In Hollywood of the 50’s, the obscure screenplay writer Joe Gillis is not able to sell his work to the studios, is full of debts and is thinking in returning to his hometown to work in an office. While trying to escape from his creditors, he has a flat tire and parks his car in a decadent mansion in Sunset Boulevard. He meets the owner and former silent-movie star Norma Desmond, who lives alone wit her butler and driver Max von Mayerling. Norma is demented and believes she will return to the cinema industry, and is protected and isolated from the world by Max, who was his director and husband in the past and still loves her. Norma proposes Joe to move to the mansion and help her in writing a screenplay for her comeback to the cinema, and the small-time writer becomes her lover and gigolo.
When Joe falls in love for the young aspirant writer Betty Schaefer, Norma becomes jealous and completely insane and her madness leads to a tragic end.
As a practical joke, during the scene where William Holden and Nancy Olson kiss for the first time, Billy Wilder let them carry on for minutes without yelling cut (he’d already gotten the shot he needed on the first take). Eventually it wasn’t Wilder who shouted “Cut!” but Holden’s wife, Ardis (actress Brenda Marshall), who happened to be on set that day.
The movie’s line “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up” was voted as the #7 movie quote by the American Film Institute. (It is also one of the most frequently misquoted movie lines, usually given as, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”) The other line, “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small.” was voted #24, out of 100.
In the book “On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder“, Ed Sikov relates a story about Wilder’s explanation of the true meaning of the strange dead chimp scene from the start of the film. Sikov says that during the mid-1990s, both Wilder and former First Lady Nancy Reagan were at a party for an opening of one of the productions of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on the film, when, with Reagan nearby, an older woman approached Wilder with a question about what the chimp scene meant. Wilder’s typically outrageous answer, probably intended to shock the former First Lady as much as to inform the woman of the true meaning of the scene, was, “Don’t you understand? Before Joe Gillis came along, Norma Desmond was fucking the monkey.”
A true Hollywood horror story
Hack screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) accidentally falls in with faded screen legend Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). She lives in a crumbling old mansion with her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim). She refuses to believe that she’s no longer remembered and will never make another movie. She gets Gillis to stay with her and rewrite “Salome” which she thinks will be her comeback. Gillis has no other choice and things slowly get out of hand.
A VERY cynical view of Hollywood–especially for 1950. It shows what Hollywood does to people like Norma–it makes them stars, tells them that they’re great and dump them coldly when they’re no longer needed. It also takes swipes at directors, agents, screenwriters, even entire studios! It has a tight quick script, is appropriately filmed in gloomy black and white and is masterfully directed by Billy Wilder. Everybody thought this was a bad idea when it was being made. It was believed to be too cold and vicious for the public. Also Holden was warned it would ruin his career by playing a younger man kept by an older woman. But it turned out great and is now rightfully considered a classic.
The acting is almost all good. I never thought Nancy Olson was that good. Her character is too pure and sweet to be believable. Everybody else is right on target though. Holden is just great in his role. You see the pity, anger and helplessness on his face when he realizes Norma is falling in love with him–and he’s trapped. von Stroheim was equally good as Max who encourages Norma’s delusions.
Swanson however is just magnificent! She has a very showy role and could have overplayed it–but she doesn’t. She’s mad for sure–but you only see it peeking through every once in a while. When she loses it completely at the end it’s frightening. If she had played it like that all through the movie it never would have worked. How she lost the Oscar that year to Judy Holliday for “Born Yesterday” is beyond me. This is a must see and a true Hollywood classic but VERY cold and cynical. A 10 all the way.
“I am big–it’s the pictures that got small”. “All right Mr. deMille–I’m ready for my closeup”
The Hollywood Myth FOREVER Shattered !!!
Author: Donald J. Lamb from Philadelphia, PA
22 April 1999
Until 1950, American films were strictly entertainment, some deeper than others. Studio executives were very protective of image and star-making. In essence, everything seemed perfect. Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman, Jr. created a stunning work of art that splits the Hollywood sign in two and exposed a dream factory for what it really is: a struggle to both gain and keep notoriety in the limelight. “Norma Desmond” and “Joe Gillis” are at opposite ends of this warped Hollywood mindset, with Gillis, played by that most cynical of actors, William Holden trying to pay the rent and Norma (Gloria Swanson) living a lie as a silent queen whose star burned “10,000 midnights ago”. How a picture with such a snide look at the industry could come out in 1950 is simply mind-boggling, considering some of the light fodder that came out of Hollywood at the time.
It has inspired many modern day disciples such as Altman’s THE PLAYER, and Sonnenfeld’s GET SHORTY, both of which took their vicious, hilarious parodies to the jugular of the movie capital of the world. SUNSET BLVD is the father of all socially oriented pictures regarding the movies and is by far the best.
The images of this beautiful black and white powerhouse are fascinating and unforgettable: the dead writer floating in a pool, eyes wide open, looking right at us at the beginning; the eerie pipe organ that plays by the breeze in the middle of one of the most deep and dustiest sets ever; the funeral ceremony of the dead monkey in Norma’s courtyard (“That must have been one important chimp. The grandson of King Kong perhaps.” says Holden in a delightfully crisp and wise voice-over.)
