Sunset Boulevard (movie)

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For the Broadway production see: Sunset Boulevard (musical).

Template:Infobox Movie Sunset Boulevard (also known as Sunset Blvd.) is a 1950 motion picture drama named for the famous street, Sunset Boulevard, in Los Angeles.

The movie, directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, tells the story of a down-on-his-luck screenwriter, Joe Gillis (William Holden), who becomes entangled with a faded movie star of the silent era, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who believes she can make a comeback. Supporting performers include Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough and Jack Webb. There are cameo appearances by Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson and Hedda Hopper.

The film has become widely accepted as a classic, admired as a penetrating satire of the movie business and as one of the outstanding films ever produced by the Hollywood studio system. Sunset Boulevard was ranked number 12 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 best American films of the 20th century.

Contents


Plot

Holden plays Joe Gillis, who becomes the "kept man" of the aging star, played by Swanson, in her large mansion on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills. The opening scenes reveal that Gillis has been killed, and he is first seen as a corpse floating face down in a swimming pool. He narrates the remainder of the movie and explains how his liaison with Desmond led to his murder. Gillis was trying to escape two repossession agents when he sought refuge in what he believed to be an empty mansion on Sunset Boulevard. After meeting its occupants, a German butler and an eccentric older woman, he realises that she is Norma Desmond, formerly one of the great stars of the silent screen. She offers him a job reading a script she has been writing for her planned return to the screen, and, short of money, he agrees. After some time he assumes the role of a "kept man", but is horrified to learn that Norma is in love with him. Seeking refuge at a friend's house, he speaks with a young woman, Betty, who is interested in his writing. He phones the Desmond house to say he is leaving, but is told Norma has attempted suicide. After rushing back to the mansion, he comforts her and stays.

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The corpse of Joe Gillis floating in Norma Desmond's pool, in the film's opening scenes.

The two appear to be relatively contented, and Norma continues working on her script, finally sending it to Paramount Studios. When she receives calls from the studio she assumes Cecil B De Mille is interested in filming the project and goes off to the studio to meet with him. Gillis and the butler learn that the studio only wants to hire Norma's vintage car but hide this from her. Joe begins secretly meeting with Betty, working on a screenplay, and they fall in love. When Norma discovers this she phones Betty, and tells her what sort of man Joe really is. Joe takes the phone and tells Betty to come to the house, where he explains his side of the situation and sends Betty away. Misundertanding his actions, Norma is grateful to Joe, but he brushes her thanks away and begins packing to leave the house. Norma threatens to shoot him, but he does not take her seriously. As he walks away, she shoots him several times before he falls dead into the pool.

After Joe's death, Norma loses herself in her fantasy world and when news cameras come to film her, she believes she is on the set of her new film. She descends her grand staircase and after making a speech declaring her happiness at making a new film, she reaches for the camera, and as she moves closer to it, the screen fades to white, as the narrator concludes that Norma's wish has, in an unexpected way, come true for her.

Background

The street, Sunset Boulevard, has been associated with the film production of Hollywood almost since its beginning, when the first film studio opened on Sunset Boulevard in 1911. The earliest film workers lived modestly in the neighborhood that began to grow near the studios, but during the 1920s as profits and salaries rose to unprecedented levels, so too did the development of the "star system" along with star homes noted for their often incongruous grandeur. As new areas were developed, large Italianate palaces were built alongside imposing Tudor castles. The stars themselves were the subject of public fascination throughout the world, and magazines and newspapers reported the excesses of their lives.

As a young man in Warsaw, Poland, Billy Wilder was interested in American culture, with much of his interest fuelled by American films. By the late 1940s many of the grand Hollywood houses remained, and Wilder, now resident in Los Angeles, found they were part of his current everyday world. Many of the famous stars of the silent era still lived in those palaces, most of them no longer involved in the film business. Wilder wondered how they spent their time now that "the parade had passed them by" and began to think about the story of a star who has lost her standing. Charles Brackett said that the idea of adding a gigolo to the storyline was provided by D. M. Marshman Jr. who was also credited officially on the screenplay.

