Sunset Boulevard (film)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - View original article

Sunset Boulevard

Theatrical release poster
Directed byBilly Wilder
Produced byCharles Brackett
Written byBilly Wilder
Charles Brackett
D. M. Marshman, Jr.
StarringWilliam Holden
Gloria Swanson
Erich von Stroheim
Nancy Olson
Music byFranz Waxman
CinematographyJohn F. Seitz
Editing byDoane Harrison
Arthur Schmidt
StudioParamount Pictures
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date(s)
  • August 4, 1950 (1950-08-04)
Running time110 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.75 million
Box office$5 million
  (Redirected from Norma Desmond)
Jump to: navigation, search
Sunset Boulevard

Theatrical release poster
Directed byBilly Wilder
Produced byCharles Brackett
Written byBilly Wilder
Charles Brackett
D. M. Marshman, Jr.
StarringWilliam Holden
Gloria Swanson
Erich von Stroheim
Nancy Olson
Music byFranz Waxman
CinematographyJohn F. Seitz
Editing byDoane Harrison
Arthur Schmidt
StudioParamount Pictures
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date(s)
  • August 4, 1950 (1950-08-04)
Running time110 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.75 million
Box office$5 million

Sunset Boulevard (also known as Sunset Blvd.) is a 1950 American film noir directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, and produced and co-written by Charles Brackett. It was named after the boulevard that runs through Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, California.

The film stars William Holden as Joe Gillis, an unsuccessful screenwriter, Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, a faded silent movie star who draws him into her fantasy world where she dreams of making a triumphant return to the screen with Erich von Stroheim as Max Von Mayerling, her butler and ex-husband. 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.

Praised by many critics when first released, Sunset Boulevard was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won three. It is widely accepted as a classic, often cited as one of the greatest films of American cinema. 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 twelve 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.



The film opens with the camera tracking down Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, California as police cars begin racing down it. The lifeless body of a young man, Joe Gillis (Holden) floats in the swimming pool of a palatial mansion on Sunset Boulevard. As the police begin converging on the house Joe's voice narrates, in flashback style, the story of the events leading up to his own murder.

Six months earlier, Joe was down on his luck, unable to find work as a screenwriter, having only made a few undistinguished films in his short career. Broke, and on the verge of losing his car, with no other options except a low-paying newspaper job in Ohio, Joe tries to persuade Paramount Pictures producer Sheldrake (Clark) to buy his most recent script, but fails to do so after script reader Betty Schaefer gives Sheldrake a harsh critique of the script in her summation. Joe then tries unsuccessfully to borrow money from his friends, as he has fallen behind on his car payments. Fleeing from repossession men in his car, one of Joe's tires blows out in front of a large and seemingly deserted mansion on Sunset. Hiding the car in the garage, he sets out to explore the decaying house, which turns out to be inhabited when a woman inside calls to him. Mistaken for the pet undertaker to a recently deceased pet chimpanzee, he is ushered in by the mysterious butler, Max Von Mayerling (Von Stroheim). Meeting the woman who owns the house, he recognizes her as long-forgotten silent-film star Norma Desmond (Swanson). When she learns that he is a writer, she invites him in and asks for his opinion on an immense and poorly written script she has written for a film about Salome that she hopes will revive her faded acting career. Although Joe finds the script awful, he flatters Norma and convinces her to hire him as an editor.

Joe is put up in her guest room. The next morning he objects when he sees that Max has moved his belongings from his apartment to the mansion on Norma's orders, and that she has paid his overdue rent. Though he hates being dependent on her, he accepts the situation and begins living at the mansion, first in a room over the garage, then in the mansion itself. As he works on Norma's script, he comes to see how unaware she is of how her fame has died. She refuses to hear any criticism of her work, and makes him watch her old films in the evenings. Although she still receives fan mail, Joe later learns that Max feeds into Norma's fantasy by sending the letters himself. He explains that Norma's state of mind is fragile, and she has attempted suicide in the past. Over the next few weeks, Norma becomes obsessed with Joe. She lavishes attention on him and buys him expensive clothing, including a tailcoat for a private New Year's Eve party attended only by the two of them. Horrified to learn that she has fallen in love with him, he tries to let her down gently, but she slaps him and retreats to her room. Joe, thinking his time with her is over, escapes to a party at his friend, assistant director Artie Green's (Webb) house, where he meets Betty Schaefer again. While still unimpressed with most of his work, she believes one scene in one of his scripts has potential. Joe half-agrees to work on it with her, and calls the house on Sunset to tell Max he is leaving. However, when Max informs him that Norma has attempted suicide with Joe's razor blade, Joe leaves the party and returns to the mansion, where he apologizes to Norma and tells her he loves her.

