A thrilling masterpiece that contains one of cinema’s most iconic performances
“Sunset Boulevard” provides such a richly enthralling viewing experience, it makes any discussion about it seem superficial. This is a film to watch. Named after one of Los Angeles’ twisting streets, “Sunset Boulevard” takes unexpected turns in story and emotions, making for a spellbinding ride down the dark side of Hollywood. One of cinema’s true masterpieces, this film features the writing and directing of a legend, the musical score of a master, spectacular art direction and costumes, luminous cinematography, and astounding performances - including one of the silver screen's most famous portrayals by its lead actress. This film is gripping, funny and emotional all at once. Cinema doesn’t get much better than this. Nominated for eleven Academy Awards including Best Picture (and winner of three), “Sunset Boulevard” is regularly hailed as one of the best films ever made, and is rated at #16 on AFI’s list of “The 100 Greatest American Films Of All Time”. It is also one of my very favorites.
"Sunset Boulevard" follows the escapades of down-and-out Hollywood screenwriter “Joe Gillis”. He is behind on his bills, out of money, and desperate for work. Through a series of events, he meets an incredibly wealthy former silent film star, “Norma Desmond”, who is delusional, out of step with the present, and is clinging to her long gone days of glory and fame. “Norma" is accompanied by “Max”, her stoic and reserved butter who takes care of everything to the finest detail, always seeming to appear out of nowhere. Along the way “Joe” also meets "Betty", an enthusiastic script reader wanting to turn writer. This sordid cast of characters lead us through a daring look at the hungry, heartless, and corrupt side of Hollywood, and the lengths people will go to for success and survival. It was the first film to take a cruel, harsh look at the opportunistic and exploitative side of the film business. Anyone who has been in the business knows that much of this film rings true, even today.
One of the many ingenious aspects of “Sunset Boulevard” is how expertly it blurs reality. The most clever and confusing mix of fantasy and reality is with the film's casting. I'll talk more about that below. In addition, famous people and films, such as “Gone with the Wind”, “King Kong”, “The Naked and the Dead”, Betty Hutton, Adolphe Menjou, Rudolph Valentino, Greta Garbo, and many more, are rattled off, devilishly placing this film half in the real Hollywood. The locations are a slice of Hollywood history, using actual places such as: Paramount Studios' backlot and Bronson Gate; the now demolished true former industry hangout, Schwab's Drug Store (famous for the myth of movie star Lana Turner being discovered at its soda fountain); the Alto Nido Apartments which still stand today; and of course the actual Sunset Boulevard. “Norma’s” house was filmed in a real mansion built in the 1920s (not actually on Sunset Boulevard), later bought by J. Paul Getty and occupied by one of his former wives at the time of shooting. The studio built the pool for the film, and the house and pool were used in another classic, “Rebel without a Cause” (also on this blog). Only the exterior of the house was used in “Sunset Boulevard”. The interiors were gorgeous sets which won that year's Best Art Direction/Set Design Academy Award.
“Sunset Boulevard’s'” Academy Award winning, sharp-witted script was co-written by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman Junior. Wilder and Brackett were already a flourishing writing team and a major force in Hollywood, and had been recently named among the happiest and most successful teams in the business. Wilder always wrote with a partner, and until 1950, Brackett was his most frequent. Having hit a creative block, they asked former Life Magazine reporter Marshman for help. Marshman got them out of their funk and came up with several concepts, including the idea of the main character becoming a gigolo. This was Marshman’s first screenplay, and he would write just two more. After an immensely successful run (having co-written twelve prior films including "Ninotchka", "Hold Back the Dawn", "The Major and the Minor", and "The Lost Weekend" - for which they each won Oscars), “Sunset Boulevard” was the final collaboration between Wilder and Brackett. In a 1996 “The Paris Review” interview by James Linville, Wilder had this to say about the breakup, "After ‘Sunset Boulevard’, Brackett and I parted friends. Twelve years together, but the split had been coming… One of us said, Look, whatever I have to give and whatever you have to offer, it’s just not enough. We can end on the good note of ‘Sunset Boulevard’. A picture that was revolutionary for its day”. Wilder, who was a writer/director, directed “Sunset Boulevard”, and Brackett, who was a writer/producer, produced it, and both received Academy Award nominations respectively, for Best Director and Best Picture.
