There are many famous streets in the world. New York has Broadway. Paris has the Champs-Elysees. And then there is Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, made famous forever by director Billy Wilder in his classic 1950 film SUNSET BOULEVARD. When I worked in the film business and Hollywood in the late 80's and early 90's, I drove up and down Sunset Boulevard many many times. Sunset Blvd runs from downtown Los Angeles through Hollywood past Capitol Records and the Beverly Hills Hotel before twisting and turning all the way to the sparkling Pacific Ocean.
I have two Sunset Boulevard stories. The first one I was crossing the street to pick up some scripts at a copy place on Sunset Blvd and there was a giant billboard of musician Elvis Costello. Crossing the street from across the way was the real Elvis Costello with a couple of friends. They stopped in the middle of the street to stare up at his enormous billboard. It was very surreal. The other story was having the opportunity to drive film director Michael Mann (LAST OF THE MOHICANS, HEAT) to his home which was on Sunset Blvd in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles. I worked for Mann for about a year on a television mini-series called DRUG WARS: THE KIKI CAMERENA STORY (1990).
The real Sunset Boulevard can be viewed as a two way street to Hollywood, a chance for an actor to be discovered by a casting director or a writer to have their script read and appreciated by a producer. Or Sunset Boulevard can be the road out of show business, where failures outnumber successes and stardom can fade as quickly as it shined. That is the scenario for director/co-writer Billy Wilder and his co-writers Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr. in SUNSET BLVD.
SUNSET BLVD is an unusual film that doesn't fall into any specific genre. I would call it Hollywood Noir. It does have a murder that takes place but it's also a wicked behind the scenes look at the darker side of the film business. 1950 seemed to kick off a spate of films where Hollywood took an unflattering look at fame and celebrity in ALL ABOUT EVE (1950), THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952), and A STAR IS BORN (1954).
SUNSET BLVD may have one of the most unique, original opening scenes in film history as the film's narrator and main protagonist Joe Gillis (William Holden) is floating dead in a swimming pool. Gillis (remember he's dead) tells us in flashback that he's a B movie script writer in a bit of financial trouble. Behind on his car payments and repossessors at his door to take the car back, Gillis slips out of his apartment and heads to Paramount Studios to pitch an idea to a producer named Sheldrake (Fred Clark), hoping to sell it but studio reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) is not impressed with Gillis's story. Gillis next tries his agent but he refuses to loan Gillis any money either. Heading back on Sunset, Gillis is spotted by the repossessors who chase after him. Gillis blows a tire and quickly pulls into a driveway off Sunset Blvd and loses them. Gillis finds himself staring at an old, rundown Hollywood mansion owned by aging silent film actress Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).
A bald, Teutonic butler named Max Von Mayerling (Erich Von Stroheim) ushers Gillis in. Gillis meets Norma for the first time. She's mourning the death of her beloved pet chimpanzee. Norma and Max think he's the undertaker, come to bury the monkey. Gillis recognizes Norma. "You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big," Gillis says. "I am big," Norma responds. "It's the pictures that got small." He mentions he's a writer which catches Norma's interest. She's planning a major comeback, wishing to star in a movie version of Salome, to be directed by the great Cecil B. DeMille or so she thinks. She shows Gillis her script. An idea comes to Gillis. He offers to help Norma rewrite her script, hoping to make some money off her, even though he knows her script is a piece of junk.
Norma has Max bring Joe's clothes and stuff from his apartment. He moves into a room above the garage. As Joe and Norma work on the script, Joe begins to learn more about the sad life of Norma Desmond. Once the queen of silent films, Norma lives like a recluse, watching her old films in her living room, surrounded by framed photographs of herself, playing cards with other real life silent film stars, "waxworks" as Gillis calls them such as Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner. Gillis starts to become Norma's gigolo as she buys him new clothes and pays his rent back at his apartment. One night, at a New Year's Eve party at her home with a live quartet, Gillis discovers that Norma is falling for him as he is the only guest. They fight and Gillis walks out.