After a while, Norma considers her script complete, and sends it to Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount and waits for his answer. Not long afterwards, calls from Paramount asking for Norma begin to arrive. They come from an executive named Gordon Cole, and Norma refuses to speak to anyone other than DeMille himself. Eventually, she has Max drive her and Joe to the studio in her Isotta-Fraschini, a rare vintage luxury car. While DeMille entertains Norma, many of the older guards, technicians and extras on the set recognize her and welcome her back. Joe and Max, meanwhile, learn that Cole had called because the studio wants to rent her car and has no interest in her script. Max insists that they hide these facts from her, as he hides the fact that he has faked her recent fan mail. He later confesses to Joe that he was once a respected film director who discovered Norma as a girl, and was also her first husband, and that he now remains as her servant because he cannot bear to leave her.

Meanwhile, while Norma undergoes a rigorous series of beauty treatments to prepare for her comeback, Joe has secretly begun to work with Betty on a screenplay. Though she is now engaged to Artie, she falls in love with him. Although he likes her, Joe is dismayed at the triangle in which he is now caught. When Norma discovers the script with Betty's name on it, she phones Betty and insinuates what sort of man Joe really is. Joe, hearing her, invites Betty to the mansion to see for herself. When she arrives, he coldly terminates their relationship by letting her believe that he is a gigolo and prefers to live off Norma. After Betty leaves the mansion in tears, Joe begins packing, having decided to return to Ohio. He bluntly informs Norma of the truth - that there will be no comeback, her script will never be shot, her fan letters come from Max, and she is forgotten. He ignores Norma's threats to shoot herself, and in a fit of passion she shoots him as he leaves, leaving him dead in the pool. The scene returns to the opening. Still narrating, Joe expresses fear over how Norma will be unable to cope with the disgrace, and the discovery of how forgotten she truly is. By the time the police arrive, however, she has slipped into a hallucinatory state of mind, and thinks the news cameras are film cameras set-up for a film shoot. To help the police coax her down the stairs, Max plays along with her hallucination that she is on the set of her new film. He verbally sets up the scene for her, and yells "Action!"; Norma then dramatically descends her grand staircase. Joe, in voiceover, remarks that life has decided to spare her the pain of that discovery, and that "The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her." Norma makes a short speech at how happy she is to be back making a film, and delivers the film's most famous line: "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."[1]


The actual painted boulevard name was used as the opening titles

The street 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. The stars were the subject of public fascination throughout the world as magazines and newspapers reported the excesses of their lives.[citation needed]

Norma Talmadge has been described as "the obvious if unacknowledged source of Norma Desmond, the grotesque, predatory silent movie queen of" the film, itself a malignant misrepresentation of Talmadge starring an actress who had been a rival in the 1920s.[2]

As a young man, 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, now a Los Angeles resident, found them to be 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.[3]


From left to right, William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Nancy Olson and Erich von Stroheim

Main cast

William HoldenJoseph C. "Joe" Gillis
Gloria SwansonNorma Desmond
Erich von StroheimMaximillian "Max" von Mayerling
Nancy OlsonBetty Schaefer
Fred ClarkSheldrake
Lloyd GoughMarino
Jack WebbArthur "Artie" Green
Franklyn FarnumUndertaker
Larry J. BlakeFinance man #1
Charles DaytonFinance man #2
Cecil B. DeMilleHimself
Hedda HopperHerself
Buster KeatonHimself
Anna Q. NilssonHerself
H. B. WarnerHimself
Ray EvansHimself
Jay LivingstonHimself

