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The Big Idea
Remind Me

The Big Idea Behind SUNSET BLVD

Writing partners Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett had been tossing around an idea for a film about Hollywood for years. Originally, Brackett saw it as a comedy about a forgotten silent screen star who triumphs over her enemies through wit and perseverance.

As they started working on the script together, Wilder pushed it in a more cynical, dramatic direction, reflecting his view of life since World War II.

To keep anyone at their home studio, Paramount, from realizing they were working on a Hollywood story, they camouflaged their work in progress with the title "A Can of Beans." Wilder was concerned that if word of the project got out, other studio heads would exert pressure to have the film stopped.

When they had trouble developing the idea further, Brackett and Wilder confided in a young friend with whom they played bridge, reporter D.M. Marshman, Jr. He suggested having the aging star fall into a relationship with a younger man, and they asked him to sign on as co-writer. As they shaped the story, the male character, a Hollywood writer whose career was not living up to its earlier promise, became the film's central figure. By the end of 1948, they had completed the story and were starting work on the script.

Biographers have suggested that Wilder drew on his own past as a dance-hall gigolo in Berlin to create the story of Norma Desmond keeping the younger Joe Gillis. For Gillis' romance with a younger woman, Wilder drew on his own budding romance with singer-actress Audrey Young. Some of the character's back story was actually taken from his future wife's past.

Wilder's first choice to play Norma Desmond was Mae West (he would later say he only wanted her while the script was still being shaped as a comedy). She refused to even look at an outline when he suggested she play a faded film star. In her opinion, she was still a great star.

Next, he approached Mary Pickford, one of the first great film stars, now, like Norma, retired. She also had taken a younger husband, actor Buddy Rogers. Both she and her husband loved the story, but at that time, Norma was clearly a supporting role. When Pickford insisted that the film star's role become dominant, Wilder decided that she would never submit to his direction or the needs of the film.

Wilder next offered the role to Pola Negri, but she accused him of trying to capitalize on her own fall from stardom. He also couldn't help noticing that the thick Polish accent that had spelled the end of her career when talkies arrived had not improved in the interim.

Finally, director George Cukor suggested the perfect woman for the role, Gloria Swanson. Swanson had been Paramount's top star in the silent era, but age and changing tastes had seen her career fade with the coming of sound. Unlike Norma Desmond, however, Swanson had gotten on with her life and was hosting a talk show on New York television. Nonetheless, she was intrigued by Wilder's idea for the film. When she read the first few pages of the script, however, she thought it was too much an attack on Hollywood and turned it down. It didn't help that a studio employee called her up to schedule a screen test, which she considered an insult. Finally, Cukor talked her into making the film, assuring her that it would be the role for which she would be most remembered.

When Swanson made her screen test, she was so powerful, Wilder and Brackett started shifting the film's focus to put her character on a more equal footing with the leading man.

The studio signed Swanson for $50,000.

When Wilder offered Erich von Stroheim the role of Max the former director, who had starred for Wilder in Five Graves to Cairo (1943), suggested that the best choice to play a demented movie director was Wilder himself.

Montgomery Clift was the first choice to play Joe Gillis but withdrew two weeks before the start of shooting, stating that he didn't think audiences would believe him making love to an older woman. Rumors persist that the real reason he quit was because his close friend, singer Libby Holman, who may or may not have been his lover, threatened to kill herself if he took the role, feeling gossips would consider the film a thinly veiled portrait of their relationship. More likely is the contention of Clift's biographers that he didn't want to encourage his many older female fans who wrote him regularly about how much they wanted to mother him.

Wilder tried to interest Fred MacMurray, whose career had been given a huge lift when the director had cast him in Double Indemnity in 1944. This time, however, the actor declined, calling the character morally offensive. Some friends also suggested he was afraid Swanson would steal the film.

After MacMurray, Wilder considered Marlon Brando, but he was still untested in films. They tried to get MGM to lend the studio Gene Kelly, who had risen to stardom on Broadway as a young dancer, but they couldn't arrange the loan.

William Holden had been under contract to Paramount for 10 years, playing mostly shallow, affable leading men -- what he called his "Smiling Jim" roles -- without ever really connecting with audiences. His main qualification at first was that he was there, and his weekly salary was much less than the $5,000 per week Clift had been offered. After meeting him for drinks, Wilder realized there was a lot more to Holden than his "Smiling Jim" image. When Holden read the few script pages that had been finished, he accepted enthusiastically, though he would confess to his wife that the challenging role terrified him.

After casting Holden, who was six years older than Clift, Wilder suggested making Norma a little older, but Swanson balked at the thought of making the character older than herself. Instead, she suggested using makeup to make Holden look younger. Ultimately, it wasn't necessary.

Although Wilder had written the role of Max around Erich von Stroheim's Hollywood past, the one-time director greatly resented the film's depiction of him as a has-been reduced to working as a butler. He only accepted the role because he needed the money.

by Frank Miller