review of and comments on Billy Wilder's film
Article added on December 12, 2002
Criticism of Hollywood and its
studio system remains a subject for filmmakers such as Robert
Altman (The Player, 2001), David Lynch (Mulholland
Drive, 2001) or Woody Allen (Hollywood Ending, 2002). Since
November 2002, one of the best films ever (not only on Hollywood filmmaking) is available on DVD: Billy Wilder's
Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Sunset Boulevard is a masterpiece of film noir and a bitter tragic-comedy which
shows the dark side of Hollywood's fabric of dreams. Remarkably, the film was partly
shot at Paramount Studios. The studio had total confidence in Billy Wilder.
Stage 18, by the way, is still in use in 2002. During the shooting of Sunset
Boulevard, Cecil B. DeMille, who plays himself in Wilder's film, was
directing Samson and Delilah on Stage 18.
The film title Sunset Boulevard is a metaphor for the state of mind and
of the career of the film diva Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson).
Gloria Swanson herself had been one of the major stars of silent cinema. Her
Hollywood career had ended in the mid 1930s. However, Swanson was neither a
recluse nor a lunatic like her film character but a hard-working woman who ran
her own company and had her own radio show in New York City. For the role of
Norma Desmond, Gloria Swanson divorced her fourth or fifth husband and
moved to Hollywood.
The film title also refers to the existing boulevard in Los Angeles where
Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is supposed to live. The actual house seen in
the film (exterior and back gardens; the interiors were shot in a studio) was
built in 1924, owned by the former wife of tycoon Jean Paul Getty and not
located on Sunset Boulevard. It was demolished in 1957.
The opening of the film is masterful: Police cars and motorcycles lead us to a
villa on Sunset Boulevard where one can see the dead body of a man floating
in a swimming pool. An off-voice tells us that the man "always wanted a
pool." The scene is filmed from the bottom of the pool with the help of a
mirror. Around the pool one can recognize policemen.
However, this was not the original opening scene. First, Billy Wilder thought
of a Morgue Prologue with dead bodies at the morgue, talking to each
other about their respective destinies. These scenes, shot in 1948, can be
found on the DVD's bonus material. Besides the silent footage, the DVD also
contains the corresponding script pages. The original opening scene was
dropped after unsuccessful pre-screening.
One of the first conversations between the professionally and financially
struggling writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) and the aging silent film queen
Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) sums up the diva's state of mind as well as
director Billy Wilder's ironic and critical distance towards the film
industry: Gillis: " You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent
pictures. You used to be big." - Norma: "I am big. It's the pictures
that got small." - Gillis: "Aha. I knew there was something wrong
In order to symbolize and emphasize the difference between old and new
Hollywood, William Holden uses the underplayed style of acting of the post-war
era whereas Gloria Swanson uses the big gestures and the expressive acting
style of the silent film era. Furthermore, the film's music director Waxman
(who knew Wilder from his Ufa years in Germany) chose a tango to introduce
Norma and a bebop to present Joe Gillis.
As in many films by Billy Wilder, one of the main characters, here Joe Gillis
(William Holden) is in a moral dilemma: A man does something he hates to do.
In other words, he prostitutes himself in different ways. By the way, Norma
is only in her early 50s and not unattractive. Gillis is 31. A relationship
between them is not unlikely.
Wilder humorously lets Joe Gillis take place of the dead monkey Norma is about
to bury when Gillis arrives at her house. After Gillis moved to the room over
the garage, he told Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim) his first dream:
"a chimp was dancing for pennies". He had taken the place of the
dead chimpanzee as Norma's friend.
The casting for Sunset Boulevard is brilliant. Erich von Stroheim had
been a respected director in the silent film era. He had worked in the crew of
D. W. Griffith during the shooting of the film classic Birth of a Nation.
In 1924, Stroheim began to ruin his career as a director with Greed, an
eighteen hour film epos which is today considered a masterpiece. At the time,
it was only released in a mutilated version.
Erich von Stroheim definitively blew his career with Queen Kelly
(1929). The film's star was.... Gloria Swanson. The film also destroyed her
career. In Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and Joe
Gillis (William Holden) watch a film in the diva's screening room. And yes, it
is Queen Kelly. The film was financed by Joe Kennedy, the father of JFK.
At that time, Swanson was apparently his lover. One day, Swanson is said to
have called Joe Kennedy, telling him that a madman was directing the picture,
referring to Erich von Stroheim who was actually by many considered a strange
character, on- and off-screen. By the time Sunset Boulevard was made,
the bitterness between Swanson and von Stroheim had faded away.
[Added on March 7, 2016: In the movie, Erich von Stroheim plays the
chauffeur of Gloria Swanson's character. The chauffeur tells William
Holden's character that he once made her famous as the director of her first
movies and that was her first husband].
By the way, Montgomery Clift and not William Holden was the first choice for the character of Joe
Gillis. Despite this fact, Holden
became one of Billy Wilder's closest friends and starred in another three of
Sunset Boulevard was not awarded an Academy Award for Best Picture,
which was won by All About Eve. There is a musical based on Wilder's Sunset
Boulevard, which is still played on stage. Among others, Glenn Close
starred as Norma Desmond.
William Holden - Joe Gillis;
Gloria Swanson - Norma Desmond;
Erich von Stroheim - Max von Mayerling; Nancy Olson - Betty Schaefer;
Jack Webb - Artie Green. Among the other actors are Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough and, as themselves,
director Cecil B. DeMille, journalist Hedda Hopper and silent film stars Buster Keaton, Anna Q.
Nilsson, H. B. Warner. The silent film stars play cards with Norma in a scene.
William Holden's character refers to them as "The Wax Works".
Billy Wilder, director: Sunset Boulevard, 1950. Paramount, DVD,
2002. Order the DVD from
Billy Wilder, director: Sunset Boulevard, 1950. Paramount, DVD, 2002. Get it from Amazon.com,