Cast selection

Wilder considered many actors for the lead roles, but made a memorable pairing with Gloria Swanson and William Holden

According to Brackett, he and Wilder 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 too much difficulty 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. They had considered having Shearer play Miss Desmond with Fred MacMurray as her Joe. They approached Greta Garbo with the role, but she had no interest whatsoever. Wilder and Brackett then visited Mary Pickford, but before they even discussed the plot with her, Wilder realized she would consider their proposal of a role in which she would have an affair with a man half her age an insult, and they graciously departed. They had considered pairing Mary Pickford and Montgomery Clift together to play Norma and Joe.[4]

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, though, as 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. Although Swanson was not seeking a comeback, she was intrigued when Wilder discussed the role with her.[3]

Swanson was chagrined at the notion of submitting to a screen test, saying she had "made twenty films for Paramount. Why do they want me to audition?" Her reaction was later 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 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," Cukor replied. His enthusiasm convinced Swanson to participate,[5] and she signed a contract for $50,000.[6] In a 1975 interview, Wilder recalled Swanson's reaction with the observation, "There was a lot of Norma in her, you know."[7]

Montgomery Clift was signed to play Joe Gillis for $5,000 per week for a guaranteed twelve 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, 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."[8] It has been suggested that the fact that Clift was himself having an affair with a much older woman (the singer Libby Holman) was his real reason for withdrawing from the film.[9]

Forced to consider the available Paramount stars, Wilder and Brackett focused on William Holden, who had made an impressive debut in Golden Boy in 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 that offered to Clift.[10]

Erich von Stroheim, a leading film director of the 1920s who had actually directed Swanson, was signed to play Max, Norma's faithful servant and protector. 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 DeMille's Samson and Delilah.[11]


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.[11]

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."[1]

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.[12]

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 widely remembered and 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."[13] "They'll love it everyplace," replies Desmond firmly.[1]

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 Erik of 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.[14]

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."[15]


The score was composed by Franz Waxman. In 2002 a CD was published of the score re-recorded by Joel McNeely and the Scottish Symphony Orchestra.[16]

Key creative personnel

Sunset Boulevard is notable for the atmospheric film noir cinematography of John F. Seitz. In this scene, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is dramatically lit by a movie projector.

The film's dark, shadowy black-and-white film noir cinematography was the work of John F. Seitz. Wilder had worked with him several times 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).

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 made box and lowered underwater, 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.[11]

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."[11]

The corpse of Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating in Norma Desmond's pool in the film's opening scenes. The desired scene proved difficult to stage, and was achieved by carefully placing mirrors on the bottom of the swimming pool and filming from above.

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. Swanson recalled in her biography that the costumes were only "a trifle outdated, a trifle exotic."[5] 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."[11]

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 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 soundtrack was released on compact disc for the first time in 2002.

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 done the interior design for some movie stars' houses, including Mae West's. William Haines, an interior designer and former actor, later defended criticism of Dreier's set design with the observation, "Bebe Daniels, Norma Shearer and Pola Negri all had homes with ugly interiors like that."[11]

During filming, considerable publicity was given to health-conscious Gloria Swanson's youthful appearance, which did not contrast enough with William Holden's mature looks. Wilder insisted that the age difference 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.[11]

Touches of authenticity

In dissecting Hollywood's "world of illusion," Wilder carefully placed the story within as authentic a setting as possible and made use of Hollywood history. Norma Desmond's name is believed to have been inspired by actor/director William Desmond Taylor, who was murdered in 1922, and his close associate and friend Mabel Normand, whose career was marked by scandals surrounding the murder.[11]

Swanson was considered a fitting representative of Hollywood's past, remembered nostalgically by older fans but unknown to many younger movie viewers. Her personal collection of photographs decorated the set of Norma Desmond's home, causing Desmond's fictional past to resemble Swanson's authentic career.[11]

The script/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 and Barbara Stanwyck along with the Black Dahlia murder case. Norma Desmond declares admiration for Greta Garbo.[1]

Wilder extended his Hollywood references into some of his casting choices. Erich von Stroheim was a leading director of the silent era. In the role of Max, he watches a film with Norma Desmond, and the briefly shown scene is from Queen Kelly (1929), which von Stroheim himself directed with Swanson in the title role. Cecil B. De Mille, often credited as the person most responsible for making Swanson a star, plays himself, and was filmed on the set of his current film Samson and Delilah at Paramount Studios. He calls Norma "young fella," as he had called Swanson, a tiny detail of authenticity suggested by De Mille.