Billy Wilder’s direction and vision for “Sunset Boulevard” is fearless - from his extended opening shot focusing on the cracks and dirt of the street, to his conception and execution of “Norma” and “Max” who go for the jugular in their unsentimental treatment of former Hollywood royalty. Wilder also takes a subtle jab at television (which was then on the rise) in one of the film’s most famous lines when “Norma” responds to “Joe's” statement,”You used to be big”, and she retorts, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small”. Even with its humor, this was the first film to look brutally at Hollywood, and Wilder got some flack from the industry. There were reports that the film made some silent film industry people upset and uncomfortable, and at an early screening, MGM Studio Chief Louis B. Mayer is quoted to have said, "You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!”. Regardless, “Sunset Boulevard” was a critical and financial success. It is a film so finely crafted that despite his troubles with Brackett, it’s clear Wilder was at the top of his game. He was one of the true great movie-making wizards, and his resume is filled with classic films (and “Sunset Boulevard” is the third to be featured on this blog). You can read more about Billy Wilder in my two previous posts, “Double Indemnity” and “Some Like It Hot”.
“Sunset Boulevard” stars William Holden as writer, “Joe Gillis”. Holden was not the first choice for this film, as Montgomery Clift was set to play the role but backed out a few weeks before shooting (reportedly at the advice of his agent who thought the film would hurt his career). That was a life-altering break for Holden. He had gotten his first glimpse of fame in 1939 with the film, “Golden Boy”, and about two dozen unremarkable films and roles later, he was no longer on the radar of movie audiences. That all changed with “Sunset Boulevard”. It earned him the first of three Oscar nominations (he won in 1953 for another Wilder film, “Stalag 17”), and it was the start of his rise to becoming one of the biggest stars of the decade. He was also in the classic comedy, “Born Yesterday” the same year as “Sunset Boulevard”, and you can read more about him in my post about that film, as well as my post on "The Bridge on the River Kwai". When you can peel your eyes away from “Norma”, you will see that Holden gives one of the best performances of his career. As “Joe”, the sharped tongued, cynical and desperate writer, he brings a relaxed sincerity and likability to a lost man who finds himself demoralized. There’s an inner complexity to the role, and Holden brings a naive innocence to someone who's been around the block. Even though Holden is reserved, you can feel "Joe's" discomfort and inner conflict throughout the film. Particularly striking are when he tries to hide his distress at the New Year’s party, and when in the backseat of “Norma’s” car as she decides to buy him new clothes. As "Joe" chews his gum and listens, his inner discord and outward reactions are wonderful. “Joe” is the film’s central character, and Holden skillfully holds the film together through a finely delicate performance.
Gloria Swanson astonishes as “Norma Desmond”, the now forgotten fictitious silent screen star. Her portrayal is one of the most glorious, grandiose, and believable ever put on celluloid. Swanson manages to combine over-the-top theatricality with emotional honesty - very fitting for a former silent actress losing her grip on reality. There is immense detail in her performance, from the way she sits and walks, to the way she uses her claw-like hands as if constantly reaching for something solid to hold on to. A throwaway moment indicative of Swanson’s monumental talent, is the way she gives a lightening quick look at her “waxworks” guests after “Joe” walks away having just asked for money. Swanson does it with the mark of an actor with complete concentration. She manages to induce sympathy for this troubled diva, and has several very emotional scenes. In particular are the scenes in which “Norma” goes to Paramount Studios to meet Cecil B. DeMille. That entire sequence is filled with emboldened, off-kilter nostalgia, and heartbreak. It is deeply moving and alone worth the price of admission.
