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Behind the Camera
Remind Me

Behind the Camera on SUNSET BLVD

Director-writer Billy Wilder went into production on March 26, 1949, with only 61 pages of script finished, so he had to shoot more or less in continuity. This was a first for Swanson, but proved a big boon in helping her develop her character's descent into madness.

For the opening shot of William Holden floating face down in the swimming pool, Wilder wanted a shot from below that would show both the body and the police and photographers standing at the pool's edge. Art director John Meehan experimented until he came up with the idea to shoot the scene through a mirror at the bottom of the studio water tank. From the right angle, the camera could shoot the reflected image in the mirror without ever going underwater itself.

Location scenes at Norma Desmond's mansion were shot not on Sunset Boulevard, but rather on Wilshire Boulevard. The mansion belonged to the second Mrs. J. Paul Getty, who rented it on condition that if she did not like the swimming pool the studio would have to add for the film, they would cover it over and restore the original landscaping. Mrs. Getty's home had to be completely re-decorated to give it the over-sized grandeur needed for the film.

It was von Stroheim who suggested using clips from Queen Kelly (1929) in the film. He also offered other suggestions Wilder used, including the revelation that Max was writing all of Norma's fan mail.

To shoot Swanson and Holden dancing together at her New Year's Eve party, cameraman John Seitz used a dance dolly -- a wheeled platform attached to the camera. It was the same technique he had used to shoot Rudolph Valentino's tango in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921).

When it came time to shoot Norma's visit to Paramount, von Stroheim was embarrassed to admit that he didn't know how to drive. The Isotta-Fraschini had to be pulled around the lot by a tow truck while von Stroheim sat at the wheel. Even then, he managed to steer the car into the Paramount gate.

As a practical joke on screen newcomer Nancy Olson, cast as the young writer who falls for Gillis, Wilder didn't call cut to end a kissing scene she had with Holden. Finally, someone from behind the crew yelled, "Cut!" It was Holden's wife.

Wilder originally approached former star William Haines to play one of Norma's bridge partners. Haines, whose career had ended because of his homosexual off-screen life, was too happy in his new profession as an interior decorator to want to call attention to his past as an actor. In his place, Wilder hired Buster Keaton.

Wilder and producer-writer Charles Brackett almost came to blows over the montage depicting Norma's preparations for her comeback. Brackett thought the sequence was cruel in its emphasis on what age had done to the one-time beauty, but Wilder insisted it was essential to show how driven she was in her pursuit of youth. Wilder won the argument and privately told friends that he would not be making any more films with Brackett. He stayed true to his word.

Originally Wilder wanted both of Hollywood's top gossip columnists -- Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons -- reporting from Norma's mansion at the end and fighting over the phone. Realizing that former actress Hopper would easily dominate the scene, Parsons declined, even though she and Wilder were friends.

When Swanson finished Norma's final scene, the mad staircase descent, she burst into tears and the crew applauded. Even though it wasn't the last scene filmed, Wilder threw a party for her as soon as the shot was finished.

Sunset Blvd finished filming on June 25 with a final cost of $1,572,000. Wilder re-shot a few scenes in July and again in October. He finally finished shooting in January 1950 with re-takes of Swanson's final descent of the staircase.

Originally, the film was to have opened with a scene in the city morgue. Joe's corpse would tell his story to the other dead bodies there. At the end, the film returned to the morgue for a shot of Nancy Olson weeping over Holden's body. But when preview audiences roared at the opening scene, Wilder cut it and had Joe tell the story while his body was still floating in Norma's swimming pool.

Negative audience response to the morgue scene led Paramount to keep the film on the shelf for six months. Finally they tested it again, with the picture opening with police cars arriving at the mansion to find Holden's body. The results were much more encouraging. According to Wilder, the new opening keyed audiences in right away to the film's cynicism.

For the first industry screening of Sunset Blvd, Paramount executives invited several silent film stars. At the end, they stood and cheered for Swanson's comeback.

After seeing Sunset Blvd in a preview, Barbara Stanwyck knelt at Swanson's feet and kissed the hem of her gown.

Some studio heads were less pleased with the film. MGM head Louis B. Mayer screamed at Wilder, "You bastard! You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!" According to rumors, Mayer even tried to buy the film so he could destroy it.

To publicize Sunset Blvd, Paramount sent Swanson on a cross-country tour, paying her $1,000 a week for her services.

by Frank Miller