Holden pulls his car into a driveway off of the boulevard that will change his life forever. He is the emblem of the struggle to get notoriety. He has only a few B Movies to his credit. Swanson as Norma Desmond is the symbol of lost fame and has become the talk of legend. What is ironic about her character is that she may be playing herself in an odd way. She WAS an actual silent star whose career went down the tubes after the talkies came about. Her madness combined with Holden’s last drop of naiveté combine to give us one of the most electrifying “give and take” between actors I’ve ever witnessed.
Both lead parts were passed over by several actors. Holden was eventually forced into it as a contract player. How could you pass on such a script? Even “wax figures” (as Holden calls them) Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner, and Anna Q. Nilsson come to Norma’s to play bridge, of course being Hollywood outcasts themselves, after the invention of sound in film. Some of the dialogue takes a swing at actual movies and people (GONE WITH THE WIND, Zanuck, Menjou).
This must have brought the house down in Hollywood screening rooms throughout the town. Louis B. Mayer even condemned Billy Wilder for “ruining the industry”. The film is sad and darkly humorous depicting the antics of Norma, who is quite insane, and Holden who is going along with what Norma is giving him, but has plans of his own. Another wax figure still alive and kicking in 1950 appears as himself in an important role. Cecil B. Demille, who once directed Norma/Gloria back in the silent heyday, tries to set her straight, telling her pictures have “changed”. They had indeed, especially after this searing comment on celebrity status. I wonder if they knew what they were creating while making this gem.
Scenes are shot right on the lot of Paramount Studios (even the front gate), and Norma’s mansion is an unforgettable piece of history and gloom with a floor that “Valentino once danced on.” There is so much to discuss, but little to enlighten you on how great SUNSET BLVD is without you seeing it. Just two years later, films began to crop up with the same tainted view of Hollywood, most with varying degrees of deception. SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, one of the all-time entertainments quietly had a nasty taste in its mouth regarding celebrity and the invention of sound movies. Watch these films closely and see the skeletons of the modern Hollywood bash films.
RATING: 10 of 10
They Don’t Make ‘Em Like This Anymore
Author: belikemichael.com from NYC
2 July 2004
This is such a great film on so many levels I can’t really settle on where to begin. It is so beautifully shot (in that stark black/white that only nitrate negative could achieve), has a witty, clever and extremely well-written script, features some of the best acting in film’s history, acrobatically balances the main plot/subplots with expert precision, contains some of the best characters on celluloid, has many true-to-life parallels (Swanson’s career/real life cameos/DeMille’s involvement/etc) and is peppered with such great dialogue/narration that today’s film writers should take note. If that weren’t enough, there’s even a cameo by silent film great Buster Keaton (among others).
One of the most appealing aspects of this film is how, in the story, an aging, forgotten star is trying to recapture a bygone era (the silent film era). What’s interesting is that now, so many years later, we’re looking back at her looking back. To present day viewers, Gloria Swanson of the 1950’s is a long forgotten lost gem and to experience her own longing for the 1920’s is especially captivating (and a little chilling, I might add). I don’t think this film could have had that same effect when it debuted and maybe this added dimension holds so much more appeal for today’s audiences. We all know that nothing lasts forever, but we don’t often consider the abandoned participants; much like the veterans of a past war.
In response to the famous Swanson line (while watching one of her silent films): “…we didn’t need dialogue; we had faces”, I’d like to also add that they “didn’t need movies; they had films.”
They truly don’t make them like this anymore. 10/10
The street known as Sunset Boulevard has been associated with Hollywood film production since 1911, when the town’s first film studio 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.
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. 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.
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.
The script contains many references to Hollywood and screenwriters, with Joe Gillis making most of the cynical comments. He sums up his film-writing career with the remark: “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.” In another exchange, Betty comments to Gillis: “I’d always heard that you had some talent.” He replies: “That was last year. This year I’m trying to make a living.”
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.
Several of Desmond’s lines, such as, “All right Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” and “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small!” are often quoted. Much of the film’s wit is delivered through Norma Desmond’s deadpan comments, which are often followed by sarcastic retorts from Gillis. Desmond appears to not hear some of these comments, as she is absorbed by her own thoughts and in denial, and so some of Gillis’s lines are heard only by the audience, with Wilder blurring the line between the events and Gillis’s narration. Gillis’s response to Desmond’s cry that “the pictures got small” is a muttered reply, “I knew something was wrong with them”. Wilder often varies the structure, with Desmond taking Gillis’s comments seriously and replying in kind. For example, when the two discuss the overwrought script Desmond has been working on, Gillis observes, “They’ll love it in Pomona.””They’ll love it everyplace,” replies Desmond firmly.
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.
The film refers to real films such as Gone with the Wind and real people such as Darryl F. Zanuck, D. W. Griffith, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, Tyrone Power, Alan Ladd, William Demarest, Adolphe Menjou, Rod La Rocque, Vilma Bánky, Mabel Normand, Bebe Daniels, Marie Prevost, Betty Hutton, Pearl White, Wallace Reid and Barbara Stanwyck along with the Black Dahlia murder case. Norma Desmond declares admiration for Greta Garbo…