Sunset Boulevard (film)

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Sunset Boulevard
SunsetBoulevardfilmposter.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Billy Wilder
Produced by Charles Brackett
Written by
Starring
Music by Franz Waxman
Cinematography John F. Seitz
Edited by
Production
company
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • August 10, 1950 (1950-08-10)
Running time
110 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$1.75 million
Box office$5 million

Sunset Boulevard (stylized onscreen as SUNSET BLVD.) is a 1950 American film noir [1] directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, and produced and co-written by Charles Brackett. It was named after the thoroughfare with the same name that runs through Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, California.

Film noir Cinematic term mainly referring to stylish early 1920s–late 1950s Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those emphasizing cynical attitudes and sexual motivations

Film noir is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations. The 1940s and 1950s are generally regarded as the "classic period" of American film noir. Film noir of this era is associated with a low-key, black-and-white visual style that has roots in German Expressionist cinematography. Many of the prototypical stories and much of the attitude of classic noir derive from the hardboiled school of crime fiction that emerged in the United States during the Great Depression.

Billy Wilder American filmmaker

Billy Wilder was an Austrian-born American filmmaker, screenwriter, producer, artist, and journalist whose career spanned more than five decades. He is regarded as one of the most brilliant and versatile filmmakers of the Hollywood Golden Age of cinema. With The Apartment, Wilder became the first person to win Academy Awards as producer, director, and screenwriter for the same film.

Charles Brackett writer, Screenwriter

Charles William Brackett was an American novelist, screenwriter, and film producer, best known for his long collaboration with Billy Wilder.

Contents

The film stars William Holden as Joe Gillis, an unsuccessful screenwriter, and Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, a faded silent-film star who draws him into her fantasy world, where she dreams of making a triumphant return to the screen. Erich von Stroheim plays Max von Mayerling, her devoted servant, and Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough, and Jack Webb play supporting roles. Director Cecil B. DeMille and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper play themselves, and the film includes cameo appearances by leading silent-film actors Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner, and Anna Q. Nilsson.

William Holden American actor

William Holden was an American actor who was one of the biggest box-office draws of the 1950s and 1960s. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for the film Stalag 17 (1953), and a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie for the television film The Blue Knight (1973). Holden starred in some of Hollywood's most popular and critically acclaimed films, including Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Wild Bunch, Picnic, and Network. He was named one of the "Top 10 Stars of the Year" six times, and appeared as 25th on the American Film Institute's list of 25 greatest male stars of Classic Hollywood Cinema.

Screenwriter Writer who writes for TV, films, comics and games

A screenplay writer, scriptwriter or scenarist is a writer who practices the craft of screenwriting, writing screenplays on which mass media, such as films, television programs and video games, are based.

Gloria Swanson American actress

Gloria May Josephine Swanson was an American actress and producer. A major Hollywood star of the silent era, she later achieved widespread critical acclaim and recognition for her role as Norma Desmond, a reclusive silent film star, in the critically acclaimed 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. The film earned her an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe Award win.

Praised by many critics when first released, Sunset Boulevard was nominated for 11 Academy Awards (including nominations in all four acting categories) and won three. Deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the U.S. Library of Congress in 1989, Sunset Boulevard was included in the first group of films selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. In 1998, it was ranked number 12 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 best American films of the 20th century, and in 2007, it was 16th on their 10th Anniversary list.

Academy Awards American awards given annually for excellence in cinematic achievements

The Academy Awards, also officially and popularly known as the Oscars, are awards for artistic and technical merit in the film industry. Given annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), the awards are an international recognition of excellence in cinematic achievements as assessed by the Academy's voting membership. The various category winners are awarded a copy of a golden statuette, officially called the "Academy Award of Merit", although more commonly referred to by its nickname "Oscar". The statuette depicts a knight rendered in Art Deco style.

Library of Congress (de facto) national library of the United States of America

The Library of Congress (LOC) is the research library that officially serves the United States Congress and is the de facto national library of the United States. It is the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. The library is housed in three buildings on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; it also maintains the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia. The library's functions are overseen by the librarian of Congress, and its buildings are maintained by the architect of the Capitol. The Library of Congress claims to be the largest library in the world. Its "collections are universal, not limited by subject, format, or national boundary, and include research materials from all parts of the world and in more than 450 languages."