Gillis catches a ride to another New Year's Eve party thrown by his friend Artie Green , an assistant director (Jack Webb from DRAGNET). Artie happens to be dating Betty Schaefer, the studio script reader, who's also at the party. Betty likes one of Gillis's ideas and wants to write a screenplay with him. Gillis decides to leave Norma and asks Artie if he can move in with him for a few weeks. When he calls to have Max bring his clothes over to Artie's, Max tells him Norma has tried to kill herself again. Gillis reluctantly returns, unable to untangle himself from Norma's clutches. Norma and Gillis visit Paramount Studios as Norma meets with the real director Cecil B. DeMille to talk about her film return. Although happy to see Norma, DeMille has no intention of making her movie. But he decides not to ruin Norma's visit or fantasy. Gillis secretly meets with Betty at night to work on their script. Norma finds out about their clandestine meetings at the studio.
Betty begins to fall in love with Gillis. Betty is the first decent thing to happen to Gillis in a long time. Jealous, Norma calls Betty to tell her about Gillis and her. Gillis comes clean with Nancy, telling her to go back to Artie. Gillis realizes he won't sell himself out to Norma and her money and prepares to return to Dayton, Ohio and write copy for the small ad agency he left, to regain his humanity he left on Sunset Boulevard. As Gillis leaves, Norma shoots him three times in the back and Gillis falls dead into her swimming pool. As the police prepare to take her away, surrounded by cameras and the press, Norma Desmond descends her spiral staircase and walks straight toward the camera, uttering her famous line, "All right, Mr. DeMille. I'm ready for my close-up."
SUNSET BLVD is the closest thing to a cinematic novel with its brilliant use of visual metaphors. From the opening shot of dead leaves curled up against the words SUNSET BLVD on the curb, director Billy Wilder shows Norma Desmond's fantasy world as one of death and decay. Her mansion is rotting and ghostly, much like Norma's soul. Rats swim in her empty swimming pool when Gillis first arrives. The tennis court is dilapidated. The wind whistles through her pipe organ like an ominous warning. She plays bridge with her fellow, forgotten silent films star friends who Gillis calls "her wax works." Norma's mansion is like a wax museum and she is the curator. Norma's bed is shaped like Cleopatra's barge but Norma is no Egyptian queen, rather a silent film star vampire. When she floats down her long staircase to the waiting press and police in the films finale, she even resembles Medusa with her arched eyebrows and wild hair. Joe Gillis first meets Norma mourning the death of her pet chimpanzee. Little does Gillis realize that he's about to become Norma's new pet monkey. When Gillis is shot by Norma, he falls into the ultimate show business status symbol - a swimming pool. A pool means some one's made it big but for Gillis, it's the end of his short, insignificant career and life.
Besides Robert Altman's THE PLAYER (1992), no film has used real Hollywood players with such purposeful effect and irony. Beginning with Erich Von Stroheim as Norma's personal servant (and former first husband) Max Von Meyerling, director Wilder astounds in his silent film history and casting. Stroheim was a famous silent film director who directed GREED (1924) among others but his directing career all but ended when talking films took over. When Norma and Gillis watch one of her films one night, Wilder uses an actual silent film called QUEEN KELLY (1929) starring Gloria Swanson (who's playing Norma) and actually directed by Erich Von Stroheim. What is reality and what is fiction in SUNSET BLVD? The "wax works" or silent films stars who play cards with Norma are all real former silent films stars playing themselves: Buster Keaton (THE GENERAL, 1926 ), Anna Q. Nilsson (MOLLY PITCHER, 1911)), and H.B. Warner (THE KING OF KINGS, 1927). Even gossip columnist Hedda Hopper shows up as herself at the end as the Norma Desmond scandal is about to break.
Another casting stroke of genius by Wilder is the great director Cecil B. DeMille playing himself. DeMille was a legendary silent film director who made a smooth transition to talkies and was famous for his Biblical epic films like SAMSON AND DELILAH (1949) and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956). In SUNSET BLVD, Norma had worked with DeMille in silent pictures and believes DeMille wants to direct her comeback. Paramount has been leaving her messages but it's because they're interested in renting her fancy car, an Isotta Fraschini, for a film, not Norma Desmond. She visits DeMille at Paramount Studios, on the set of his latest biblical film. DeMille is gracious to Norma, glad to see an old friend, but he's pragmatic too and diplomatically has to reject her project. In reality, DeMille and actress Swanson did work together in silent films.