Casting

As the story began to take shape they envisioned a satire on ambition and the role of sex appeal, and they intended it as a vehicle of Mae West. After several discussions with her she refused to commit to the project, eventually telling them that she considered herself to be too young to play a former silent screen actress. They decided to change the tone of the film, and met with Pola Negri, who according to Wilder, "threw a tantrum at the mere suggestion of playing a has-been", however Wilder also noted that her heavy Polish accent would prove difficult, and ruled her out of contention. They next met with "America's Sweetheart" Mary Pickford in what Wilder referred to as "a bout of insanity". He recalled the meeting at her home Pickfair, during which Pickford grew more alarmed as the unfolded the plot to her. Finally they withdrew, with an acknowledgement that they had been incorrect in considering her, and a profuse apology.

George Cukor suggested Gloria Swanson. Wilder later commented that they had not considered Paramount Studios' top silent screen actress because they believed she was "somehow unattainable". Swanson was chagrined to be asked to submit to a screentest, reportedly saying that she had "built Paramount", a reaction that was later echoed in the screenplay. In her memoir she recalled asking Cukor if it was unreasonable of her to refuse the screentest, and he replied that Norma Desmond would be the role for which she would be remembered. "If they ask you to do ten screentests, do ten screentests, or I will personally shoot you". In a 1975 interview Wilder commented, "there was a lot of Norma in her, you know".

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William Holden and Gloria Swanson in a scene where Joe and Norma are watching one of her films.

Like Desmond, Swanson had been one of the most feted actresses of the silent screen, known for her beauty, talent and extravagant lifestyle. At her peak in 1925 she was said to have received 10,000 fan letters in a single week. She had also lived on Sunset Boulevard in an elaborate Italianate palace, from 1920 until the early 1930s. Fan magazines often wrote of the luxurious furnishings, including a black marble bathroom which Swanson was said to have had specially fitted with a solid gold bathtub, and of elaborate parties Swanson hosted for Hollywood's elite. In these areas Swanson was a strong reflection of what the writers now wanted in the Desmond character, but the resemblance ended there. Swanson had gracefully drifted away from the screen when she had realized her time was past. She had moved successfully on with her life, and had cut many of her Hollywood ties. By this time she was living in New York, where she acted on television, but she was more occupied with her family of three children and her business interests, to dwell much on the career she had once had. Returning to Hollywood was not something she had seriously contemplated.

Montgomery Clift was signed to play Joe Gillis, but he withdrew shortly before filming began, reportedly because he did not want to play love scenes with an older actress. Fred MacMurray was asked to step in but he declined. They then offered the part to William Holden, a young actor who had made an impressive debut in Golden Boy (1939) but who had spent the next decade in second-rate films.

Erich von Stroheim, a leading film director of the 1920s who had directed Swanson, was signed to play Max, the faithful servant, who helps keep Norma safe in the world she has created for herself. In the film it is revealed the Max von Mayerling was Desmond's director, a touch of authenticity that pleased Wilder.

For the role of Betty Schaeffer, Wilder wanted a newcomer who could project a wholesome and ordinary image to contrast with Swanson's flamboyant Desmond. He chose Nancy Olsen, who had recently been considered for the role of Delilah in Samson and Delilah.

Writing

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SunsetBoulevardfinaleGloriaSwanson.jpg
In the final scene Norma Desmond says, "All right, Mr DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup" before appearing to reach into the camera and dissolve into the light.

The sharp and witty dialogue includes a handful of instantly recognizable lines, "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." and "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup." There are also several obliquely self-referential comments on the movie itself that break through the fourth wall. (For example, at a New Year's Eve party, hepcat Arnie (Jack Webb) tells guests to watch how much punch they consume, remarking that the budget calls for only "three drinks per extra." In Swanson's closing scene, she refers to "all those people sitting out there in the dark.") Moreover, as noted above, it includes cameos by such Hollywood luminaries as Buster Keaton and Hedda Hopper, and Cecil B. DeMille makes an extended appearance as himself. And in one scene, Desmond watches herself in one of her early movies; the movie she is watching is one of Gloria Swanson's own silents, Queen Kelly, in which she was directed by Erich von Stroheim (who plays Desmond's butler/manservant, Max).

The humor is darkly cynical and its view of the seamy side of Hollywood presages such later works as David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, which includes more than a few references to this movie.

Sunset Boulevard was an original screenplay by Charles Brackett, D. M. Marshman, Jr. and Billy Wilder. Before and during filming the project was known as A Can of Beans, as Wilder and Brackett believed Paramount executives would not allow production to continue if they were fully aware of the subject matter. Wilder later said that the studio had been given a broad outline of the storyline which bore no resemblance to the writer's intention, and allowed Wilder and Brackett considerable freedom as a result of their previous successes. When filming started a screenplay existed for only the first third of the film. It was only during filming that they decided on the ending.