Accepting the role of “Norma” was incredibly brave, for like “Norma”, Swanson was a preeminent silent film star who had been out of the public’s consciousness for decades, and she also had been directed by DeMille and Eric von Stroheim (who plays "Max"). The film clip shown and all the photographs of young "Norma" are all of Swanson in her silent heyday. Because of this expert infusing of reality, and how realistically Swanson inhabits the role, it seems like "Norma" is the forgotten Swanson, and vice versa. To this day, many people confuse the two. The opposite couldn’t be more true. Swanson said in an interview, “There’s one thing that was true in the picture, that is that I always called Mr. DeMille, Mr. DeMille, and he always called me 'young fellow'. And I worked for him. The rest of it was pure nonsense as far as my life was concerned. I’m not a recluse, I’m not interested in the past, I don’t have a Mr. Max as an ex-husband, I don’t live like that - I never have, and I haven’t anyone floating in a pool”. As someone who reportedly always looked to the future, Swanson saw the value of the script and didn’t flinch at accepting the part. And she was not the first choice, or the second, or third. Among those who turned down the role was Mary Pickford (arguably the all-time biggest female silent screen star), who according to John McElwee’s book, “Showmen, Sell It Hot!”, walked out of a screening of the film prior to the lights coming up. For her immortal performance, Swanson received her third and final Best Actress Academy Award nomination (her second for a sound film), never taking home a statue. It should be mentioned that “Sunset Boulevard” came out the same year as “All About Eve”, another filmic masterpiece (and the first film on this blog), which won the bulk of that year’s Oscars. Bette Davis (the star of “All About Eve”) and Swanson were the favorites to win but lost to Judy Holliday in her star-making role in “Born Yesterday” (also on this blog). Davis publicly said that she thought her own performance cancelled out Swanson’s leaving Holliday as the winner. While I understand her sentiment, that doesn’t take into account Holliday’s overwhelmingly brilliant performance. Each of these three women gave mesmerizing, iconic performances in these three films, leaving three indelible marks in cinema.
Not intending to be an actress, Gloria Swanson accompanied her aunt to a Chicago movie studio when she was fifteen years old. Because of her beauty, she was picked out of the crowd by chance and given a small part as an extra. After a couple more film appearances, she moved to Hollywood and began working for Mack Sennett in comedy shorts (to which she pays homage in "Sunset Boulevard", complete with umbrella). Between 1919 and 1921, Swanson starred in six Cecil B. DeMille films and became the queen of Paramount Studios (another similarity to “Norma”), film's highest paid actress, and was considered the most bankable of her era. She became a superstar, and fan magazines exposed her marriages, divorces, extravagant spending habits (and more) to gossip starved moviegoers. Realizing audiences became more interested in her lavish costumes than her acting, and bored with the non-challenging roles she was being given, Swanson took matters into her own hands. Not just a pretty face but also a shrewd business woman, she created her own production company, “Gloria Swanson Productions”. One of her standout roles at this point was in the 1928 silent film, “Sadie Thompson”, for which she earned her first Best Actress Academy Award nomination. It was the very first year of the Oscars, and she lost to Janet Gaynor for “Sunrise” (a film also on this blog). Swanson was able to make the transition easily from silents to sound and earned her second Best Actress Oscar nomination for the 1929 sound film, “The Trespasser”.
After that, her career took a dive. Swanson appeared in only a half dozen more films until1934, before heading into semi-retirement. A few years later she moved to New York, began appearing on stage, starred in one film (“Father Takes a Wife” in 1941), and had her own local TV Show in 1948, “The Gloria Swanson Hour”. Even though she was working, she was hardly in the public eye, and “Sunset Boulevard” was considered her historic comeback. She was offered subsequent roles but turned them down, as they were veiled copies of “Norma Desmond”. Instead she painted, sculpted, wrote, toured in theater, created and marketed her own clothing line, and appeared on radio and TV. After “Sunset Boulevard” she would appear in just three more films, including her final appearance playing herself in the all-star disaster film, “Airport 1975”. Though many of her silent films are considered lost, some of her other notable films include "Beyond the Rocks", "Male and Female ", and "Something To Think About “. She was a spiritual woman who claimed to be psychic, and was an early health food advocate and vegetarian. She was married six times, including her first marriage to actor Wallace Beery. She also had a three year relationship with Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (the father of President John F. Kennedy) who arranged the financing for a couple of her films. Gloria Swanson died in 1983 at the age of 84.
Another stroke of boldly clever casting was having Erich von Stroheim play “Max von Mayerling”, “Norma’s” slightly macabre butter. Stern yet caring, “Max” seems to materialize out of the mansion’s cold cavernous rooms, and always just in the nick of time. Like the house and its contents (including “Norma”), “Max” has an air of mystery and secrets. Stroheim is fantastic in this role, often pulling focus when he is in the frame. His performance is deeply nuanced, and you can feel “Max’s” profound sorrow underneath his dependability. The scene in which “Max” catches “Joe” in the garage is especially heartbreaking, as Stroheim shows a sensitive side under his tough exterior. The dialogue in that scene is painfully real, as at one point “Max” tells “Joe”, “There were three young directors who showed promise in those days, D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and ‘Max von Mayerling’”. In actuality, there were three directors showing promise in those days - Griffith, DeMille and Erich von Stroheim. Like Swanson, it was brave for Stroheim to tackle this role, and he did it flawlessly, and earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination - his one and only. Like "Max", Stroheim made his mark during the silent era and his career had since faded.
