Reviews of Classic Movies: Does 'Sunset Boulevard' explain how 'The Room' happened?


Here’s a weird one: I found myself watching one of the most cutting-edge films of the 1950s by way of one of the worst films of all time. The acclaimed film in question is Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard - a film that stands strong on its own. But in a strange turn of events, I was particularly inspired to watch it by learning about the inside story of the making of The Room – reviled as a baffling, inept trainwreck of a movie.

Sunset Boulevard is an absorbing, carefully made film that cracks open the mystique of Hollywood. It reminds us how many desperate people in the industry are just clinging to their livelihoods, and how the promise of success can drive some people mad. Meanwhile, The Room is none of these things. Truthfully, it couldn’t be further away from anything resembling a movie. If you’re a native of the Internet, you may be familiar with The Room’s more infamous scenes, and they are just a hint of how utterly broken it is.

So how could these two films be connected? It starts with a 2013 non-fiction/memoir called The Disaster Artist, a combination of a behind-the-scenes tell-all and an account of an unconventional friendship. The book charts the bizarre relationship between struggling actor Greg Sestero (the co-writer) and the mysterious Tommy Wiseau, an immigrant of unknown origin, unexplained wealth and a desire for fame.

When Wiseau convinces Sestero to become his confidant/assistant/lead actor in The Room, Sestero’s subsequent experiences morph into a creepy real-life echo of the plot of Sunset Boulevard. Though they’re separated by over 50 years, Billy Wilder’s movie and the making of The Room share some surprising insights about the nature of friendship, the effect of fame and the dark side of the film industry.

Gloria Swanson stars as former silent film actress Norma Desmond

This similarity wasn’t lost on Sestero or his co-writer Tom Bissell. They open chapters of The Disaster Artist with quotes from Sunset Boulevard, but they can’t devote too much space to the comparison between the film and Sestero’s odyssey with Wiseau. So, spurred on by the quotes included in the book, I decided to track down Sunset Boulevard and see what I could learn from it.

The hero of the film is a defeated screenwriter named Joe Gillis (William Holden), who’s running out of money and can’t sell a script to save his life. Just as he’s about to pull up stakes and head home to Ohio, a couple of creditors chase him in his car, into the driveway of a seemingly derelict mansion. The house actually belongs to Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) a reclusive former star of silent films. Though Gillis initially wants nothing to do with her, the promise of some cash to edit Desmond’s self-obsessed film adaptation of Salome draws Gillis into her influence.

Soon, Gillis is living as Desmond’s kept man, supplied with an antique European car, a new wardrobe and a house with a pool. But he struggles to stay a step ahead of Desmond’s violent mood swings, and as Desmond’s grip on sanity weakens, Gillis must try to flee before her obsession with rekindling stardom consumes them both.

While the stakes of Greg Sestero’s friendship with Tommy Wiseau never reach the deadly levels in Wilder’s film, it’s still useful to compare the two. Like Gillis, Sestero struggled to get a break in Hollywood. He questions whether he’s cut out for show business, until a stranger with piles of money appears, complete with half-baked plans for a once-in-a-generation epic. Against his better judgment, Sestero wanted to help Wiseau, maybe because he identified with how the industry was ignoring him. And what started as a quick job devolved into months, if not years, of frustration.

Sestero’s involvement in The Room certainly wasn’t the only case of desperate people flailing their way through a misguided production - like any artistic medium, film productions have played host to their share of catastrophes since the beginning.

The film features cameos by real Hollywood figures like director Cecil B. DeMille

What makes Sunset Boulevard remarkable, though, is Wilder’s willingness to dramatize the darker nature of his business at that point in time, and use big Hollywood names to do it. In 1950, the major studios were still incredibly powerful, and the star-based system meant that lead actors often commanded ten times the salary of their directors. At the risk of alienating Wilder from his colleagues, Sunset Boulevard shows the often petty and personal motivations that shape a movie’s production, and strips away a lot of the glamour that audiences might have taken for granted about cinema.

As similar as these two stories are, there’s a sort of majesty to Sunset Boulevard that Sestero’s account lacks. Maybe it’s that Sunset Boulevard spares us from witnessing the awful production of Salome that Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis are preparing, while the cinematic crimes of The Room are etched in our memories. Or maybe it’s just Billy Wilder and his team using their movie magic to strip away the messiness inherent to a factual account like Sestero’s.

Whatever the reason, I’m keeping a close eye on the adaptation of The Disaster Artist that James Franco is reportedly working on (apparently Franco is playing Wiseau!). If done right, we might have worthy successor to Sunset Boulevard on our hands; a new chronicle of how warped people can become in their pursuit of fame.

Sunset Boulevard gets three and a half stars out of four.

Three and a Half Stars

Have you seen Sunset Boulevard? If so, what did you think? What else can we learn from the similarity between the making of The Room and Billy Wilder’s movie? Join the discussion below, and if you liked this post, share it with your friends and followers!