directed by Billy Wilder, and written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett with assistance from D. M. Marshman.  The film uses the scenario of the murder of a young screenwriter by a former film star of the silent era to provide a revealing peek into the Hollywood film industry, especially its more unsavoury dimensions. 

Set in Hollywood at the time the film was written, made and released, the filmmakers sought to take their audience on an informative and entertaining journey into the Hollywood film industry, going behind the scenes in the filmmaking business and into the lives of some of the types of people involved.  While doing so, it pays special attention to the insensitive way that the Hollywood studios treated unwanted former film stars, especially those displaced by changes in technology, notably due to the shift from silent to sound productions between 1927 and 1930.  The film also pays considerable attention to the many disrespectful ways writers can be treated by studio executives, agents, and others involved in the production-line process that the major studios employed in making a film.  In addition, Sunset Boulevard also suggests that aspiring young film industry hopefuls are treated with insensitivity by the major studios. The film therefore looks sympathetically at the challenges and disappointments they experience while seeking a break or to climb another difficult step on the ladder to success. 

Meanwhile, while taking the cinema audience on a revealing journey behind the scenes in Hollywood, the filmmakers also point out the pressures on producers to produce hits, which can affect how they treat others, which partly explains their ruthless insensitivity and unkindness.   The film also reveals to the cinema audience much that they probably did not know about how films are made, such as how many films begin as a pitch from a writer to a producer, most of which are rejected.  When Joe Gillis and Betty Schaefer work on a script together, the cinema audience can watch a writing team in action.  When Norma Desmond visits the director Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount studios, Studio 18, the cinema audience gets to see a sound stage and a film crew at work.   When Joe Gillis and Betty Schaefer stroll in the Paramount lot at night, the cinema audience gets to see that the sets that may seem so real in a film are actually only facades, and they learn that almost everything seen in a film is an illusion.  The film also mentions that new films are tested on test audiences before they are released, and the feedback can result in modifications. 

The film also looks critically yet sympathetically at a mostly American cultural creation: the movie star.  Movie stars existed as a kind of new de facto aristocracy in a society that does not have an aristocracy.  Stars were chosen for their charisma, talent, and for being photogenic.  Film stars were expected to live glamourous lifestyles in grand mansions, indulge in many temptations, and be eccentric and lavish in their tastes.

The film also points out that many people in Hollywood come from Hollywood families, sometimes with several generations having worked in the film industry in various capacities, a number of whom can be imbued with an inspiring romanticism regarding the film industry that motivates them to stay in this industry as long as possible.  

Meanwhile, the film also has much to say about the entertainment media, which is depicted as having a taste for gossip and scandal, as being factually unreliable, and as being insensitive to the feelings of the real people it hurts in the pursuit of a story.  The film reminds the cinema audience that scandalous stories are about real people with vulnerabilities and feelings that can be severely hurt.  Hollywood insiders know that, but the public can often overlook that reality unless it is pointed out to them. 

The film features two romances.  Firstly, there is the relationship between a rich older woman, Norma Desmond, whose beauty has faded, and a handsome younger man, Joe Gillis, which is presented as both unusual and unsavoury.  It is based on exploitation rather than mutual attraction. Joe Gillis is presented as gradually losing his masculine power and dignity due to his relationship with Norma Desmond, and as being uncomfortable with his role as a kept man or  gigolo.  The filmmakers imply that a man should never lose his sense of masculine power and dignity because only bad things happen as a consequence. Secondly, there is the relationship between Joe Gillis and Betty Schaefer.  They are compatible in ages.  She is pretty and he is handsome.  They look good together and work well together as co-writers.  But fate works against their union.  She is engaged to a good friend of Joe Gillis and he is tied to Norma Desmond.  By the end of the film, Joe Gillis must nobly drop Betty Schaefer, for the sake of his good friend, for Betty Schaefer’s own good, and for the sake of his conscience. 

Sunset Boulevard is overwhelmingly a writers’ film.  The principal writers, Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett (who worked on fourteen films together between 1936 and 1950) saw themselves as writers first and foremost, and most of the key messages of the film are conveyed though their writing, especially through the dialogue. 

Sunset Boulevard is also done in the style of film noir, which featured the use of low-key or chiaroscuro lighting that presented dark shadows and dramatic contrasts of dark and light.  In this context, film noir often exhibited a sense of foreboding or inevitable doom in the way it deals with fate.  In film noir, bad things happen to an unsuspecting individual and they happen for no particular reason. This is often the main character, with whom the cinema audience is invited to identify.  This can give film noir an unnerving and edgy quality, depicting a world that is bleak, unfair and unforgiving. 

Brackett and Wilder also sought to give their film a sense of authenticity and believability by blending fiction and reality, filming in the actual locations in Hollywood where events such as those depicted in the film would have happened.  The filmmakers also sought authenticity by casting real silent screen actors and actresses, and other Hollywood types, in major or minor roles or in cameos.   Notably, the principal character of the former silent film star, the fictional Norma Desmond, is played by an actual former silent film star, Gloria Swanson.  And Cecil B. DeMille, the renowned film director from the silent and sound eras, plays himself in the film. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Sunset Boulevard meaning, Sunset Boulevard themes, Sunset Boulevard analysis, Sunset Boulevard notes