Music and design

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The atmospheric cinematography of John F. Seitz. In this scene Norma Desmond is dramatically lit by a movie projector.

The dark and shadowy film noir cinematography style of the film was the work of John F. Seitz. Wilder allowed Seitz great latitude, as demonstrated by his recollection of a conversation about the lighting required for the filming of the funeral of Norma Desmond's monkey. Seitz recalled asking Wilder what he wanted, and Wilder replied "you know, just your standard monkey funeral shot". Wilder also revealed that for some interior shots, Seitz would sprinkle dust in front of the camera before filming, to suggest the "mustiness" of the place, a trick he had also used during production of Double Indemnity (1941).

Wilder was very specific in the way he wanted Joe Gillis' corpse to be filmed from the bottom of the pool. The art director John Meehan undertook various experiments, including building a tank to enclose the camera underwater, but this was not successful. He was able to achieve the shot by placing a mirror on the bottom of the pool and filming Holden's reflection, with the distorted images of the policeman standing around the pool, forming a backdrop.

Edith Head was responsible for the costume design, and had also worked with Wilder. For Norma Desmond they decided that although she lived in the past she would have remained somewhat up to date in fashion, so rather than dress her in authentic 1920s costumes, Head designed costumes that closely resembled the mid 1940s Dior and Chanel look, added embelishments to make them appear exaggerated, and in terms of fashion style, only a few seasons out of date. As Swanson recalled in her biography they were "a trifle outdated, a trifle exotic". Head later described her assignment as "the most challenging of my career", and explained her approach with the comment, "Because Norma Desmond was an actress who had become lost in her own imagination, I tried to to make her look like she was always impersonating someone". Swanson worked closely with Head in choosing Desmond's costumes, and Head observed that although she had worked in the Hollywood of the 1920's she relied on Swanson's expertise. "She (Swanson) was creating a past that she knew and I didn't."

Head was also responsible for the costumes of William Holden, which ranged from a cheap suit, to the more expensive tailored items his character acquired from Desmond. Although Head also designed the costumes for some of the minor characters, Von Stroheim wore a uniform of his own choosing throughout the shooting, and Nancy Olson wore clothes which Billy Wilder chose from her own personal wardrobe.

Franz Waxman another of Wilder's former collaborators provided the musical score. His theme for Norma was based around tango music, and was contrasted with Joe Gillis' be-bop theme. For the final scenes of the film he used a distorted arrangement of the type of exotic music that had been used in the types of films both Swanson and Desmond had made. The film's soundtrack was released on CD for the first time in 2002.

The overstated decadence of Norma Desmond's home was created by set designer Hans Drier, whose career extended back to the silent era, and who also had provided the interior design for some movie stars residences, including that of Mae West.

Touches of authenticity

Wilder wanted to create a film that dealt with a world of illusion and he deliberately placed the illusion within an authentic setting. Norma Desmond began to take on some of the attributes of the actress now signed to play her. For the dozens of photographs of Norma that adorned her home, Swanson was asked to bring her own personal mementoes, and she also brought a large oil painting of herself that was featured prominently.
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Erich von Stroheim and William Holden

Erich von Stroheim, a leading director of the silent era, who had directed Swanson, was signed to play the part of Norma's servant Max, a leading director of the silent era, who had directed Norma. Wilder wanted to use a scene from an old film of Norma's to further demonstrate what she was once capable of. Logically it should be one of Swanson's to be used, but he considered it would be even more interesting if it was one directed by von Stroheim. The film selected, and which Norma, Joe and Max watch, is Queen Kelly (1928), an expensive failure that had ended von Stoheim's career. Wilder said he could not believe his luck in being able to bring the star, the director and the film together for the scene. Cecil B. De Mille, often credited as the person most responsible for making Swanson a star, agreed to play himself, and was filmed on the set of his current film Samson and Delilah at Paramount Studios. In the film he calls Norma "young fellow", which was the name he had always called Swanson, a tiny detail of authenticity suggested by de Mille, which many in the audience would not have recognised, but which pleased Wilder. In another scene, Norma Desmond performs a pantomime for Joe Gillis as a Mack Sennett "Bathing Beauty" (one of Swanson's earliest film roles), and she also performed a Charles Chaplin impersonation, which was identical to one she performed in Masquerade (1924). Norma's friends, though not named in the film as anything more than "The Waxworks", who came to play bridge with her, were played by Swanson's contemporaries Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H. B. Warner. Even the scenes of Joe Gillis and Betty Schaefer on Paramount's backlot, were filmed on the actual backlot. Finally, as Norma plays her dramatic final scene, it is witnessed by the notable gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper, playing herself. Wilder later disclosed that he had written a humorous scene to be played by Hopper and her rival Louella Parsons as they battled for the "scoop" at the end of the film, however Parsons refused to appear in any film which included Hopper, and Wilder was forced to revise the scene.