Endowed with an innate sense of drama, Erich von Stroheim was considered a difficult and obsessive genius, and important visionary who brought a more mature realism and sexuality to the screen. Not much is confirmed about his early years (due to Stroheim fabricating and reinventing his past) other than he was born in Austria to a Jewish family. He eventually made his way to California where he started in the film business as an actor, and soon an assistant to renowned silent film director D.W. Griffith, assisting, consulting, and appearing in several of Griffith’s films. He kept playing evil villains with a bit of charm, and became famously known as “The Man You Love to Hate”. Being ambitious, in 1919 he convinced Universal Studios to let him direct and star in a feature film he wrote titled “The Pinnacle”. He gave them the script and his services as director for free, and was paid only as an actor. It was a hit and a cinematic breakthrough, bringing newly complex inner emotions and heightened sexuality onto the screen. It established Stroheim as a director with his own style and flair. Without him knowing, Universal changed the film’s title to "Blind Husbands”, over which he was furious. It would be the beginning of studio meddling and interference which would plague his entire directing career. In 1922, his over three hour film "Foolish Wives” was also a huge hit, and it established Universal as a major studio. However, this sex melodrama was considered scandalous and the studio shortened the film and changed the story for its rerelease. It was the first film to cost $1 million to make. One of his strengths and curses as a director was being a stickler for detail. A driven perfectionist who demanded accuracy (if caviar was supposed to be in a bowl on the table, it had to be real caviar), all of his films went over budget and over schedule. His 1924 film “Greed” (rediscovered in the 1950s) is recognized as being one of the masterpieces of cinema, even though it was reedited by MGM without Stroheim’s approval (from 4.5 hours to about 2 hours before its release). Stroheim was devastated. Much of what they cut was destroyed and is considered lost. Reports by the few people who saw "Greed's" original cut concurred it was the greatest film they ever saw and would ever see. The released version was a financial failure. In his career he would be fired from Universal, Paramount, and MGM Studios (often before finishing a film), but not without making a cinematic mark.
With no studio willing to hire him as a director, Gloria Swanson approached him in 1928 to direct a film for her production company, and they worked on “Queen Kelly”. Already over budget, and worried about the direction Stroheim was taking the film (a dancehall soon became a brothel), she walked off the set and filming stopped. Stroheim was fired. She tried several times on her own to complete the film, and in 1932 it was release in only Europe and South America in a version that included some sound, some new footage, and a different ending than Stroheim’s. In his book, “Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard”, Sam Staggs had this to say, “Had Stroheim not been fired, the picture left unfinished, and if it had not dealt a horrid blow to Swanson’s career, it might be discussed in the same breath as, say, ‘Way Down East’ or even ‘Citizen Kane’. But he was fired, his directing career finished. Swanson didn’t regain her professional balance until 1950….”. It is ironically morbid that the film clip used in "Sunset Boulevard" (when "Norma" and "Joe" watch one of her silent films) is from “Queen Kelly”. “Max” runs the projector, and “Norma” rises up, exclaiming "I'll show them! I'll be up there again so help me!” - a poignant scene on many levels. Virtually banned from directing, Stroheim continued to act in films, including Jean Renoir’s French 1937 classic, “La Grande Illusion” (his best remembered acting role next to “Sunset Boulevard”). After “Sunset Boulevard”, he moved to France where he became a film star once again. He acted in just over 70 films in his career and directed only about a dozen, yet his impact on the medium as a director was giant. He was a man ahead of his time. Stroheim was married three times. Erich von Stroheim died in 1957 at the age of 71.
Nancy Olson plays “Betty Schaefer”, the optimistic, ambitious, screenwriter wannabe. Olson does a supreme job embodying the youthful spirit and hopefulness of someone beginning to carve their way to success. “Betty” plays an important role, showing us wholesome innocence in danger of being compromised. She has a sublime scene at night on the Paramount lot with “Joe”, talking about her nose. Olson is completely natural, believable, and sweet. Her character is like a light that hasn’t yet been dimmed by Hollywood. This was Olson’s second film role, and it earned her a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination - her only one. Discovered on stage, Nancy Olson was signed by Paramount Studios where she became a contract player. After one uncredited role, she appeared in 1940’s "Canadian Pacific”, and was subsequently cast in “Sunset Boulevard”. She worked again opposite Holden in three more films, all within the next year. Beginning in 1954 she would work primarily on television, with a few films here and there, including several 1960's Walt Disney classics ("Pollyanna", "The Absent Minded Professor", and "Son of Flubber”). She also appeared in “Airport 1975”, along with Swanson. To date she has forty four credits to her name. As of the writing of this entry, Nancy Olson is 92 years old. She was married twice (once widowed).
