- I'd always heard you had some talent.
- That was last year. This year I'm trying to earn a living.
There are few partnerships in the history of cinema like the partnership of Billy Wilder
and Charlie Brackett
. The German refugee and the sanguine screenwriter worked like a single entity, producing some of Hollywood’s greatest movies.
One such movie is Sunset Boulevard
. The idea for the movie occurred to Wilder when he was driving through the older part of Hollywood, looking at the cavernous mansions and imagined these stars of the silent screen, “still waving even though the parade had passed them by”. He pitched the idea to Brackett, and the two began work on the story of a silent cinema starlet, and what had happened to her when the pictures had started talking
- Thirty million fans have given her the brush. Isn't that enough?
The movie was codenamed “A Can Of Beans” and was passed off as the adaptation of a short story, due to Wilder’s fear that the Hollywood establishment would never allow their picture to proceed. Strangely, nobody ever asked about A Can Of Beans, and Wilder was allowed to proceed unmolested.
Casting was difficult for the movie. Montgomery Clift was offered the role, but refused, allegedly because he was dating an older woman and didn’t like the parallels. William Holden was someone who Wilder had initially rejected, but eventually accepted. The part of Betty was, in Wilder’s opinion, best played by an unknown, and out of thousands of screen tests, the gorgeous Nancy Olsen was selected.
Casting Norma was the hardest part. In the interest of authenticity, Wilder went for real-life silent stars. Mae West was first approached, but she felt that she had successfully made the transition to talkies. Mary Pickford was approached next. Wilder and Brackett pitched the plot to her, and stopped halfway through when they realised how embarrassed she was. They apologised and left. Next stop was the very beautiful Pola Negri, but they withdrew interest when they discovered what had kept her out of the talkies: her thick Polish accent.
Wilder was a big fan of silent actress Gloria Swanson, but had written her off early because he thought that, like his dream choice Greta Garbo, she had unequivocally retired from acting. When they learned that she was interested, they arranged a screen test, which Swanson refused, citing her twenty pictures for Paramount as screen test enough. According to legend, her friend George Cukor said, "If they ask you to do ten screen tests, do ten screen tests, or I will personally shoot you,"
With the cast in the bag, the movie was ready to shoot.
- I know your face. You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in pictures. You used to be big.
- I am big. It's the pictures that got small.
Essentially, Sunset Boulevard is a movie about the old dilemma of art versus commerce. It’s a dilemma that’s perhaps worst felt by screenwriters, who have an army of people interfering with their work, and studios hungry for a hit.
In one of the most memorable openings in movie history, Joe Gillis explains that this was the situation he found himself in. We know immediately that he didn’t find a resolution, because we see his open-mouthed corpse is floating in a swimming pool, surrounded by bored detectives.
We’re taken back to the start and find that Gillis is the archetypal screenwriter: once a hotshot, now struggling to make his car payments. He begs for jobs, begs for money and begs for respect until circumstances take him to a seemingly-abandoned house on Sunset. In here he meets Norma Desmond, one-time star of silent cinema. She mistakes him for an undertaker who has come to buried her deceased monkey (seriously), but when she discovers that he’s a screenwriter, she asks him to help on her adaptation of Salome, the movie she hopes will bring her back to the limelight.
As their dysfunctional romance develops, another plot thread emerges. Betty, the fiancée of Gillis’s best friend, is a lowly script reader who believes in Joe’s talent and wants to develop one of his ideas into a full movie. He rejects her at first, but gradually becomes more interested in the script, and in Betty herself.
So that’s how the central crisis is played out. Norma is wealthy, having made a killing on property when the town was being born. She can give Joe everything he wants, but in return he must love her and, crucially, can never really write again. Betty offers the hope of liberation and a chance to really develop Joe’s talent, but that journey involves hard work and a trip back to the world of poverty.
Joe’s problem is that he can’t, literally, serve two mistresses, and he must choose between financial security and artistic freedom. He doesn’t know what we know though: which is that his choices will eventually lead to him floating face-down in a pool with two slugs in his belly and one in his back.
- Look at this street. All cardboard, all hollow, all phoney. All done with mirrors. I like it better than any street in the world. Maybe because I used to play here when I was a kid.
WHY SUNSET BOULEVARD IS SO GREAT
is probably Wilder’s greatest movie, which is saying a lot for the man who did The Apartment
, Some Like It Hot
and The Lost Weekend
. It is great mainly for the same reasons that Wilder was great: a deft directorial touch and a literacy that was unprecedented in its time. Sunset Boulevard
is a writer’s movie. The cinematography, the editing and the acting are all overshadowed by the script, which is quite simply one of the best scripts in movie history.
