Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
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Sunset Boulevard (1950) is a classic black comedy/drama, and perhaps the most acclaimed, but darkest film-noir story about "behind the scenes" Hollywood, self-deceit, spiritual and spatial emptiness, and the price of fame, greed, narcissism, and ambition. The mood of the film is immediately established as decadent and decaying by the posthumous narrator - a dead man floating face-down in a swimming pool in Beverly Hills.

With caustic, bitter wit in a story that blends both fact and fiction and dream and reality, co-writer/director Billy Wilder realistically exposes (with numerous in-jokes) the corruptive, devastating influences of the new Hollywood and the studio system by showing the decline of old Hollywood legends many years after the coming of sound. The screenplay was based on the story A Can of Beans by Wilder and Brackett - this was the last collaborative film effort of Brackett and Wilder who had worked together on many films since 1938.

This classic, tragic film was highly-regarded at its time, honored with eleven Academy Award nominations and the recipient of three Oscars: Best Story and Screenplay (co-authored by Charles Brackett, D.M. Marshman, Jr., and Billy Wilder), Best Black and White Art Direction/Set Decoration, and Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Franz Waxman). The eight unsuccessful nominations were for Best Picture, Best Actor (William Holden), Best Actress (Gloria Swanson, who lost to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday), Best Supporting Actor (Erich von Stroheim), Best Supporting Actress (Nancy Olson), Best Director, Best B/W Cinematography (John Seitz), and Best Film Editing.

The major starring role in the film, an inspired casting choice, was held by legendary silent film diva Gloria Swanson (Mae West was also a possible choice for the role), who "autobiographically" portrayed Norma Desmond - a deluded, tragic, ambitious actress whose career declined with the coming of the talkies. [Note: Her name was a combination of the names of two early Hollywood figures: comedy star Mabel Normand, and silent-film director William Desmond Taylor (Normand's lover), who was murdered in 1922. There was an intensive investigation but his murder case went unsolved.]

The other starring role belonged to a modern day, B-movie hack screenwriter/narrator (William Holden, although Montgomery Clift was once considered for the role) who spoke beyond the grave as a phantom narrator. He recounted how he struggled to produce screenplays to meet the demands of the industry and satisfy the thirsty illusions of immortality of the aging silent film queen in her decaying mansion. After being showered with bribes (clothes, money, flattery and other gifts), he was quickly spoiled and ensnared in her web of delusion - and death trap.

This film was a first, since it mixed fiction with the realities of film-making. Other Hollywood legends, stars, figures, and screen landmarks also appear or are referenced, including:

  • Paramount Studios itself
  • silent-screen director Erich von Stroheim (as the faithful, devoted butler, in his last film) of the severely-edited masterpiece Greed (1924)
  • famous Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself while directing Samson and Delilah (1949))
  • Mabel Normand (a comedienne for Mack Sennett - notice the cryptic reshuffling of Norma's name)
  • columnist Hedda Hopper in a bit part
  • aging silent era stars as themselves, portraying Norma's 'waxworks' card-playing friends: Buster Keaton, Swedish-born Anna Q. Nilsson, and H. B. Warner

Sunset Boulevard was adapted into a musical in mid-1993, with a score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and first opened in London with Patti LuPone in the lead role. In late 1993, Glenn Close portrayed Norma Desmond in the debut Los Angeles (not Broadway) performance in the US. Close also opened the Broadway production in November, 1994, and the show received seven Tony Awards in 1995 - but its successful run ended in 1997.

Plot Synopsis

The film opens with a pan down to a street curb/gutter in Hollywood with dead leaves. The curb is stenciled with SUNSET BLVD. - the image is an appropriate metaphor for the tawdry exposé to follow. The camera pulls back across the cracked, defaced asphalt with superimposed credits - also stenciled.

[In the original screenplay, the film opened in a Los Angeles morgue where the protagonist's corpse delivered a lively voice-over narration and spoke with other fellow corpses who recently died. After a showing to East Coast preview audiences, it was scrapped and replaced.]

A voice-over narration is read cynically and crisply with a film-noirish style. The first scene shows motorcycle officers followed by police cars with sirens blaring rushing to a mansion in Beverly Hills where they find a dead body floating face down in a swimming pool. Detectives try to fish him out of the water:

Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California. It's about five o'clock in the morning. That's the Homicide Squad - complete with detectives and newspapermen. A murder has been reported from one of those great big houses in the ten thousand block. You'll read about it in the late editions, I'm sure. You'll get it over your radio and see it on television because an old-time star is involved - one of the biggest. But before you hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion, before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you'd like to hear the facts, the whole truth. If so, you've come to the right party. You see, the body of a young man was found floating in the pool of her mansion - with two shots in his back and one in his stomach. Nobody important, really. Just a movie writer with a couple of 'B' pictures to his credit. The poor dope! He always wanted a pool. Well, in the end, he got himself a pool - only the price turned out to be a little high.

