LA Plays Itself in the Movies: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

I grew up in a small town in the Florida Keys.  About as far away from Hollywood glamour and Sunset Boulevard as a girl could get.  Flip-flops ruled and TV was a rarity, given that we had no access to cable or satellite. When we did get a signal, there was only one channel.  A local one from Miami, its primary fare was re-runs of “I Love Lucy”, (which I adored!)  “Gilligan’s Island” and for some odd reason, once a month or so, the movie “Sunset Boulevard”.  So I kind of grew up on this macabre, delicious movie.  I saw it at least 15 times before I was 15.  And it scared the heck out of me.  Nevertheless, upon graduation, the first thing I did was move to Hollywood and become a TV producer.

Now I’m not saying that the movie “Sunset Boulevard” was the reason I am what I am today.  But if you got deep into my sub-conscious…. those scary scenes with Gloria Swanson vamping for the cameras are still lurking there.  And now, seeing the film so many years later, it is undeniably a classic.

The movie made such an impression on me, that when I first moved here and saw the sign for Sunset Boulevard, I squealed. And the very first place I lived in LA was a two minute walk up the hill from Sunset. Spanning from Downtown to the Pacific Ocean, this street represents just about every neighborhood in LA and acts as a main artery to the city. Travel on Sunset and you get a taste of the true eclectic soul of the city.

As a movie, “Sunset Boulevard” ranks up there with the best, it was nominated for eleven Oscars… walking away with three. It’s ranked #12 in the top 100 of AFI’s best films of the 20th century and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Why so much attention? Was it really that good? Yes. It still holds up to a twelve year old’s memory. If films are like dreams, this one could definitely be a stylized nightmare. No blood or guts, but definitely a classic, film-noir thriller with no way out. From the beginning, you know it’s not going to end well, but you can’t help but be drawn into it’s wicked spell.

Billy Wilder directed it and co-wrote it and he manipulates you from the start. William Holden plays Joe. He’s a broke, down on his luck, young handsome writer being chased on Sunset Boulevard by the repo man, when his car blows a tire. He pulls into a garage which just happens to be owned by the aging silent film star queen, Norma Desmond, played brilliantly by Gloria Swanson. The movie uses familiar tropes as she invites him to stay, directing her silent German butler Max (Erich Von Stroheim) to get his things and move him into the house with her. As we watch, Norma coils around him like a snake, luring him deeper and deeper into her lair, with the promise of fame and fortune. Dripping with classic old time Hollywood style, the movie plays on the everyone’s secret desires. Norma wants her fame restored and a taste of young male flesh, Joe wants money and fame, but is repulsed by Norma. It’s a train wreck, but one you can’t help but jump on board with.

As with the famous Sunset Strip, all the participants are memorable characters.  The movie captures an era perfectly and the mystique and allure of Sunset Boulevard is forever imprinted on our consciousness. And Gloria Swanson in a gold turban is to die for.  If you want to see more of LA playing itself in the movies… check it out here.

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