National Film Registry Selection of films for preservation in the US Library of Congress

The National Film Registry (NFR) is the United States National Film Preservation Board's (NFPB) selection of films deserving of preservation. The NFPB, established by the National Film Preservation Act of 1988, was reauthorized by acts of Congress in 1992, 1996, 2005, and again in October 2008. The NFPB's mission, to which the NFR contributes, is to ensure the survival, conservation, and increased public availability of America's film heritage. The 1996 law also created the non-profit National Film Preservation Foundation which, although affiliated with the NFPB, raises money from the private sector.

Plot

At a mansion on Sunset Boulevard, the body of Joe Gillis floats in the swimming pool. In a flashback, Joe relates the events leading to his death.

Sunset Boulevard thoroughfare in Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and Los Angeles, United States

Sunset Boulevard is a boulevard in the central and western part of Los Angeles County, California that stretches from the Pacific Coast Highway in Pacific Palisades east to Figueroa Street in Downtown Los Angeles. It is a major thoroughfare in the cities of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, as well as several districts in Los Angeles.

A flashback is an interjected scene that takes the narrative back in time from the current point in the story. Flashbacks are often used to recount events that happened before the story's primary sequence of events to fill in crucial backstory. In the opposite direction, a flashforward reveals events that will occur in the future. Both flashback and flashforward are used to cohere a story, develop a character, or add structure to the narrative. In literature, internal analepsis is a flashback to an earlier point in the narrative; external analepsis is a flashback to a time before the narrative started.

Six months earlier, down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe tries selling Paramount Pictures producer Sheldrake on a story he submitted. Script reader Betty Schaefer harshly critiques it, unaware that Joe is listening. Later, while fleeing from repossession men seeking his car, Joe turns into the driveway of a seemingly deserted mansion. After concealing the car, he hears a woman inside call to him, mistaking him for someone else. Ushered in by Max, the butler, Joe recognizes the woman as long-forgotten silent film star Norma Desmond. Learning Joe is a writer, Norma asks his opinion of a script she has written for a film about Salome. She plans to play the role herself in a return to the screen. Joe finds her script abysmal, but flatters her into hiring him as a script doctor.

Screenwriting, also called scriptwriting, is the art and craft of writing scripts for mass media such as feature films, television productions or video games. It is often a freelance profession.

Paramount Pictures Major film studio in America, specializing in film and television production, and distribution.

Paramount Pictures Corporation is an American film studio based in Hollywood, California, that has been a subsidiary of the American media conglomerate Viacom since 1994. Paramount is the fifth oldest surviving film studio in the world, the second oldest in the United States, and the sole member of the "Big Five" film studios still located in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Hollywood.

Script coverage is a filmmaking term for the analysis and grading of screenplays, often within the "script development" department of a production company. While coverage may remain entirely verbal, it usually takes the form of a written report, guided by a rubric that varies from company to company. Criteria include, but are not limited to:

Moved into Norma's mansion at her insistence, Joe resents but gradually accepts his dependent situation. He sees that Norma refuses to face the fact that her fame has evaporated and learns that the fan letters she still receives are secretly written by Max, who explains that Norma is emotionally fragile and has attempted suicide. Norma lavishes attention on Joe and buys him expensive clothes. At her New Year's Eve party, he discovers that he is the only guest and realizes she has fallen in love with him. Joe tries to let her down gently, but Norma slaps him and retreats to her room. Joe visits his friend Artie Green to ask about staying at his place. At Artie's party he again meets Betty, whom he learns is Artie's girl. Betty thinks a scene in one of Joe's scripts has potential, but Joe is uninterested. When he phones Max to have him pack his things, Max tells him Norma cut her wrists with his razor. Joe returns to Norma.

Suicide Intentional act of causing ones own death

Suicide is the act of intentionally causing one's own death. Mental disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, personality disorders, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse—including alcoholism and the use of benzodiazepines—are risk factors. Some suicides are impulsive acts due to stress, such as from financial difficulties, troubles with relationships, or bullying. Those who have previously attempted suicide are at a higher risk for future attempts. Effective suicide prevention efforts include limiting access to methods of suicide—such as firearms, drugs, and poisons; treating mental disorders and substance misuse; proper media reporting of suicide; and improving economic conditions. Even though crisis hotlines are common, there is little evidence for their effectiveness.

Norma has Max deliver the edited Salome script to her former director Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount. She starts getting calls from Paramount executive Gordon Cole, but petulantly refuses to speak to anyone except DeMille. Eventually, she has Max drive her and Joe to Paramount in her 1929 Isotta Fraschini. The older studio employees recognize her and warmly greet her. DeMille receives her affectionately and treats her with great respect, tactfully evading her questions about her script. Meanwhile, Max learns that Cole merely wants to rent her unusual car for a film.