[Note: The mansion, formerly belonging to J. Paul Getty, was on Wilshire Blvd. at Irving Blvd. Today, a Getty Oil office building stands on the site. Five years later, the same pool on the grounds of the deserted Getty mansion was used for one of the final scenes in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).]

The narrator's voice sounds amused - he promises to tell us, in a unique flashback structure, the real story of young screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) and how he ended up face down (with his eyes open) in the villa's pool - his watery grave. [The same flashback plot device, told by a dead man in voice-over, was copied by American Beauty (1999).] As the scene dissolves to an earlier time, the voice explains: "Let's go back about six months and find the day when it all started."

The story flashes back to six months earlier, when Joe, a struggling, down-and-out, depressed, Midwestern hack screenwriter, finds that he is unable to sell his scripts ("I seemed to have lost my touch") and is behind three payments on his car. Working in his one-room apartment house (the Alto Nido apartments) above Franklin and Ivar, he is interrupted at his typewriter by the door's buzzer and two repo men at the front door with a court order to take his car, a 1946 Plymouth convertible, California license 40 R 116. Wearing only his bathrobe, he lies to the 'finance boys' and tells them that a friend borrowed his car (it's actually hidden around the block behind Rudy's Shoe Shine Parlor). They threaten to return the next day by noon. In voice-over, he narrates his predicament:

Well, I needed about two hundred and ninety dollars and I needed it real quick, or I'd lose my car. It wasn't in Palm Springs and it wasn't in the garage. I was way ahead of the finance company. I knew they'd be coming around and I wasn't taking any chances.

With his car keys (with a miniature rabbit's foot attached for luck), Joe ventures out to Paramount Pictures Studios to sell an "original story" - a baseball script titled Bases Loaded to a callous, "big shot" "smart producer" named Sheldrake (Fred Clark). [Not surprisingly, Sheldrake was the name given to another cold-hearted, philandering senior business executive in Wilder's The Apartment (1960).] While Joe describes his idea and promotes Alan Ladd for the lead role, Sheldrake's secretary appears with a glass of milk and a bottle of pills to ease the producer's ulcer.

Joe's treatment of the screenplay is criticized by clean-cut, Paramount script reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) - she denounces it in "a two page synopsis" as being written "from hunger," "a rehash of something that wasn't very good to begin with," and "flat and trite." She is startled to discover that her evaluation has been overheard by the screenwriter himself and apologizes: "...right now I wish I could crawl in a hole and pull it in after me." She explains, "I just think that pictures should say a little something." One reason she rejected the script was because she recognized his name and thought he had some talent. The devastated writer replies: "That was last year. This year, I'm trying to earn a living."

Joe leaves Sheldrake's office after he is turned down for a financial loan of three hundred bucks and drives to Schwab's Pharmacy [a re-created interior of Schwab's Drug Store where young, tight-sweatered Lana Turner was purportedly discovered], his "headquarters...kind of a combination office, Kaffee-klatsch, and waiting room. Waiting, waiting for the gravy train." He makes general SOS phone calls and other requests to everyone he can think of, but ends up empty-handed. As he turns onto Sunset Boulevard, his muses that his prospects add up to "exactly zero. Apparently, I just didn't have what it takes." He decides to "wrap up the whole Hollywood deal and go home" with a bus ticket back to Dayton, Ohio returning to a $35 a week job behind the copy desk of the Dayton Evening Post if it was still open - "back to the smirking delight of the whole office."

As he is driving along, he suddenly spots the repossession men stopped at a traffic light - he speeds away to elude them. When his left front tire suffers a blowout, he pulls into a driveway and ditches his car in the big five-car empty garage of the 10086 Sunset Boulevard property with a mansion, in an exclusive residential section of town where great Hollywood stars live: "If ever there was a place to stash away a limping car with a hot license number." He parks his car next to an:

enormous foreign built automobile - it must have burned up ten gallons to a mile. It had a 1932 license. I figured that's when the owners had moved out. And I also figured I couldn't go back to my apartment, now that those bloodhounds were onto me. The idea was to get to Artie Green's and stay there until I could make that bus for Ohio. Once back in Dayton, I'd drop the credit boys a picture postcard telling them where to pick up the jalopy.

