“Sunset Boulevard” still has a lot to say about Hollywood in the 21st century.
Image courtesy Fathom Events.
The film “Sunset Boulevard” premiered almost 68 years ago, but it might as well have come out today.
From the moment it hit theaters in 1950, the film was a hit with audiences and critics alike. It was an instant success and went on to receive 11 Academy Award nominations, ultimately winning three, including Best Screenplay.
Over the years, it has continued to garner acclaim with its scathing take on the dark side of Hollywood.
But with a limited return to theaters in May 2018, audiences are now seeing the film as a suddenly hyper-relevant statement in the #TimesUp and #MeToo era. The film’s star, Gloria Swanson, plays down-on-her-luck silent film star Norma Desmond, whose comeback ambitions are met with constant resistance by an industry driven by ageism and sexism.
It’s also a highly relevant commentary on toxic fame and mental health.
Norma Desmond is one of Hollywood’s great, conflicted characters. She’s victimized by an industry that made her the biggest star in the world before tossing her aside. But she’s also out of touch with reality, appearing selfish and delusional when we first meet her on screen. But as the film’s story unfolds, her character reveals layers of vulnerability, and we find out she suffers from depression and has attempted suicide.
Those are delicate topics even in 2018, but they were virtually untouched in popular culture back in 1950. Obviously, not every moment in the film has aged perfectly, but its themes remain entirely relevant.
“Sunset Boulevard” publicity photo featuring actress Gloria Swanson and screenwriter Billy Wilder. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
It has something to say about the men in the #MeToo era as well.
The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have put a spotlight on powerful men in Hollywood like Harvey Weinstein who used their power to harass and sexually coerce women while casting and producing films. A statue of the literal and symbolic “casting couch” used by men like Weinstein was even placed in Hollywood recently by street artist Plastic Jesus to bring attention to the practice.
Worse still, when women reach a “certain age” in Hollywood, they are often brushed aside, regardless of how much talent they bring to the table. That’s something we see front and center in “Sunset Boulevard.”
“Even in scripts, they’ll refer to a character as ‘aging,’” Julianne Moore said in an interview with People last year. “Well, everyone is aging. In literature and in movies, when people try to stop the process, it always ends in disaster. I think it’s really important to be where you are.”
Even now, there’s no shortage of women being told they are “too old” to appear on screen with men their own age or often even older. Just last year, “Orange Is the New Black” actress Jamie Denbo revealed she was the victim of ageism when she was told that she couldn’t be cast alongside a male love interest who, in real life, is 14 years her senior.
I was just informed that at the age of 43, I am TOO OLD to play the wife of a 57 year old.— Jamie Denbo (@Jamie Denbo) 1493861229
She’s ready for her close-up
“Sunset Boulevard’s” famous closing line, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” is a darkly ironic finale to the film’s tragic story. But so many decades later, it can be reinterpreted as a statement that Hollywood is finally ready for some meaningful self-reflection and contrary action in response to decades of enabling a culture that permitted sexual assault, sexism, and ageism to run amok.
Norma Desmond never got her close-up, but Hollywood is getting one of its own, whether it’s ready or not.