Preparing for her imagined comeback, Norma undergoes rigorous beauty treatments. Joe secretly works nights at Betty's Paramount office, collaborating on an original screenplay. His moonlighting is found out by Max, who reveals that he was a respected film director, discovered Norma as a teenage girl, made her a star and was her first husband. After she divorced him, he found life without her unbearable and abandoned his career to become her servant. Meanwhile, despite Betty's engagement to Artie, she and Joe fall in love. After Norma discovers a manuscript with Joe's and Betty's names on it, she phones Betty and insinuates what sort of man Joe really is. Joe, overhearing, invites Betty to come see for herself. When she arrives, he pretends he is satisfied being a gigolo, but after she tearfully leaves he packs for a return to his old Ohio newspaper job. He bluntly informs Norma there will be no comeback, her fan mail comes from Max, and she has been forgotten. He disregards Norma's threat to kill herself and the gun she shows him to back it up. As Joe walks out of the house, Norma shoots him three times and he falls into the pool.

The flashback ends. The house is filled with police and reporters. Norma, having lost touch with reality, believes the newsreel cameras are there to film Salome. Max and the police play along. Max sets up a scene for her and calls, "Action!" As the cameras roll, Norma dramatically descends her grand staircase. She pauses and makes an impromptu speech about how happy she is to be making a film again, ending with, "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up." as she makes a series of exaggerated swooping steps towards the camera, an equally exaggerated 'come-hither' expression upon her face.

Cast

Production

Background

The street known as Sunset Boulevard has been associated with Hollywood film production since 1911, when the town's first film studio, Nestor, opened there. The film workers lived modestly in the growing neighborhood, but during the 1920s, profits and salaries rose to unprecedented levels. With the advent of the star system, luxurious homes noted for their often incongruous grandeur were built in the area.

As a young man living in Berlin in the 1920s, Billy Wilder was interested in American culture, with much of his interest fueled by the country's films. In the late 1940s, many of the grand Hollywood houses remained, and Wilder, then a Los Angeles resident, found them to be a part of his everyday world. Many former stars from the silent era still lived in them, although most were no longer involved in the film business. Wilder wondered how they spent their time now that "the parade had passed them by" and began imagining the story of a star who had lost her celebrity and box-office appeal. [2]

The character of Norma Desmond mirrors aspects of the twilight years of several real-life faded silent-film stars, such as the reclusive existence of Mary Pickford and the mental disorders of Mae Murray and Clara Bow. It is usually regarded as a fictional composite inspired by several different people, not just a thinly disguised portrait of one in particular. Nevertheless, some commentators have tried to identify specific models. One asserts that Norma Talmadge is "the obvious if unacknowledged source of Norma Desmond, the grotesque, predatory silent movie queen" of the film. [3] The most common analysis of the character's name is that it is a combination of the names of silent film actress Mabel Normand and director William Desmond Taylor, a close friend of Normand's who was murdered in 1922 in a never-solved case sensationalized by the press. [4]

Writing

Gloria Swanson and Billy Wilder Gloria Swanson & Billy Wilder - ca. 1950.JPG
Gloria Swanson and Billy Wilder

Wilder and Brackett began working on a script in 1948, but the result did not completely satisfy them. In August 1948, D. M. Marshman Jr., formerly a writer for Life , was hired to help develop the storyline after Wilder and Brackett were impressed by a critique he provided of their film The Emperor Waltz (1948). In an effort to keep the full details of the story from Paramount Pictures and avoid the restrictive censorship of the Breen Code, they submitted the script a few pages at a time. The Breen Office insisted certain lines be rewritten, such as Gillis's "I'm up that creek and I need a job," which became "I'm over a barrel. I need a job." Paramount executives thought Wilder was adapting a story called A Can of Beans (which did not exist) and allowed him relative freedom to proceed as he saw fit. Only the first third of the script was written when filming began in early May 1949, and Wilder was unsure how the film would end. [4]

The fusion of writer-director Billy Wilder's biting humor and the classic elements of film noir make for a strange kind of comedy, as well as a strange kind of film noir. There are no belly laughs here, but there are certainly strangled giggles: at the pet chimp's midnight funeral, at Joe's discomfited acquiescence to the role of gigolo; at Norma's Mack Sennett-style "entertainments" for her uneasy lover; and at the ritualized solemnity of Norma's "waxworks" card parties, which feature such former luminaries as Buster Keaton as Norma's has-been cronies. [5]

Wilder preferred to leave analysis of his screenplays and films to others. When asked if Sunset Boulevard was a black comedy, he replied: "No, just a picture". [6]

Casting

Wilder considered many actors for the lead roles, but chose Swanson and Holden. Gloria Swanson and William Holden.jpg
Wilder considered many actors for the lead roles, but chose Swanson and Holden.

