I AM big… it’s the pictures that got small.

Gloria Swanson and William Holden

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

AFI 100 Years… 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) Ranking: #16

Eerily creepy and beautifully sad. This movie is so easy to get sucked into, just the way Gillis gets sucked into Norma Desmond’s delusional drama. It’s a depressing but touching tale of a forgotten silent movie star aching for a return to the big screen. She is obsessed with… well, so many things. Her play, Salome, which she is convinced will be the big break that she needs to get back in the game. Her fame, which is non-existent except for in her head, thanks to Max’s support. Her shiny new boy toy, who at first accepts her generosity out of desperation, but later seems resigned to his fate and unable to break free.

Max the butler is nearly as tragic a character as Norma – the ultimate enabler, living only to cater to Norma’s every whim and then some! But he does it out of love for her, which is forgivable. Everybody’s got their obsessions it seems.

Gillis’ character arc is an odd one, he seems complacent at times, then fed up, and often disinterested, but not really motivated enough to do anything about it? The one time he does manage to escape Norma’s grasp, he immediately rushes back to her side at the first sign that she may have harmed herself… she’s so manipulative.

Betty Schaefer is the first breath of fresh air that Gillis gets after living in Norma’s stale mansion for so long, but even that doesn’t last. Perhaps Gillis’ last noble act is to give Betty the brush off so that she will give up on him and go back to Artie. Maybe he thinks he doesn’t deserve her, or happiness in general.

Near the end when Norma does the bathing beauty / Charlie Chaplin routine, Gillis is clearly bored due to having seen it so many times, but you can definitely see the star power that Norma used to possess – she is so utterly engaging and clearly thrives on entertaining people.

The closing scene is one that will sear itself into your brain forever – Norma’s literal descent – both down the staircase, and into madness. I suppose she was barely lucid throughout the entire movie, but Gillis leaving was the final straw that pushed her over the edge. No one ever leaves a star! Incredible performance by Swanson. Incredible film by Billy Wilder. I’m surprised that such a scathing satire managed to be produced at that time in Hollywood, back when movie studios owned their actors like property.

Cocktail #1: Boulevardier

Did you know that boulevardier is another word for a wealthy, fashionable socialite? I guess Norma Desmond fits the bill on all counts. Courtesy of Speakeasy Cocktails.

  • 1 & 1/2 oz rye
  • 1 oz Campari (I used Gran Classico, which is similarly bitter but much brighter and more floral – I also knocked it down to a scant 3/4 oz so as not to overpower the drink)
  • 3/4 Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
  • garnish: orange peel

Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into an old fashioned glass and add garnish. I felt that the end product needed a dash of orange bitters (always taste your cocktails as you’re making them!) A variation on the Negroni, this drink is smooth and bittersweet, like the memory of better days gone by.

Cocktail #2: Tequila Sunset

A variation on the popular Tequila Sunrise. Many recipes call for blackberry brandy or dark rum in place of grenadine. I happened to have some yummy homemade blackberry + blueberry + cinnamon syrup on hand, so I mixed that with blackstrap rum for the dark-colored bottom layer. Recipe modified from Drinks Mixer.

  • 1 oz tequila
  • orange juice (about 5 oz in my case)
  • 1/4 oz blackstrap rum
  • 1/4 oz blackberry syrup

Stir tequila and orange juice in a glass with ice. In a separate mixing glass, combine blackstrap rum and blackberry syrup and pour the resulting mixture down the side of the serving glass so that it sinks to the bottom.

My version also has some frozen blackberries (in place of ice cubes) floating around in there to keep it cold and also as a fun treat when you’re nearly done with your drink. Fishing them out is kind of like fishing a washed-up script writer out of a forgotten movie star’s pool… oops, was that too macabre? đŸ™‚ A perfect late summer drink with which to reminisce about the good old days when everybody loved you.

Look at those eyes… those creepy, creepy, beautiful, creepy eyes…

Gloria Swanson and William Holden

“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”