At first as he climbs the stone staircase, he believes the deteriorating, rotting mausoleum-like estate belongs to a long bygone era [a symbol of Hollywood's own decaying state], and is deserted because of its unkempt condition. He describes the massive, grotesquely magnificent, Italianate home. He compares it to Miss Havishim in Dickens' novel Great Expectations:

It was a great big white elephant of a place, the kind crazy movie people built in the crazy 20s. A neglected house gets an unhappy look. This one had it in spades. It was like that old woman in Great Expectations, that Miss Havisham in her rotting wedding dress and her torn veil taking it out on the world because she'd been given the go-by.

[In Dickens' book and in David Lean's 1946 film adaptation, orphan Pip was summoned to the gothic mansion of a rich local woman and found old Miss Havisham, still in her wedding dress, occupying the room where the wedding feast was to be held. Norma Desmond, the solitary and deranged owner of the mansion, was also impotently left victimized at the altar, and "given the go-by" by her fans. She ultimately retaliated and took it out on her world. The atmospheric look of the mansion and the cinematography was also inspired by Lean's Great Expectations (1946). Likewise, the decrepit mansion and demented character of Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) wearing a doll costume and living in the past in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) come from the same inspiration.]

As he considers his options, knowing that he can't return to his apartment where the "bloodhounds" will find him, he hears a woman wearing dark glasses behind a slatted shade call out: "You there! Why are you so late? Why have you kept me waiting so long?" He is summoned "in here" and waved/escorted into the gothic house by a bald-headed, properly-attired, white-gloved, German manservant/butler Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim) at the metal-gated front-door.

[Stroheim was one of actress Gloria Swanson's greatest directors in the early days of the movies. His career, like Gloria Swanson's, ended abruptly around 1930 - making the film semi-autobiographical and a mixture of both fact and fiction. Mayerling was presumably chosen by Austrian-born director Wilder as the name of the butler, because it was the name of the royal hunting lodge where the tragic, mysterious and scandalous double death (a murder/suicide?) of the Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary and his young Baroness mistress occurred in 1889.]

When he is mistaken as an undertaker by the ominous butler, Joe is told that he is not properly dressed for the occasion, but then cut off in mid-conversation and told to go upstairs where "Madame is waiting." While ascending the curving, black marble staircase, he stops short when told the grim, morbid truth by the devoted servant: "If you need help with the coffin, call me." In the upstairs corridor, he is summoned "this way" where he meets the wealthy, aging, reclusive Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), Paramount's greatest film star during the silent era, but now a relic forgotten for the past twenty years. She is dressed in black house pajamas, with a leopard-patterned scarf wrapped like a turban around her head.

The butler and the woman of the house both mistakenly believe that he is the animal mortician who has come to provide a satin-lined coffin for the burial of her beloved pet monkey [a significant fact, for Joe's presence at the mansion leads to his own death] - positioned in her ornately-decorated bedroom on her massage table in front of a roaring fire: "He always liked fires and poking at them with a stick." She removes the shawl covering the dead monkey's body, and its lifeless, childlike hairy arm emerges and flops down. She bargains: "How much will it be? I warn you, don't give me a fancy price just because I'm rich."

Wishing to reveal his actual identity, he tries to explain that his car broke down in her driveway and that he's the "wrong man." And then he recognizes her, becomes intrigued, and comments about how big she was in silent pictures:

Joe: You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma (bristling): I am big. It's the pictures that got small.
Joe: I knew there was something wrong with them.

Indignant, Norma laments the rise of talkies and the demise of the silents:

They're dead, they're finished! There was a time in this business when they had the eyes of the whole wide world. But that wasn't good enough for them. Oh, no. They had to have the ears of the world, too. So they opened their big mouths, and out came talk. Talk! Talk!

Joe jokes about the effects of sound on movies: "That's where the popcorn business comes in. Buy yourself a bag and plug up your ears." Norma doesn't believe that the actors of the talkies era can compete with the stars of the silent era. She refuses to leave her Hollywood past behind:

Look at them in the front offices - the masterminds! They took the idols and smashed them. The Fairbanks and the Gilberts, the Valentinos! And who have we got now? Some nobodies.