According to Brackett, Wilder and he never considered anyone except Gloria Swanson for the role of Norma Desmond. Wilder, however, had a different recollection. He recalled first wanting Mae West and Marlon Brando for the leads, but never approached either with an offer. He contacted Pola Negri by telephone, but had a difficult time understanding her heavy Polish accent. They also asked Norma Shearer if she would portray Norma Desmond, but she rejected the role due to both her retirement and distaste for it. They were considering Fred MacMurray to play opposite her as Joe. The filmmakers approached Greta Garbo, but she expressed no interest. Wilder and Brackett then visited Mary Pickford, but before even discussing the plot with her, Wilder realized she would consider a role involving an affair with a man half her age an insult, so they departed. They had considered pairing Montgomery Clift with her. [7]

According to Wilder, he asked George Cukor for advice, and he suggested Swanson, one of the most feted actresses of the silent-screen era, known for her beauty, talent, and extravagant lifestyle. At the peak of her career in 1925, she was said to have received 10,000 fan letters in a single week, and from 1920 until the early 1930s, she lived on Sunset Boulevard in an elaborate Italianate palace. In many ways, she resembled the Norma Desmond character, and like her, had been unable to make a smooth transition into talking pictures. The similarities ended there. Swanson accepted the end of her film career, and in the early 1930s moved to New York City, where she worked in radio, and from the mid-1940s, in television and on the New York stage. Though Swanson was not seeking a comeback, she was intrigued when Wilder discussed the role with her. [2]

Swanson was chagrined at the notion of submitting to a screen test, saying she had "made 20 films for Paramount. Why do they want me to audition?" Her reaction was echoed in the screenplay when Norma Desmond declares, "Without me there wouldn't be any Paramount." In her memoir, Swanson recalled asking Cukor if it was unreasonable to refuse the screen test. He replied that since Norma Desmond was the role for which she would be remembered, "If they ask you to do ten screen tests, do ten screen tests, or I will personally shoot you." His enthusiasm convinced Swanson to participate, [8] and she signed a contract for $50,000. [9] In a 1975 interview, Wilder recalled Swanson's reaction with the observation, "There was a lot of Norma in her, you know." [10]

Wilder harks back to Swanson's silent film career when Norma shows Joe the film Queen Kelly , an earlier Gloria Swanson film directed by Erich Von Stroheim. Queen Kelly wasn't released in the United States for over 50 years [11] after Swanson walked off the set. [8]

Montgomery Clift was signed to play Joe Gillis for $5,000 per week for a guaranteed 12 weeks, but just before the start of filming, he withdrew from the project, claiming his role of a young man involved with an older woman was too close to the one he had played in The Heiress (1949), in which he felt he had been unconvincing. An infuriated Wilder responded, "If he's any kind of actor, he could be convincing making love to any woman." [12] Clift himself was having an affair with a much older woman (the singer Libby Holman) which was suggested as his real reason for withdrawing from the film. [13] [14]

Forced to consider the available Paramount stars, Wilder and Brackett focused on William Holden, who had made an impressive debut a decade earlier in Golden Boy (1939). Following an appearance in Our Town (1940), he served in the military in World War II, and his return to the screen afterward had been moderately successful. He was enthusiastic about the script and eager to accept the role. He did not know that his salary was $39,000 less than had been offered to Clift. [15]

Erich von Stroheim, a leading film director of the 1920s who had directed Swanson, was signed to play Max, Norma's faithful servant, protector, and former husband. For the role of Betty Schaefer, Wilder wanted a newcomer who could project a wholesome and ordinary image to contrast with Swanson's flamboyant and obsessive Desmond. He chose Nancy Olson, who had recently been considered for the role of Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah. [4]

DeMille, often credited as the person most responsible for making Swanson a star, plays himself, and was filmed on the set of Samson and Delilah at Paramount Studios. He calls Norma "young fella" as he had called Swanson.

Norma's friends who come to play bridge with her, described in the script as "the waxworks", were Swanson's contemporaries Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H. B. Warner, who like DeMille, played themselves. Hedda Hopper also played herself, reporting on Norma Desmond's downfall in the film's final scenes. [4]

Cinematography and design

The film's dark, shadowy black-and-white, film noir cinematography was the work of John F. Seitz. Wilder had worked with him on several projects before, and trusted his judgment, allowing him to make his own decisions. Seitz recalled asking Wilder what he required for the pet chimpanzee's funeral scene. Wilder replied, "you know, just your standard monkey funeral shot." For some interior shots, Seitz sprinkled dust in front of the camera before filming to suggest "mustiness," a trick he had also used for Double Indemnity (1944). [16]

The film had the option to be shot on colour, however it was shot on black and white to be more reflective of the noir genre. (The term noir is French for black.) [17]

Wilder was adamant that the corpse of Joe Gillis be seen from the bottom of the pool, but creating the effect was difficult. The camera was placed inside a specially constructed box and lowered under water, but the result disappointed Wilder, who insisted on further experiments. The shot was finally achieved by placing a mirror on the bottom of the pool and filming Holden's reflection from above with the distorted image of the policemen standing around the pool and forming a backdrop. [4]

Film historian Tom Stempel writes, "In both Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, Seitz does something that has always impressed me. Both are films noir, and he finesses the fact that both are set in the sunniest of locales, Los Angeles... he brings together the light and the dark in the same film without any seams showing... he brings together the realistic lighting of Joe Gillis out in the real world with the gothic look of Norma Desmond's mansion. Again with no seams showing." [4]

Edith Head designed the costumes. Wilder, Head, and Swanson agreed that Norma Desmond would have kept somewhat up-to-date with fashion trends, so Head designed costumes closely resembling the Dior look of the mid-1940s. Embellishments were added to personalize them and reflect Norma Desmond's taste. [18]

Swanson recalled in her biography that the costumes were only "a trifle outdated, a trifle exotic." [8] Head later described her assignment as "the most challenging of my career," and explained her approach with the comment, "Because Norma Desmond was an actress who had become lost in her own imagination, I tried to make her look like she was always impersonating someone." Head later said she relied on Swanson's expertise because "she was creating a past that she knew and I didn't." [4] Head also designed the costumes for William Holden and the minor characters, but for authenticity, Wilder instructed Von Stroheim and Nancy Olson to wear their own clothing.

The overstated decadence of Norma Desmond's home was created by set designer Hans Dreier, whose career extended back to the silent era. He had also been commissioned to complete the interior design for the homes of movie stars, including the house of Mae West. William Haines, an interior designer and former actor, later refuted criticism of Dreier's set design with the observation, "Bebe Daniels, Norma Shearer, and Pola Negri all had homes with ugly interiors like that." [4]

The bed in the shape of a boat in which Norma Desmond slept was actually owned by the dancer Gaby Deslys, who died in 1920. It had originally been bought by the Universal prop department at auction after Deslys's death. The bed appeared in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) starring Lon Chaney.

Wilder also made use of authentic locales. Joe Gillis's apartment is in the Alto Nido, a real apartment block in central Hollywood that was often populated by struggling writers. The scenes of Gillis and Betty Schaefer on Paramount's back lot were filmed on the actual back lot, and the interior of Schwab's Drug Store was carefully recreated for several scenes. The exterior scenes of the Desmond house were filmed at a house on Wilshire Boulevard built during the 1920s by the millionaire William O. Jenkins. Jenkins and his family lived in it for just one year, then left it abandoned for more than a decade, which earned it the nickname, the "Phantom House". [19] By 1949, it was owned by the former wife of J. Paul Getty. The house was later featured in Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955). It was demolished by the Gettys in 1957 to allow construction of an office building . [20] [21]

During filming, considerable publicity was given to health-conscious Gloria Swanson's youthful appearance, which made her look the same age as Holden. Wilder insisted that the age difference between the characters be delineated, and instructed makeup supervisor Wally Westmore to make Swanson look older. Swanson argued that a woman of Norma Desmond's age, with her considerable wealth and devotion to self, would not necessarily look old, and suggested Holden be made up to appear younger. Wilder agreed, and Westmore was assigned this task, which allowed Swanson to portray Norma Desmond as more glamorous a figure than Wilder had originally imagined. [4]

Score

The musical score was the final element added to Sunset Boulevard. [22] The film was scored by Franz Waxman. His theme for Norma Desmond was based on tango music, inspired by her having danced the tango with Rudolph Valentino. This style was contrasted with Joe Gillis's bebop theme. Waxman also used distorted arrangements of popular film-music styles from the 1920s and 1930s to suggest Norma Desmond's state of mind. The film's score was recorded for compact disc by the Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Joel McNeely and released in 2002. [23]