Reaction to the film

Nervous about a major screening in Hollywood, they elected to have the film preview in Evanston, Illinois. In its original edit it opened with a scene that was one of the few ideas carried right through the project from its beginnings as a Mae West comedy. It took place inside a morgue with the assembled corpses discussing how they had come to this place. Joe Gillis was one of the corpses and began telling about his murder. The crowd reacted with roars of laughter, and then sat silent when the scene finished and the flashback main storyline began, seemingly unsure how to view it. They tried it again in New York with the same reaction, and Wilder decided the scene had to go and began organise for a new opening sequence to be filmed. Finally it was taken to Poughkeepsie, New York for a screening which proved highly successful.

In Hollywood, Paramount arranged a private screening for the heads of the various studios and specially invited guests. The reaction was overwhelming. Barbara Stanwyck bowed to kiss the hem of Gloria Swanson's skirt, Edith Head told Swanson "you should never have left". Mary Pickford disappeared into the ladies room, and Edith Head explained to Swanson "she can't speak. She's too moved". The only dissenting voice came from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executive Louis B. Mayer who loudly berated Wilder before the crowd of celebrities with "You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood". The actress Mae Murray, a contemporary of Swanson's, was offended by the film and commented "None of us floozies was that nuts". Paramount Studios mounted a promotional campaign which included positive quotes from many popular stars of the day.

After Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard was the last collaboration between Wilder and Brackett, their relationship reported damaged by disputes over filming the montage scenes of Norma preparing to return to the screen. It marked the approximate midpoint of the years of Wilder's greatest success, and despite the lasting critical acclaim given to several Wilder films, it is widely considered his masterpiece.

Charles Brackett's Hollywood career declined rapidly after his split with Wilder. He wrote Niagara (film), which was the breakthrough film for Marilyn Monroe as a dramatic actress. It would be Wilder, however, who would realize her comedic abilities in The Seven Year Itch and Some Like it Hot.

William Holden, after a decade languishing in unrewarding roles, finally began to receive more important parts and his career rose. In 1953, he won the Best Actor Oscar for Stalag 17 (also directed by Wilder), and in 1956 he was the number one box office attraction in the United States.

Gloria Swanson, who had achieved a unique comeback, was not able to sustain the renewed level of enthusiasm. Although offered scripts, she felt they all were poor imitations of Norma Desmond. Imagining a career that would eventually result in her playing "a parody of a parody," she quit, appearing in only four more films. She picked up her life in New York where she had left off, becoming a respected painter.

In the late 1950s, Swanson seriously considered using Sunset Boulevard as the basis for a new musical. In her version, the romance between Gillis and Shaefer was allowed to blossom, and rather than shoot Gillis at the end, Norma gave the couple her blessing and sent them on their way to live "happily ever after." Several songs were written, and Paramount Studios, who owned the copyright, appeared willing to allow the project to go ahead.

The studio ultimately withdrew its consent in 1957, saying that it would not permit an interpretation that would damage the existing and future reputation of the film. The studio did allowed television productions to be made for Lux Radio Theatre in 1955 with Miriam Hopkins, and Robert Montgomery Presents with Mary Astor and Darren McGavin because the storyline remained faithful to the original.

In 1960, the film was shown in New York City, drawing such a positive response that Paramount arranged for a limited release in theatres throughout the United States.

Awards

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Nancy Olson and William Holden. All four principal cast members were nominated for Academy Awards for their roles.

It won Academy Awards for :

It was nominated for:

It also won Golden Globe awards for Best Motion Picture, Best Motion Picture Actress (Swanson), Best Motion Picture Director, and Best Motion Picture Score. Wilder and Brackett won a Writer's Guild of America Award for Best Written American Drama, while the Director's Guild of America nominated Wilder for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures. The National Board of Review voted it Best Picture and Swanson Best Actress.

In 1989, the film was among the first group of 25 films deemed "culturally significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

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