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Synopsis: Joe Gillis is a down-and-out screenwriter who can't pay his bills. While hiding his car from a finance company, he stumbles across a decaying mansion on Sunset Boulevard and hides there, assuming it to be uninhabited. He discovers that it is the home of silent movie queen Norma Desmond, who is lost in her dreams of former glory. Her servant and former director Max von Mayerling helps preserve her fragile illusions. Desperate for money, Gillis agrees to work on the script for her supposed comeback vehicle and finds himself becoming a kept man to the possessive movie star. On the sly he meets with the idealistic young studio script reader Betty Schaefer, who likes one of his projects, and the two gradually fall in love. Norma Desmond, however, grows increasingly suspicious and jealous, setting the stage for a fateful confrontation.
Hollywood has always been fascinated by tales about its own cruelty, and Sunset Boulevard (1950) is the most ruthless Hollywood tale of them all. In the opening shot the camera tilts down over a sidewalk to reveal the words "SUNSET BLVD" painted on the curb, above a street gutter littered with dead leaves. Not only does a dead man narrate the film, but the story's many "has-beens" are played by actual stars of the silent era. One of Norma Desmond's card-playing friends is none other than the great comedian Buster Keaton. H. B. Warner is best known for his performance as Jesus in Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings (1927), though he was hardly a has-been, considering his steady and prolific career throughout the Thirties and Forties. The Swedish-born Anna Q. Nilsson, the third of Norma Desmond's "waxworks," was known for her roles in the early Raoul Walsh feature Regeneration (1915) and the William S. Hart vehicle The Toll Gate (1920). Norma Desmond's name was derived from silent comedienne Mabel Normand and her husband William Desmond Taylor. Significantly, the latter was murdered in 1922 under mysterious circumstances in what became one of the most notorious Hollywood scandals of the silent era, contributing to the establishment of the Hays Office that same year.
An even crueler irony was at work in the casting of Erich von Stroheim as the former director turned butler Max von Mayerling, who was unmistakably modeled after Stroheim himself. The brief clip of the Norma Desmond film that Max screens for her and Joe Gillis is, fittingly, Queen Kelly (1929), Stroheim's last major directorial effort, a starring vehicle for Gloria Swanson produced by her lover Joseph Kennedy. That film was halted mid-production because of Stroheim's excesses; in particular, Swanson objected to perverse elements in the plot such as making her character the inheritor of a brothel. Stroheim, in fact, directed one more film, the sound feature Walking Down Broadway (1933), which Fox Studios reshot, re-edited and re-titled Hello, Sister.
According to Ed Sikov, author of the well-researched and snappily written biography On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, screenwriter and producer Charles Brackett insisted that Swanson was the first choice for the crucial role of Norma Desmond from the very start. Wilder claimed that he initially wanted Mae West and also considered Pola Negri and Mary Pickford before settling on Swanson. At any rate, the choice of Swanson was felicitous since Cecil B. DeMille had previously directed her in lavish silent vehicles such as Don't Change Your Husband (1919), Male and Female (1919) and The Affairs of Anatole (1921). He had also completed the Biblical epic Samson and Delilah (1949) a few months before Sunset Boulevard began shooting, a detail which Wilder and Brackett worked ingeniously into the film's plot. Swanson herself proved fearless in her interpretation of the aging star, encompassing the grotesque, the vulnerable and ultimately the tragic aspects of her character.
William Holden's performance, particularly his sardonic voiceover narration, embodies the cynicism at the core of Wilder's work, and today it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role of Joe Gillis. However, originally Wilder assigned the lead to Montgomery Clift; after initially accepting the part, Clift backed down because of the age difference between him and Swanson. (Clift was 28 and Swanson was 50 at the time production began in the spring of 1949.) Some sources state that Fred MacMurray was also considered at one point.
Everyone remembers Sunset Boulevard for its performances and its endlessly quotable dialogue ("I am big. It's the pictures that got small."), but the film is best appreciated as a work of cinema in which all the elements are meticulously coordinated. Billy Wilder may not have the flamboyant visual style of, say, Alfred Hitchcock, but his direction is fluid and expressive, moving from shockingly direct imagery such as an underwater view of a corpse floating in a pool to more subtle effects such as using camera placement to draw the viewer's attention to a pair of doors in which the locks have been removed after we learn of Norma Desmond's history of suicide attempts. The art direction by Hans Dreier and John Meehan brilliantly evokes the decaying grandeur of a bygone era; for those lucky enough to see a good 35mm print of the film, its rich detail is unforgettable. Franz Waxman's musical score, alternating between tense orchestral tuttis and a sly, jazz-inflected piano theme--associated mainly with the character of Gillis--is among the best of his career.
As has since become widely recounted, a preview version of the film opened with Gillis in the morgue, sitting up from his slab and conversing with the other cadavers. When audiences laughed at this scene during a preview screening, it was replaced with the now-famous shot of Gillis' corpse floating in the pool. Wilder evidently liked the device of having a dead man tell his tale, since he used it again in an early draft of his next film, arguably the most ruthless satire of his entire career: Ace in the Hole (1951).
After a preview screening Louis B. Mayer is said to have berated Billy Wilder for airing Hollywood's dirty laundry, saying something along the lines of: "You bastard! You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood." Mayer's outrage was a sure sign of the film's future success; it became one of the most admired pictures of its day, receiving nominations for Best Picture, Actor (Holden), Actress (Swanson), Supporting Actor (Stroheim), Supporting Actress (Olson), Cinematography and Editing. Ultimately it won awards for Best Story and Screenplay, Score and Art Direction. A more dubious honor, perhaps, was Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical adaptation that bowed on the London stage in 1993 with Patti LuPone in the lead. Still, Sunset Boulevard seems ageless even if Norma Desmond, tragically, was not.
Producer: Charles Brackett
Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman, Jr.
Photography: John F. Seitz
Editing: Arthur Schmidt
Music: Franz Waxman
Costumes: Edith Head
Art Direction: Hans Dreier and John Meehan
Principal cast: William Holden (Joe Gillis), Gloria Swanson (Norma Desmond), Erich von Stroheim (Max Von Mayerling), Nancy Olson (Betty Schaefer), Fred Clark (Sheldrake), Lloyd Gough (Morino), Jack Webb (Artie Green), Franklyn Farnum (Undertaker), Larry Blake (first finance man), Charles Dayton (second finance man), Cecil B. DeMille (himself), Buster Keaton (himself), Anna Q. Nilsson (herself), H. B. Warner (himself), Hedda Hopper (herself), Ray Evans (himself).
BW-111m. Closed captioning.
by James Steffen