Original release and responses

Previews and revision

Wilder and Brackett, nervous about a major screening in Hollywood, held a preview in Evanston, Illinois, in late 1949. The original edit opened with a scene inside a morgue, with the assembled corpses discussing how they came to be there. The story began with the corpse of Joe Gillis recounting his murder to the others. The audience reacted with laughter and seemed unsure whether to view the rest of the film as drama or comedy. After a similar reaction during its second screening in Poughkeepsie, New York, and a third in Great Neck, the morgue opening was replaced by a shorter poolside opening, [24] using footage filmed on January 5, 1950. [25]

In Hollywood, Paramount arranged a private screening for the various studio heads and specially invited guests. After viewing the film, Barbara Stanwyck knelt to kiss the hem of Gloria Swanson's skirt. Swanson later remembered looking for Mary Pickford, only to be told, "She can't show herself, Gloria. She's too overcome. We all are." Louis B. Mayer berated Wilder before the crowd of celebrities, saying, "You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!" Upon hearing of Mayer's slight, Wilder strode up to the mogul and retorted with a vulgarity that one biographer said was allegedly because Mayer, who was Jewish, suggested that Wilder, who was also Jewish, would be better off being sent back to Germany, an extraordinary sentiment so soon after the war and the Holocaust, in which Wilder's family perished. [26] [27] The few other criticisms were not so venomous. According to one often-told but later discredited anecdote, [28] actress Mae Murray, a contemporary of Swanson, was offended by the film and commented, "None of us floozies was that nuts." [29]

Premiere and box-office receipts

Sunset Boulevard had its official world premiere at Radio City Music Hall on August 10, 1950. [30] After a seven-week run, Variety magazine reported the film had grossed "around $1,020,000", making it one of that theater's most successful pictures. Variety also noted that, while it was "breaking records in major cities, it is doing below average in ... the sticks." To promote the film, Gloria Swanson traveled by train throughout the United States, visiting 33 cities in a few months. The publicity helped attract people to the cinemas, but in many provincial areas it was considered less than a hit. [4]

The film earned an estimated $2,350,000 at the U.S. box office in 1950. [31]

Critical response

Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 98% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on 60 reviews with an average rating of 9.3/10, the critical consensus stating: "Arguably the greatest movie about Hollywood, Billy Wilder's masterpiece Sunset Boulevard is a tremendously entertaining combination of noir, black comedy, and character study." [32]

Contemporary

Sunset Boulevard attracted a range of positive reviews from critics. Time described it as a story of "Hollywood at its worst told by Hollywood at its best", [33] while Boxoffice Review wrote "the picture will keep spectators spellbound." [34] James Agee, writing for Sight & Sound , praised the film and said Wilder and Brackett were "beautifully equipped to do the cold, exact, adroit, sardonic job they have done." Good Housekeeping described Swanson as a "great lady [who] spans another decade with her magic," [4] while Look praised her "brilliant and haunting performance." [33]

Some critics accurately foresaw the film's lasting appeal. The Hollywood Reporter wrote that future generations would "set themselves the task of analyzing the durability and greatness" of the film, while Commonweal said that in the future "the Library of Congress will be glad to have in its archives a print of Sunset Boulevard." [4]

The rare negative comments included those from The New Yorker , which described the film as "a pretentious slice of Roquefort", containing only "the germ of a good idea". [4] Thomas M. Pryor wrote for The New York Times that the plot device of using the dead Joe Gillis as narrator was "completely unworthy of Brackett and Wilder, but happily it does not interfere with the success of Sunset Boulevard". [35]

Retrospective

In 1999, Roger Ebert praised the acting of Holden and von Stroheim and has described Swanson's as "one of the all time greatest performances." He says Sunset Boulevard "remains the best drama ever made about the movies because it sees through the illusions." [36] Pauline Kael described the film as "almost too clever, but at its best in its cleverness", [37] and also wrote that it was common to "hear Billy Wilder called the world's greatest director." [38] When Wilder died in 2002, obituaries singled out Sunset Boulevard for comment, describing it as one of his most significant works, along with Double Indemnity (1944) and Some Like It Hot (1959). [39]

Film writer Richard Corliss describes Sunset Boulevard as "the definitive Hollywood horror movie", noting that almost everything in the script is "ghoulish". He remarks that the story is narrated by a dead man whom Norma Desmond first mistakes for an undertaker, while most of the film takes place "in an old, dark house that only opens its doors to the living dead". He compares von Stroheim's character Max with the concealed Erik, the eponymous central character in The Phantom of the Opera , and Norma Desmond with Dracula, noting that, as she seduces Joe Gillis, the camera tactfully withdraws with "the traditional directorial attitude taken towards Dracula's jugular seductions". He writes that the narrative contains an excess of "cheap sarcasm", but ultimately congratulates the writers for attributing this dialogue to Joe Gillis, who was in any case presented as little more than a hack writer. [40]