Not that the acting should be overlooked. Nancy Olson didn’t go on to stardom, but is as charismatic and pretty as any star of the day. William Holden’s performance as Joe is calmly measured. You’re never sure at any point whether he’s a hero, an anti-hero or a full-blown villain. Even when he falls in the pool at the end, you still can’t quite be certain if he’s a good guy.
But the star performance, the one they talked about 60 years ago, the one we talk about now, and the one that will be remembered long into the future is Gloria Swanson’s. She plays Norma Desmond as a silent movie character, full of theatrical gestures and dialogue delivered without a care for how it will sound. She simply is Norma Desmond. Some have taken her boisterousness as over-acting but really it’s just a lack of inhibition. Norma is a person who would never whisper or apologise.
Sunset Boulevard is also noteworthy for adding something to the canon of stock characters in movies. Joe Gillis is the template for every screenwriter in Hollywood history. Without him, there would be no The Player, no Barton Fink, no Adaptation. Writers have to be struggling, both with their finances and their desire to be real artists. In a way, the real bitter act of vengeance in this movie is not by silent Hollywood against talking Hollywood, but writers against directors and producers. Certainly, there is no screenwriter alive who hasn’t watched Gillis struggle and thought, “yeah. That’s me.”
The last notable aspect of Sunset Boulevard is the way that it salutes silent cinema just as its stars are headed towards their graves. One of the most moving scenes is when Joe sneeringly dismisses Norma’s bridge partners as “the waxworks”. After this, you see close-ups of three people who might once have been famous, but who are now withered and old. They’re hard to recognise, but the credits list them as Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner and Buster Keaton. Sunset Boulevard was made a time when these people were passing from relevance to history’s footnotes. Swanson’s ultimate victory is to capture the absolute sadness of this; the hopelessness of those who find that machinery has made them obsolete.
What it all adds up it is one of Hollywood’s greatest movies. Standards are subjective, but it’s safe to say this: if you don’t like Sunset Boulevard, you don’t like cinema.
- That's where the popcorn business comes in. You buy yourself a bag and plug up your ears.
The release of Sunset Boulevard
was very, very cautious. Wilder was worried that this would be the picture that would alienate him from his Hollywood friends, so all initial screenings were arranged in the sticks. The world premiere of Sunset Boulevard
took place in Evanston
The movie was a hit, but Wilder has concerned about the reaction to the opening scene. The original opening, described by Wilder as “the best scene I have ever filmed”, showed Joe being wheeled into a morgue and joining in a conversation with the other corpses about how they had died. The Evanston audience had laughed really hard at this and then seemed unsure if the rest of the movie was just a black comedy.
The scene was dropped and replaced with the swimming pool opening. This version was tested in Poughkeepsie, New York. It went down a storm, and Wilder felt he was ready to release.
As one last step, he arranged a final preview in Hollywood for the glitterati. The reaction afterwards was generally positive, although Louis B. Meyer tore strips out of Wilder, telling him that he should be, “tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood.”
Wilder’s response was a terse, “fuck you”.
The movie opened to enormous critical success. Commercial success was a little more mixed: while it played well in cities (it took over $1,000,000 in under two months in Radio City Music Hall, New York), it closed early in other places.
It garnered 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and all of the acting awards. However, it only picked up three: Best Art Direction, Best Score and Best Screenplay.
- I got myself a revolver. You don't believe me, but I did, I did! I stood in front of that mirror, only I couldn't make myself. It wouldn't be fair to all those people who are waiting to see me back on the screen. I can't disappoint them.
was amongst the first batch of movies deemed culturally important by the Library Of Congress
and is now preserved in the National Film Registry
. All of the original prints are now lost, as it was one of the last movies filmed on silver nitrate, all of which have now degraded. It still regularly appears in Best Movies lists. The American Film Institute
rates it as the twelfth greatest movie of the 20th century, while it currently occupies #29 on iMDB
’s 250 Highest-Rated Movies.
I like to think that there is something very personal about Sunset Boulevard, something more important than the awards and the accolades. I like this theory, because it fits with the movie itself. While Hollywood and success and fame pass by us on the street, we’re alone in the abandoned house with Norma.
The characters of Norma, Joe and Betty form that neat Freudian triumvirate of the Superego, Ego and Id which recur in a lot of storytelling. Everyone who watches the movie will probably identify with one of the three characters. Even if you don’t, the movie has other things: sumptuous photography; a noir ethic; great acting; amazing writing. It is magnificent. It is a sad love song to an older world that was then breathing its last.
- Do you mind, Mr. DeMille, if I say a few words? Thank you. I just want to tell you how happy I am to be back in the studio making a picture again. You don't know how much I've missed all of you. And I promise you I'll never desert you again, because after "Salome" we'll make another picture, and another and another. You see, this is my life. It always will be. There's nothing else - just us and the cameras and those wonderful people out there in the dark. Alright, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup...