#1) Sunset Boulevard (1950)

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#1) Sunset Boulevard (1950)

OR “Under Norma Circumstances”

Directed by Billy Wilder

Written by Wilder & Charles Brackett & D.M. Marshman Jr.

Class of 1989

This is a revised and expanded version of my original “Sunset Boulevard” post, which you can read here.

The Plot: As narrated by a corpse floating in a Hollywood swimming pool, jaded screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) finds himself at the mansion of former silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her devoted butler Max (Erich von Stroheim). In need of a job, Joe agrees to help Norma pen her comeback vehicle, while she regularly relives her glory days and becomes Joe’s sugar mama. Later, script girl/aspiring writer Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olsen) sees potential in one of Joe’s screenplays, and the two begin a professional and personal relationship. But is Joe in too deep with Norma’s delusions to return to the real world? What part of “narrated by a corpse” didn’t you get?

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “the greatest movie about Hollywood” and praises the “brilliant dialog, decadent production design and wide-ranging acting styles”.

But Does It Really?: The truly great movies defy their own genre. “Sunset Boulevard” isn’t just a drama or film noir, it’s both, plus a gothic horror film and a black comedy, and it succeeds on every front. The airtight screenplay lays a solid foundation amplified by Wilder’s polished direction and flawless performances from Holden, Swanson, and von Stroheim. Like many of the first 25 NFR films, “Sunset Boulevard” is an untouchable classic, and the epitome of greatness in film.

Shout Outs: Quick references to “Gone with the Wind” and “King Kong”, plus the Washington Square set from “The Heiress”!

Everybody Gets One: 30 years, 750 movies, and this is still Gloria Swanson’s only NFR appearance. Like Norma, Swanson was one of Hollywood’s biggest silent film stars. Unlike Norma, Swanson knew that “talkies” were here to stay, and moved to New York to work on radio and television. Her film career was long over when Wilder approached her about “Sunset Boulevard”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Shoutout to Hollywood hangout Schwab’s Pharmacy, plus “The Young Lions”, Elsa Maxwell, the song “Buttons and Bows” (sung by its composers!) and a “too soon” joke about Joe being a “Black Dhalia suspect”.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Sunset Boulevard” was an instant hit, and scored 11 Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), second to “All About Eve” and its record-breaking 14. “Eve” took home the big prizes, but “Sunset” managed three wins: Original Screenplay, Art Direction, and Score. In a fiercely competitive Best Actress category, Gloria Swanson lost to newcomer Judy Holliday for “Born Yesterday”.

Other notes

  • Is it “Sunset Boulevard” or “Sunset Blvd.”? The poster spells out the word, but the on-screen title is the abbreviation. Make up your mind, iconic classic!
  • It was a logistical nightmare to get the shot of Holden floating in the pool, but man was it worth it.
  • Of course three screenwriters would see themselves as a rugged Bill Holden type.
  • Speaking of, Wilder & Brackett were an established writing team at this point; third writer Marshman was a journalist who impressed the two with his critique of “The Emperor Waltz”. Who says filmmakers and critics can’t get along?
  • As soon as the movie gets to the mansion, we are in full haunted house mode. Kudos to everyone, especially cinematographer John F. Seitz and composer Franz Waxman. Sadly, the “Phantom House” was demolished in 1957 to make way for high-rise office buildings.
  • “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.” Swanson nails her character right from the start. She starts off theatrical but not over-the-top (difficult to pull off), so she has somewhere to go at the end.
  • 50-year-old Norma wants to play twentysomething Salome? What’s next, directing and starring in another remake of “Gypsy”?
  • Everyone’s favorite meta-reference: the silent movie Norma screens for Joe is 1928’s “Queen Kelly”, starring Gloria Swanson and directed by Erich von Stroheim.
  • Norma’s bridge-playing waxworks are real-life silent film stars Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner. Even with one line, Keaton’s hilarious.
  • Joe mentions that his birthday is December 21st, and he’s around to celebrate New Year’s with Norma. Was he at the mansion for his birthday? And what’s Christmas like at the Desmond residence? I hope Norma didn’t spend too much on gifts for the monkey.
  • That’s a young, surprisingly cheerful Jack Webb as Artie. I guess he knows a guy at the Bureau of Missing Persons.
  • Everyone’s great, but Nancy Olsen is the underrated gem. As a character, Betty is the polar opposite of Norma: young, practical, down-to-earth, and adaptable to the changing politics of Hollywood. Olsen nails every aspect of the character, and it’s a shame she never became a bigger name.
  • Gloria Swanson does a really good Chaplin imitation. Didn’t see that coming.
  • Legendary director Cecil B. DeMille appears as himself, on the set of his actual film “Samson and Delilah”. Riffing on his past collaborations with Swanson, DeMille turns out to be a fine actor and scene partner for Norma.
  • How does one get the nickname “Hog-Eye”?
  • Apparently von Stroheim was always dismissive of his own performance in this film. But why? Max doesn’t have a lot to do, but von Stroheim gets the character’s mystic (and ultimate sadness) down pat.
  • The shot of Norma spying on Joe as he says goodbye to Betty gives me the chills every time.
  • My one gripe with the film comes during “All right Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” Right after this line, they cut away from Norma to Max, and then back to Norma. I suspect this was done to piece together the best parts of two separate takes, but it does rob the final moments of their power just a little bit. Other than that, great movie.

Legacy

  • Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett parted ways after “Sunset”, following a dispute the two had during production. Wilder’s next picture was “Ace in the Hole”, but he’d have to wait until his collaboration with I.A.L. Diamond to get his next bona-fide classic: “Some Like It Hot”.
  • “Sunset Boulevard” put Gloria Swanson back in the limelight, but not for long. Swanson turned down many pictures, all of them asking her to play a Norma Desmond-type, and retired from film again. She eventually reunited with “Sunset” co-star Nancy Olsen in…“Airport 1975”?
  • Along with his work in “Born Yesterday”, William Holden also benefited from the success of “Sunset”. He would win an Oscar for another Wilder film: 1953’s “Stalag 17”.
  • The first attempt at musicalizing “Sunset” in the ‘50s (with a happy ending) fell through, but the film finally made it to the stage with the ‘90s Andrew Lloyd Webber composition. It correctly expands the material to operatic stature.
  • Half of all “Carol Burnett Show” sketches were Carol as “Nora Desmond” and Harvey Korman as “Max”.
  • David Lynch references “Sunset Boulevard” throughout his work, most notably in the similarly titled “Mulholland Dr.”.
  • Submitted for your approval, “Sunset Boulevard” inspired not one, but two episodes of…“The Twilight Zone”.
  • And of course, everyone who has told Mr. DeMille they are ready for their close-up.

16 thoughts on “#1) Sunset Boulevard (1950)”

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