Awards and recognition

At the 23rd Academy Awards, Sunset Boulevard received 11 Oscar nominations and won three. [41]

AwardResultNominee
Best Motion Picture Nominated Paramount (Charles Brackett, Producer)
Best Director Nominated Billy Wilder
Best Actor Nominated William Holden
Best Actress Nominated Gloria Swanson
Best Supporting Actor Nominated Erich von Stroheim
Best Supporting Actress Nominated Nancy Olson
Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Won Charles Brackett, D. M. Marshman Jr., Billy Wilder
Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Black-and-White) Won Hans Dreier, John Meehan, Samuel M. Comer, Ray Moyer
Best Cinematography (Black-and-White) Nominated John F. Seitz
Best Film Editing Nominated Arthur Schmidt, Doane Harrison
Best Music (Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture) Won Franz Waxman

Of the various films that have attracted nominations in all four acting categories, Sunset Boulevard is one of only three not to win in any category, the others being My Man Godfrey (1936) and American Hustle (2013). At the time its eleven Oscar nominations were exceeded only by the fourteen received by All About Eve , which won six awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Many critics predicted that the Best Actress award would be given to Gloria Swanson or Bette Davis for All About Eve and were surprised that the recipient was newcomer Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday [8] . Bette Davis believed that her and Swanson's comparable characters effectively "cancelled each other out", allowing Holliday to win. [42] Swanson recalled the press's reaction following Holliday's win: "It slowly dawned on me that they were asking for a larger-than-life scene, or better still, a mad scene. More accurately, they were trying to flush out Norma Desmond." [33]

Sunset Boulevard also received Golden Globe awards for Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Motion Picture Actress (Swanson), Best Motion Picture Director and Best Motion Picture Score. Wilder and Brackett won a Writers Guild of America, East Award for Best Written American Drama, while the Directors Guild of America nominated Wilder for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures. The National Board of Review voted it Best Picture, and Swanson received Best Actress.

It was dramatized as an hour-long radio play on the September 17, 1951 broadcast of Lux Radio Theater with Gloria Swanson and William Holden in their original film roles. [43]

Recognition since 1989

The famous "I'm ready for my close-up" scene from Sunset Boulevard Sunset Boulevard Ready For My Close-up.png
The famous "I'm ready for my close-up" scene from Sunset Boulevard

In 1989 the film was among the first group of 25 deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. [44] Sunset Boulevard received 33 votes in the British Film Institute's 2012 Sight & Sound polls, making it the 63rd greatest film of all time in the critics’ poll and 67th in the directors' poll. [45] In a 2015 poll by BBC Culture, film critics ranked Sunset Boulevard the 54th greatest American film of all time. [46]

American Film Institute included the film on these lists:

Aftermath

Sunset Boulevard was the last collaboration between Wilder and Brackett. They parted amicably and respected their long-term partnership by not airing any grievance publicly. Their mutual respect and courteous integrity remained in force throughout the rest of their lives. In later years, Brackett confided in screenwriter/director Garson Kanin that he had not anticipated the split, or had ever understood exactly what happened or why. He described it as "an unexpected blow" from which he never recovered fully. When asked to respond to Brackett's comments, Wilder remained silent. [47]

The two men briefly reunited in October 1951 to face charges that they had plagiarized Sunset Boulevard. Former Paramount accountant Stephanie Joan Carlson alleged that in 1947 she had submitted to Wilder and Brackett, at their request, manuscripts of stories, both fictional and based on fact, she had written about studio life. She claimed that one in particular, Past Performance, served as the basis for the Sunset script, and sued the screenwriters and Paramount for $100,000 in general damages, $250,000 in punitive damages, $700,000 based on the box office returns, and an additional $350,000 for good measure, for a total of $1,400,000. Carlson's suit was dismissed after two and a half years. In 1954, a similar suit was filed by playwright Edra Buckler, who claimed material she had written had been the screenplay's source. Her suit was dismissed the following year. [48]

Brackett's Hollywood career continued after his split with Wilder. He won an Academy Award for his screenplay for Titanic (1953), and wrote Niagara (1953), the breakthrough film for Marilyn Monroe as a dramatic actress. It was Wilder, however, who realized Monroe's comedic abilities in The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot. Brackett's career waned by the end of the decade, though he did produce the Oscar-nominated film The King and I (1956). He received an Honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1958.

William Holden began receiving more important parts and his career rose. He won the Best Actor Oscar for Stalag 17 (1953), also directed by Wilder, and by 1956 he was the top box-office attraction in the United States.