Norma's friends who come to play bridge with her, described in the script as "the waxworks", are Swanson's contemporaries Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H. B. Warner, who, like De Mille, play themselves. Hedda Hopper also plays herself, reporting on Norma Desmond's downfall in the film's final scenes.[11] (Coincidentally, both Keaton and Hopper would die on February 1, 1966.)

In a comic scene, Norma Desmond performs a pantomime for Joe Gillis as a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty, in homage to Swanson's earliest film roles. She also performs a Charlie Chaplin impersonation identical to one she performed in the film Manhandled (1924).

The bed in the shape of a swan that Norma Desmond slept in 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 home in the Alto Nido apartments was a real apartment block in central Hollywood and was often populated by struggling writers. The scenes of Gillis and Betty Schaefer on Paramount's backlot were filmed on the actual backlot, and the interior of Schwab's Drug Store was carefully recreated for several scenes. The exterior scenes of the Desmond house were filmed near an old house on Wilshire Blvd. built during the 1920s, which by 1949 was owned by the former wife of J. Paul Getty. The house was also featured five years later in Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause. It was later demolished, and an office building now stands in its place.[11]

Critical reception

In the final scene Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) says, "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up," before appearing to reach into the camera and dissolving into the light.

Wilder and Brackett were nervous about a major screening in Hollywood, and decided to have the preview in Evanston, Illinois. 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, the opening scene was deleted. The new edit was well received in Poughkeepsie, New York.

In Hollywood, Paramount arranged a private screening for the various studio heads and specially invited guests. After viewing the film, Barbara Stanwyck bowed 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!" Actress Mae Murray, a contemporary of Swanson's, was offended by the film and commented, "None of us floozies was that nuts."[11]

Wilder's reply to Mayer's response after the Hollywood screening was both insulting and abrupt. Upon hearing of Mayer's slight, Billy in characteristic fashion strode up to the mogul and said: "I am Mr. Wilder, and go fuck yourself!" Another citation lists that he also said: "Go shit in your hat!" The severity of the response was due to the notion that Mayer brought up the fact that Wilder was Jewish and that he would be better off being sent back to Germany. A statement of such a nature so soon after the war gave additional depth to Mayer's statement. That comment didn't get by Wilder."[17][18]

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",[19] while Boxoffice Review wrote "the picture will keep spectators spellbound."[20] James Agee, writing for Sight and 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,"[11] while Look praised her "brilliant and haunting performance."[19]

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."[11]

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."[11] 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."[21]

After a seven-week run at Radio City Music Hall, Variety magazine reported the film had grossed "around $1,020,000", making it one of that cinema'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.[11]

23rd Academy Awards (Oscars) – 1950

Sunset Boulevard received 11 Academy Award nominations and won three Academy Awards.[22]

Best Motion PictureNominatedParamount (Charles Brackett, Producer)
Best DirectorNominatedBilly Wilder
Best ActorNominatedWilliam Holden
Best ActressNominatedGloria Swanson
Best Writing, Story and ScreenplayWonCharles Brackett, D. M. Marshman, Jr., Billy Wilder
Best Supporting ActorNominatedErich von Stroheim
Best Supporting ActressNominatedNancy Olson
Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Black-and-White)WonHans Dreier, John Meehan, Samuel M. Comer, Ray Moyer
Best Cinematography (Black-and-White)NominatedJohn F. Seitz
Best Film EditingNominatedArthur Schmidt, Doane Harrison
Best Music (Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture)WonFranz Waxman

Sunset Boulevard's eleven 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. Swanson recalled the press' 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."[19]

In an interview years later, Davis bluntly stated that she and Swanson had "cancelled each other out,"[23] though in 1982 she told Playboy of her admiration for Swanson's performance, saying, "If she'd won, I'd have shouted hooray. She was sensational, just fantastic."[24]

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.