Another element that keeps alive the fantasy that “Sunset Boulevard” is part documentary are the film’s numerous cameo appearances by famous film legends. I’ll just mention some of them briefly. Legendary silent and sound film director Cecil B. DeMille plays himself. When “Norma” visits him in the film, DeMille was actually filming “Samson and Delilah" (which would be released just before “Sunset Boulevard”), and most of the crew and actors shown were the actual cast and crew of “Samson and Delilah”. Actress turned Hollywood gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper plays herself at the end of the film, reporting on the events involving “Norma”. And then there are the bridge players “Joe” refers to as “dim figures you may still remember from the silent days”. The three “waxworks” as he calls them, were Anna Q. Nilsson, H. B. Warner, and Buster Keaton. All were former silent film superstars, still working, though largely considered forgotten. In her youth, Anna Q. Nilsson was recognized as one of the most beautiful women in the world. She became a film actress and made it to the very top, until she had a major leg injury in 1928, virtually destroying her leading lady career. While the bulk of her work was in silent films, she did continue to work in sound, including her final role (uncredited) in the classic 1954 musical, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. H. B. Warner was also a prolific actor, appearing in well over 100 films from 1900 until 1956. During the silent era, he is best remembered for playing “Jesus - the Christ” in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 silent classic, “The King of Kings”. Warner worked steadily in sound films in smaller roles, including as "Mr. Gower" the pharmacist in "It's a Wonderful Life", a film previously featured on this blog. Buster Keaton, one of cinema’s comedic geniuses, was also working steadily at the time, and you can read about him in last week’s post, “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”. Keaton was also an actual tournament level bridge player.
I must say a word about “Sunset Boulevard’s” Oscar winning film score by one film’s top composers, Franz Waxman. The score is one of the most perfect marriages of images and music I’ve seen, adding mystery, emotion, and a streak of darkness. The music is so well blended it sometimes goes unnoticed. Once aware, it is shocking how exquisitely it enhances every aspect of the film. The German born Franz Waxman, was a composer who wrote music for close to 200 films. He was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, winning two (for this film, and the following year for “A Place in the Sun”, also on this blog). Just some of the other classics for which he composed include “Rebecca” (also on this blog), “The Bride of Frankenstein”, "Stalag 17”, “Rear Window”, “Peyton Place”, "Humoresque", "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", "Suspicion", "Mister Roberts ", and "Come Back, Little Sheba“. A truly gifted composer, Waxman’s contribution to film is immeasurable. He was married twice. Franz Waxman died in 1967 at the age of 60.
Edith Head designed the film’s costumes, which thoroughly enrich the characters and the film without overpowering it. I’ve written about her several times in previous posts (“A Place in the Sun”, “The Heiress”, “Double Indemnity”, “Hud”, and “Roman Holiday”) where you can read more about her.
In addition to its three Academy Award wins (Best Screenplay, Art Direction and Score), and its nominations for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, and the four acting Oscar nominations as mentioned above, “Sunset Boulevard” was also nominated for a Best Film Editing Oscar.
This film and “Norma Desmond” have become part of the zeitgeist, often imitated and emulated in other films, cartoons and TV shows. In the 1990s, an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical version of the film was produced in London, followed by Broadway where it won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
You are about to see a pinnacle in filmmaking, acting, and entertainment. It is one heck of a great film! Enjoy “Sunset Boulevard”!
This blog is a weekly series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that by doing so, a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity with important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications each Tuesday of every subsequently recommended film. At the bottom of the Home page you can also find a list of all films currently on this site. Please share this blog, and subscribe so you can see which classic film will be revealed each week. Thanks so much for reading!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
“Sunset Boulevard” has become iconic pretty much from beginning to end - from its dead man in a swimming pool opening, to “Norma’s” descent down the stairs into madness. Several of the film’s lines of dialogue are in themselves iconic, and two have made it onto AFI's list of “The 100 Greatest Movie Quotes Of All Time”:
"All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up” is ranked at #7
"I am big! It's the pictures that got small”. is ranked at #24