Wilder saves his greatest stroke of genius for Gloria Swanson as the aging, forgotten silent film star Norma Desmond. The ultimate insult for Norma is when she visits DeMille's set, a boom with a microphone brushes by her hat and she swats at the invention that all but ended her career. Swanson was a successful silent film actress who did make the jump from silent films to talking pictures. Although never a bona fide superstar, she was nominated for two Academy awards early in her talkies career as well as for SUNSET BLVD. Swanson never stopped working in stage, film, and even television, although she took many breaks. SUNSET BLVD is her crowning achievement and it's hard to believe she lost the Best Actress nomination to Judy Holliday (for BORN YESTERDAY which I haven't seen).
For actor William Holden, SUNSET BLVD would launch his career to the next level. After his breakthrough role in GOLDEN BOY (1939), Holden toiled in unspectacular roles and films until he played Joe Gillis in SUNSET BLVD. It's a tricky role, playing a young, struggling screenwriter reduced to accepting an older woman's money and gifts and affection because he can't sell a script. We empathize with Gillis and it's painful to watch when he finally finds redemption, he gets three bullets in the back for it. Holden would become a favorite of Wilder's and go on to collaborate with Wilder on STALAG 17 (1953), SABRINA (1954) and FEDORA (1978). Ironically, Holden also starred in BORN YESTERDAY (1950), the film that Judy Holliday won the Best Actress award for beating out Holden's SUNSET BLVD co-star Gloria Swanson. Rounding out the cast as the only two likable industry characters are Nancy Olson as Betty Schaefer, the reader and a young Jack Webb as Artie Green, Joe's assistant director friend. Hollywood hasn't corrupted either of them yet but it's only a matter of time. Jack Webb would go on to television fame as the by the book Sgt. Joe Friday in DRAGNET.
Director Billy Wilder, like Howard Hawks or Michael Curtiz, was successful in every genre he tackled. Many critics feel he made the best comedy ever (SOME LIKE IT HOT, 1959), the best war film (STALAG 17, 1953), the best film noir (DOUBLE INDEMNITY, 1944), and the best drama (THE LOST WEEKEND, 1945). Even today, actors, directors, and writers still thank Billy Wilder when they accept awards (as French director Michel Hazanavicius did at the 2012 Academy Awards while accepting Best Director for THE ARTIST, a film about silent films) and Wilder has been dead since 2002. I prefer Wilder's older black and white films to some of his later color classics. SUNSET BLVD has some great camerawork by John F. Seitz who worked on many Wilder films like DOUBLE INDEMNITY and FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (1943) as well as other film noirs like THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942) and THE BIG CLOCK (1948). The crane shot reveal of the mansion as Gillis approaches it, following Norma down the staircase to the waiting police and press, and the close-ups of Norma Desmond are all beautifully done.
Having worked in the film business for six years, many things in SUNSET BLVD ring true. I had to drive up in the Hollywood Hills to a nice home over looking the Sunset Strip to deliver a script to waiting actor/former NFL football player Jim Brown. Max Von Mayerling did not open the door but a pretty African/American woman maybe half Mr. Brown's age. I wanted to be a screenwriter and wrote some scripts and maybe almost sold a couple but success eluded me. I had an agent at one time who overcommitted himself to too many clients, including me and was fired. I drove and walked thru those gates at Paramount Studios, even pitched some ideas to an associate at producer Scott Rudin's production company. I probably drove by the apartment on Franklin and Ivar where Joe Gillis pounded away on his typewriter.
SUNSET BLVD's story is timeless in the world of show business. Movie stars, music stars, theater stars rise and fall just like Norma Desmond. Many buy big mansions and become recluses. Others get tripped up by their weaknesses: drugs, alcohol, and the excesses of celebrity. A star is only as good as their last hit movie or song. A couple of career missteps and there's always another, younger star or writer to take their place. Everyone's a critic and everyone is ready to chip away at their success and bury them before the spotlight cools off. As the dead Joe Gillis says in voice over as the police fish him out of Norma Desmond's pool, "Funny, how gentle people get with you once you're dead."