American Film Institute recognition


The film earned an estimated $2,350,000 at the US box office in 1950.[25]

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.[26]

The two men briefly reunited in October 1951 to face charges 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.[27]

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.

William Holden began receiving more important parts and his career rose. In 1953, he won the Best Actor Oscar for Stalag 17, 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 (1960) and Son of Flubber (1961), in which she was paired with Fred MacMurray, but despite the films' popularity with movie-goers, her career stalled.

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.[3]

Sunset Boulevard was shown in New York City in 1960, and drew such a positive response that Paramount arranged for a limited rerelease in theaters throughout the United States. It is arguably best known to modern audiences as a result of its television screenings since the 1960s.[3]


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.[28]

Polls conducted by the American Film Institute have demonstrated the lasting appeal of Sunset Boulevard and the esteem in which it is held by the modern filmmakers who respond to these polls. In 1998, it was ranked number twelve on a list of "100 Greatest Films".[29] In 2004, two quotes from Sunset Boulevard were included in their poll of "Greatest Movie Quotes": "All right, Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my close-up" and "I am big, it's the pictures that got small!" at #7 and #24 respectively.[30] In 2005, Franz Waxman's score was named #16 of the top 25 film scores in the AFI's "100 Years of Film Scores" list.[31]

Roger Ebert has 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."[32] Pauline Kael described the film as "almost too clever, but at its best in its cleverness,"[33] and also wrote that it was common to "hear Billy Wilder called the world's greatest director."[34] When Wilder died, 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).[35]

By the late 1990s, most Sunset Boulevard prints were in poor condition, and since the film was one of the last to be filmed on 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. The restored version was released on DVD in 2002.[36] A 2003 BBC review of the restored film described it as "the finest movie ever made about the narcissistic hellhole that is Hollywood."[9]

Other films about Hollywood

While Hollywood had been making films about itself since the 1920s, many of them, such as It's a Great Feeling (1949), were good-natured and fun. Others, such as What Price Hollywood? (1932) and A Star Is Born (1937), hinted at the darker side of Hollywood without explicitly showing it. Sunset Boulevard is considered[by whom?] to be the first to employ such extreme cynicism. It was soon followed by The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Singin' in the Rain (1952) and the musical remake of A Star Is Born (1954). Though none was as harshly self-critical, each depicted the ease and cruelty with which Hollywood could discard a movie star past his or her prime.

Sunset Boulevard was followed by other films which varied the story of an older actress desperately clinging to her past glory, such as Bette Davis in The Star (1952) and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Joan Crawford in Torch Song (1953), Geraldine Page in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), Susan Hayward in Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest (1981). The scenario of an older woman with a gigolo was also used without the Hollywood setting in such films as Senso (1954) with Alida Valli and Farley Granger and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961), which starred Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty, while Katharine Hepburn's descent into madness in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) has been compared[by whom?] to Norma Desmond's final scene. The Day of the Locust (1975), The Last Tycoon (1976), and S.O.B. with Julie Andrews (1981) depict Hollywood in bitter terms and, like Sunset Boulevard, make use of real backstage settings. Rainer Fassbinder's 1982 film Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss, this time set in the post-war German film industry, was heavily influenced by Sunset Boulevard, detailing a tragic love affair of a doomed faded movie star and a younger reporter.

Among the more recent films to discuss Sunset Boulevard in their screenplays or imitate its scenes or dialogue are Soapdish (1991), The Player (1992), Gods and Monsters (1998), Mulholland Drive (2001),[11] Inland Empire (2006) and Be Cool (2005). The ending of Cecil B. Demented (2000) is a parody of Sunset Boulevard's final scene.


Musical versions

There have been several attempts to make a musical out of Sunset Boulevard.

