We need more directors willing to take risks with films like Get Out.
Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard” is the portrait of a forgotten silent star, living in exile in her grotesque mansion, screening her old films, dreaming of a comeback. But it's also a love story, and the love keeps it from becoming simply a waxworks or a freak show. Gloria Swanson gives her greatest performance as the silent star Norma Desmond, with her grasping talons, her theatrical mannerisms, her grandiose delusions. William Holden tactfully inhabits the tricky role of the writer half her age, who allows himself to be kept by her. But the performance that holds the film together, that gives it emotional resonance and makes it real in spite of its gothic flamboyance, is by Erich von Stroheim, as Norma's faithful butler Max.
The movie cuts close to the bone, drawing so directly from life that many of the silent stars at the movie's premiere recognized personal details. In no character, not even Norma, does it cut closer than with Max von Mayerling, a once-great silent director, now reduced to working as the butler of the woman he once directed--and was married to. There are unmistakable parallels with von Stroheim, who directed Swanson in "Queen Kelly” (1928), whose credits included "Greed" and "The Merry Widow,” but who directed only two sound films and was reduced to playing Nazi martinets and parodies of himself in other people's films.
In "Sunset Boulevard,” Desmond screens one of her old silent classics for Joe Gillis, the young writer played by Holden. Max runs the projector. The scene is from “Queen Kelly.” For a moment Swanson and von Stroheim are simply playing themselves. Later, when Joe is moved into the big mansion, Max shows him to an ornate bedroom and explains, "It was the room of the husband.” Max is talking about himself; he was the first of her three husbands, and loved her so much he was willing to return as a servant, feeding her illusions, forging her fan mail, fiercely devoted to her greatness.
In one of the greatest of all film performances, Swanson's Norma Desmond skates close to the edge of parody; Swanson takes enormous chances with theatrical sneers and swoops and posturings, holding Norma at the edge of madness for most of the picture, before letting her slip over. We might not take her seriously. That's where Max comes in. Because he believes, because he has devoted his life to her shrine, we believe. His love convinces us there must be something worth loving in Norma, and that in turn helps explain how Joe can accept her.