SUNSET BOULEVARD will always be inextricably linked to ALL ABOUT EVE. They both came out the same year; they both star legendary actresses playing legendary actresses; they both are cynical, sometimes savage in their estimation of show business. And, of course, they are both great films.
But they are very different stylistically and philosophically. A primary difference is that EVE is about a survivor. Bette Davis' Margo Channing in EVE accepts, perhaps grudgingly, that change is inevitable. Either she adapts to reality, or she loses all. That is what makes Margo more than just "a great star, a true star." Margo's rival, Eve Harrington, may someday end up like BOULEVARD's Norma Desmond, but Margo Channing never will.
But if EVE is about life, SUNSET BOULEVARD is about death. Even their titles suggest this: "Eve" being the first bearer of life and "sunset" being the approaching night. In BOULEVARD, Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond is to some extent already dead by the time the film starts, locked away in a haunted house, coming out only for the funeral of her pet monkey. She is bound by reputation and profession to a type of film-making that is long dead and nearly forgotten. Her life, like her career, is based on illusions of life.
The prevailing interpretation of SUNSET BOULEVARD assumes that Norma is one of Hollywood's victims; that the town and the industry turned its back on her when she was no longer a star, her career sabotaged by the coming of sound in motion pictures. I don't buy that. The film clearly shows us that at age 50 Norma is still vibrant, still beautiful, still energetic and eager to make movies. Plus, she is filthy rich. This is not a woman who would walk away from movie making because she is afraid of her own voice. Indeed, her voice is magnificent; sultry, insinuating and theatrical. I don't think Norma went mad because Hollywood turned its back on her, rather Hollywood turned its back on her because she went mad.
I don't think we are getting the full story here. Something may have drove Norma mad, but it wasn't talking pictures. Indeed, she may have been unstable all along, but I think there is something in her past that destroyed her, and I suspect that involves Max (Erich von Stroheim). In his "Great Movies" essay, Roger Ebert suggests that the love between Norma and Max, her ex-husband/ex-director/butler, is the heart of the story; that it's Max's love of Norma that validates her continued existence. I don't see that. I suspect that Max is less a servant than a caretaker or even a jailer. Max (like Joe Gillis, Norma's erstwhile boytoy) may be trapped in Norma's web, but it is a web of his own making. He appears subservient, but he is the one in control, he perpetuates her delusions and enables her madness. I even suspect that he only allows Joe into the situation because he knows that Joe is weak and no real threat to his power; and that he suspects that it will help placate Norma by feeding her fantasy of a comeback. There is more than adoration that cements the relationship between Max and Norma; perhaps guilt, jealousy, desperation -- who knows? All I know is that it is best kept as a subtext, a part of the film's impenetrable mystery. The less we understand Norma, the more intriguing she is.
However, if I were to be so bold as to make one major change in SUNSET BOULEVARD, it would be to replace William Holden as Joe Gillis. I respect Holden as an actor, but his screen persona has always been one of strength and -- if not integrity -- confidence; he is not one who plays vulnerable with any conviction. Plus, he doesn't play the part of Gillis with any gentle shadings. The "romance" between Norma and Joe is the least convincing aspect of the film. Joe treats her with barely concealed contempt and a bit of occasional pity, which makes it hard to believe that a self-absorbed diva would even tolerate him, let alone make him the house pet. The role of Joe was originally intended for Montgomery Clift, an actor with a proven ability to appear passive, even as he plays sinister. His work in THE HEIRESS and A PLACE IN THE SUN illustrate this point. I see Joe Gillis, not as a bored hanger-on, but as sycophant who is in awe of Norma, even as he exploits her, and therefore he doesn't realize that he actually is the one who is being used (sort of a younger version of Max). I think Joe should be someone who is cunning, but naive about his own limits, not someone who is already bitter, corrupt and cynical as the story begins.
Maybe I am wrong, but I get the feeling that Holden was very uncomfortable playing the part of, well, a mistress, and especially one kept by such an older woman. Perhaps his manhood was threatened and that uneasiness shows. Clift, or an equally rakish young actor like, say, Farley Granger or Robert Wagner, would enliven the story and make the romance with the perpetually needy Norma more credible. I don't think it is enough that the film shows that Norma enjoys manipulating Joe, I think it has to also be implied that to a certain extent Joe loves being manipulated. The relationship is after all a romance and to be credible as long-term there has to be the spark that it is mutually enjoyable. Holden's interpretation that Joe is just doing it for the money just doesn't ring true. While a pairing of the aging diva with an ambitious -- and yes, probably gay -- younger man is practically a show business institution.
Yet, even with these reservations, it is undeniable that SUNSET BOULEVARD is quite a film. A little bit Hollywood satire, a little bit moralistic fable and whole lot of Gothic melodrama. And Swanson's just-not-quite over the top performance is mesmerizing. It was assumed that BOULEVARD would revitalize Swanson's career. It didn't. But apparently, it didn't matter to her: she dabbled in acting now and again, when the part amused her, but she had better things to do with her life. Swanson played Norma Desmond, but she lived life as Margo Channing.