Joe doesn't want to take the blame: "Don't blame me. I'm not an executive. Just a writer." Norma criticizes Joe as a screenwriter as well as any others responsible for bringing words and sound to the movies: "You are. Writing words, words, more words! Well, you've made a rope of words and strangled this business. Ha, ha. But there's a microphone right there to catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor to photograph the red, swollen tongue." She orders him out. He sarcastically replies with a reference to Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood: "Next time, I'll bring my autograph album along, or maybe a hunk of cement and ask for your footprint."

As he descends the stairs, she pursues him and asks about his screenwriting: "Are you or aren't you?" He replies: "That's what it says on my Guild card," and then explains about his last script and how hazardous it is to be a screenwriter, in a day and age when Hollywood requires hack work:

The last one I wrote was about Okies in the Dust Bowl. You'd never know because, when it reached the screen, the whole thing played on a torpedo boat.

She leads him into her cavernous living room, complete with a pipe organ, framed photographs of Norma during her heyday, and another gigantic fireplace. Norma is deluded into believing that she will have a great comeback on the big screen ("a return to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen") playing the lead in her own rough draft of a screenplay titled "Salome" - "a very important picture." [Many film versions of Salome have actually been produced, including one in 1953.] With stacks of script papers in front of her on her work table, she vows that she will return to the silver screen and be directed by the great Cecil B. De Mille. Norma corrects Joe's use of the word comeback - it will be a "return":

Norma: I think I'll have De Mille direct it...We've made a lot of pictures together.
Joe: And you'll play Salome?
Norma: Who else?
Joe: Only asking. I didn't know you were planning a comeback.
Norma: I hate that word. It's return - a return to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen.
Joe: Fair enough.
Norma: (recalling) Salome - what a woman! What a part! The princess in love with a Holy Man. She dances the Dance of the Seven Veils. He rejects her, so she demands his head on a golden tray, kissing his cold, dead lips.
Joe: They'll love it in Pomona.
Norma: They'll love it every place. Read it. Read the scene just before she has him killed.
Joe: Never let another writer read your material. He may steal it.
Norma: I'm not afraid. Read it!

[Joe first mistakenly believes he has found a way to beat the repo men. He doesn't foresee that he will be reeled in and end up fatally dependent upon her, with his John the Baptist's head on a platter for her. She will actually become the temptress Salome character with her dance of the Seven Veils. Or he will become a substitute for her dead pet monkey.]

In her living room, with a pipe organ that makes eerie moaning sounds from the wind, she compels him to read her script with his "twenty-twenty vision." In voice-over, the down and out scriptwriter describes Norma's script, her claw-like cigarette holder and her vampish appearance, while Max serves champagne and caviar:

Sometimes it's interesting to see just how bad bad writing can be. This promised to go the limit. I wondered what a handwriting expert would make of that childish scrawl of hers...She sat coiled up like a watch spring, her cigarette clamped in a curious holder. I could sense her eyes on me from behind those dark glasses, defying me not to like what I read, or maybe begging me in her own proud way to like it. It meant so much to her. It sure was a cozy set-up. That bundle of raw nerves, and Max, and that dead monkey upstairs, and the wind wheezing through that organ once in a while.

While reading the script, the real mortician "for comedy relief" arrives with a white baby casket for the dead monkey's funeral - "It was all done with great dignity. He must have been a very important chimp, the great grandson of King Kong, maybe." [The illusion to the Beauty killed the Beast theme is unmistakably obvious.] Feeling sick from the sweet champagne and the "tripe" he is reading ("that silly hodgepodge of melodramatic plots") by eleven that evening, he concocts his own plot. Destitute Joe sees a chance for easy money that he so desperately needs, even though he believes the script is unbearably terrible. He critiques the laughable script: "This is fascinating...What it needs is, uh, maybe a little more certainly could use a pair of shears and a blue pencil." But Norma objects to cutting it severely - "I will not have it butchered." He suggests an editing job to organize and improve it, and to provide a more contemporary slant, but Norma insists she must have someone she can trust, not just anybody.

She asks him for his birthday and astrological sign - Sagittarius - and determines that he was born under a sign that she can trust. So Norma offers him the editing job, to help her patch up the screenplay on "Salome" that she has prepared for a comeback. Although desperate for a job, he explains cleverly that he is expensive and busy, but then decides to take the writing job and accepts her assignment. This is their first step toward mutual dependency. He feels self-congratulatory about the way he maneuvered himself into a job paying five hundred a week: "I felt kind of pleased with the way I'd handled the situation. I dropped the hook and she snapped at it."

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