Screen Gems

Duel of the Divas: One of the kinkiest movies of all time

Sunset Blvd.

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Diva Duel Part I: Sunset Blvd.

This weekend here at Screen Gems, we thought we’d offer something a little different. Back in 1950, two actresses gave two of the Greatest Performances in History and ended up competing against each other for the Academy Award. We suggest it’s time to revisit their two respective films, and again face the question: who did it better?

Sunset Blvd. lands on every list of the Greatest of All Movies, and for good reason–it doesn’t get much better. The story follows a starving writer, Joe (William Holden). Pursued by bill collectors, he ends up in the driveway of former silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a 50-something recluse who hasn’t worked since the coming of sound. Holed up with her creepy butler Max (Erich von Stroheim), Norma has begun working on a script for her triumphant return. Sensing a payday, Joe offers to help her with the screenplay. Over time, Norma begins to obsess over Joe, whose profession begins to look less like a writer than a gigolo.

William Holden gives a fantastic performance as the cynical, self-deprecating Joe, though history will forever record Sunset Blvd. as belonging to Norma Desmond and Gloria Swanson. As a former silent star herself, Swanson brings a unique style to her performance, walking the line between pathos and camp, madness and sanity. Norma also behaves like a monstrosity much of the film, but thanks to Swanson, we can’t help but feel sorry for her, even root for her at times. Sunset Blvd. also has one of the wickedest senses of humor on record, often embodied by the sexual kink of Max. We’ll not give away too much here, other than to say that his servant-master relationship with Norma has many levels to it. The movie also leaves open the debate as to just who is the master of whom?

Shot in rich black and white, loaded with magnificent performances and some of the most quotable dialogue of all time, movies don’t get better than Sunset Blvd. Watch it, fall under its spell, and let the debate begin: if Gloria Swanson gives one of the greatest performances of all time, could anyone be better in the same year?

Streams on Paramount+, Amazon, YouTube & VUDU.