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Sunset Boulevard

Year: 1950
Studio: Paramount
Director: Billy Wilder
Producer: Charles Brackett
Writer: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D M Marshman Jr
Cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Cecil B DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton

Even if you've never seen Billy Wilder's immortal document on Hollywood, it's one of those movies that looms large over all other pop culture and entertainment. Ever seen a scene of a dead body floating face down in a pool with a voiceover by the victim? Ever heard the lines 'Mr DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up?' or 'I still am, it's the pictures that got small'? Then you've felt the ripples of one of the singular works of Hollywood's golden years across the film firmament.

William Holden (who will forever be remembered as Pa Kent in Superman to my generation) is a down on his luck screenwriter Joe. He's holed up in an apartment in Ivar Street, hiding his car in a nearby parking lot because he knows the collection guys are coming after him and planning to give up his dreams and move back east to his hometown, defeated.

But one day, while driving around the manicured streets of Beverly Hills, Joe is spotted by the goons chasing him for back rent. He floors it, cutting into a driveway out of sight to let them past, and finds himself on a huge, lavish and run down property.

When the owner, former film goddess Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) sees him she ushers him inside, believing Joe to be the man from a funeral parlour she's expecting to put her beloved chimp to rest.

It's Joe's first step into a unique adventure. Her career long over, Norma's been sitting in her mansion, Howard Hughes-style, attended to only by her valet Max (Erich von Stroheim), penning a script she intends to be her return to glory and recruiting Joe to critique and rewrite it. She insists he move in and work with her on it an – somewhat against his better judgment but too broke to refuse – Joe agrees.

But Norma has a screw loose. Too many years on her own and a lust for her former stardom fermenting in her mind has unhinged her from reality. With Max complicit in the delusion, she believes everyone in Hollywood is just waiting for her to submit her script and return to glory by appearing in her own life story.

As terrible as the script is, Joe finds himself playing along, but as he finds himself drawn more into Norma's twisted fantasy, his discomfort grows as he finds himself a part of it – especially the closer he grows to Betty (Nancy Olson), his close friend's girl.

It's far more common now, but in those days Hollywood rarely bit the hand that fed it to this degree. At the height of his powers and influence, Wilder used the studio system to parody it, revealing the self-absorption of movies stars, the fickleness of stardom and the emotional toll it can visit on those who get a taste of it.

A unique animal, Sunset Boulevard is a satire about Hollywood films that's dressed like (and moves like) a Hollywood film, full of glamour and the corruption and heartbreak underneath it all.

Owing to the film's history and legacy it's also grown it's own behind the scenes mythology, including famous tidbits like the fact that Cecil B DeMille, who appears as himself, was filming Samson and Delilah on the Paramount lot at the time.

A lot of old films can be a chore for modern viewers, essential viewing to complete your film education more than anything. But some rare examples like Sunset Boulevard avoid the overwrought overwrought emotion and oversized performance and staging that found their way into movies from the days of theatre, and with an interesting story it's a pleasure to watch.

If nothing else you'll finally understand why the dead body floating in the pool is such a widespread cultural motif.

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