Nancy Olson's pairing with William Holden was considered a success, and she appeared opposite him in several films during the 1950s, although none of them repeated their earlier success. She went on to star in The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and Son of Flubber (1963), in which she was paired with Fred MacMurray, but despite the films' popularity with movie-goers, her career stalled. Holden and Wilder also rejoined forces for Fedora (1978), another film critical of Hollywood.

Similarly, Gloria Swanson was not able to leverage her own success in Sunset Boulevard. Although offered scripts, she felt that they all were poor imitations of Norma Desmond. Imagining a career that would eventually reduce her to playing "a parody of a parody," she virtually retired from films. [2]

Sunset Boulevard was shown again in New York City in 1960, and drew such a positive response that Paramount arranged for a limited re-release in theaters throughout the United States.

Films that discuss Sunset Boulevard in their screenplays or pay homage in scenes or dialogue include Soapdish (1991), The Player (1992), Gods and Monsters (1998), Mulholland Drive (2001), [4] Inland Empire (2006) and Be Cool (2005). The ending of Cecil B. Demented (2000) is a parody of Sunset Boulevard's final scene.

Restoration and home media

By the late 1990s, most Sunset Boulevard prints were in poor condition, and as the film was shot using cellulose nitrate filmstock, much of the original negative had perished. Paramount Studios, believing the film merited the effort of a complete restoration, mounted an expensive project to have it digitally restored. This restored version was released on DVD in 2002. [49] [50] In 2012, the film was digitally restored by Paramount Pictures for Blu-ray Disc debut. Frame-by-frame digital restoration by Prasad Corporation removed dirt, tears, scratches and other defects. [51] [52]

Musical adaptations

Stapley and Hughes

From around 1952 to 1956, Gloria Swanson herself worked with actor Richard Stapley (aka Richard Wyler) and cabaret singer/pianist Dickson Hughes on an adaptation titled Boulevard! (at first Starring Norma Desmond). Stapley and Hughes first approached Swanson about appearing in a musical revue they had written, About Time (based on Time ). Swanson stated that she would return to the stage only in a musical version of her comeback film. Within a week, Stapley and Dickson had written three songs which Swanson approved. [53]

In this version, the romance between Gillis and Schaefer was allowed to blossom, and rather than shoot Gillis at the end, Norma gave the couple her blessing, sending them on their way to live "happily ever after."

Although Paramount gave verbal permission to proceed with the musical, there was no formal legal option. In the late 1950s, Paramount withdrew its consent, leading to the demise of the project.

In 1994, Dickson Hughes incorporated material from Boulevard! into a musical Swanson on Sunset, based on his and Stapley's experiences in writing Boulevard!.

Other failed attempts

Stephen Sondheim briefly considered turning Sunset Boulevard into a musical until meeting Billy Wilder at a cocktail party, who told him that the film would be better adapted as an opera rather than a musical. [54] Hal Prince later approached Sondheim to adapt the film as a musical with Angela Lansbury playing Norma Desmond. [55]

John Kander and Fred Ebb were also approached by Hal Prince to write a musical of Sunset Boulevard. [56]

Lloyd Webber and Black & Hampton

A musical adaptation with book and lyrics written by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber was staged in 1993 in London. It closely followed the film story, retained much of the dialogue and attempted to present similar set designs. It reached Broadway in 1994, with Glenn Close playing Norma Desmond. The production staged 17 previews beginning November 1, 1994, and played 977 performances at the Minskoff Theatre from November 17, 1994 through March 22, 1997. [57] In 2016, Close reprised the role in a critically acclaimed performance sold-out run in London's West End, followed by a 12-week run at the Palace Theater in New York from February 2, 2017 through to June 25, 2017.

Television

Literature

Sunset Boulevard is heavily referenced in The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell. Quotes from the film are used as epigrams to many chapters, for example chapter 11 quotes "No one leaves a star. That's what makes one a star." [58] Plot and themes of the film are directly invoked to point out parallels in the production of The Room . In an interview Sestero states, "I saw a lot of similarities with my story, especially when Tommy lived in a place that had a pool and wanted to make his own vanity project." [59]

Music

During the recording of the Metallica song "The Memory Remains", Marianne Faithfull's manager told her to "picture Sunset Boulevard". [60]

The chorus of the song "Floating" by Canadian rock group Blue Rodeo includes the line, "I feel like William Holden floating in a pool."

The song Kill the Lights by Britney Spears references the line "I'm ready for my close-up".

See also

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A list of books and essays about Billy Wilder:

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Bibliography