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.[38]

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

Around 1980, Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince were working on a musical adaptation with Norma to be played by Angela Lansbury.[39]

Sondheim gave up the venture after meeting Billy Wilder, who proposed he write an opera instead of a musical. John Kander and Fred Ebb were asked to write it.[citation needed] Finally Andrew Lloyd Webber took the opportunity to create a musical.

Lloyd Webber and Black & Hampton

A musical titled Sunset Boulevard with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton was performed at the 1992 Sydmonton Festival, before opening in London the following year. It closely followed the film story, retained much of the dialogue and attempted to present similar set designs.


The title of the film is commonly spelled Sunset Boulevard, as it was for the film's original theatrical trailer and the National Film Registry. However, since the film opens with a shot of a street curb which has a stencil of Sunset Blvd in capital letters (instead of a title sequence), the title is sometimes spelled "Sunset Blvd.", for instance by Leonard Maltin's Film Guide, the IMDb, and the registration with the Library of Congress.[citation needed]

Adaptations to other media

Sunset Boulevard 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.[40]


  1. ^ a b c d Sunset Boulevard script. dated March 21, 1949, by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and D.M. Marshman, Jr. Retrieved July 21, 2005.
  2. ^ Dave Kehr, "An independent woman, nobly suffering in silents", New York Times, 11 March 2010. Accessed 19 November 2011.
  3. ^ a b c d Perry, p. ??
  4. ^ Sikov, p. 286
  5. ^ a b Swanson, p. ??
  6. ^ Sikov, p. 285
  7. ^ Billy Wilder – "About Film Noir. Interview July 1975. Retrieved July 21, 2005.
  8. ^ Sikov, p. 288
  9. ^ a b Adrian Hennigan, "Exploring Sunset Boulevard". BBC, March 13, 2003. Retrieved July 21, 2005.
  10. ^ Sikov, pp. 288–289
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Staggs (2002), p. ??
  12. ^ Kirgo (1979), p.276.
  13. ^ Theaters in the then-semi-rural Los Angeles suburb of Pomona were favored by Hollywood studios for sneak previews of newly completed films so that the responses of a "normal" American audience could be studied. The Pomona Fox Theater is an example.
  14. ^ Corliss, p. 147
  15. ^ Michael Wood, review of Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe, London Review of Books, March 2, 2000. Retrieved July 21, 2005.
  16. ^ "Soundtrack details: Sunset Blvd". SoundtrackCollector. Retrieved 2010-03-17. 
  17. ^ Sikov, Ed (1999). On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. Hyperion. ISBN 0-7868-8503-3. 
  18. ^ Eyman, Scott (2005). Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-7432-0481-6. 
  19. ^ a b c Wiley and Bona, p. ??
  20. ^ Box Office Movie Review Review dated April 22, 1950. Retrieved July 21, 2005. Archived October 31, 2004 at the Wayback Machine
  21. ^ Thomas M. Pryor, "The Screen: Inner Workings of Filmdom" (review of Sunset Boulevard), New York Times, August 11, 1950; excerpted in program notes, American Museum of the Moving Image, 2007. Archived by the Wayback Machine, September 28, 2007.
  22. ^ Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, award nominations for Sunset Boulevard. Retrieved July 21, 2005.
  23. ^ Hadleigh, p. ??
  24. ^ Staggs (2001), p. ??
  25. ^ 'The Top Box Office Hits of 1950', Variety, January 3, 1951
  26. ^ Sikov, pp. 305–306
  27. ^ Sikov, pp. 310–311
  28. ^ List of selected films 1989–2004. National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. Retrieved July 21, 2005.
  29. ^ American Film Institute 100 Years, 100 Movies – America's Greatest Movies. Retrieved July 21, 2005.
  30. ^ American Film Institute 100 Years, 100 Stars – Greatest Film Quotes. Retrieved July 21, 2005.
  31. ^ "AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores", AFI. Retrieved 19 November 2011.
  32. ^ Roger Ebert review June 27, 1999. Retrieved July 21, 2005.
  33. ^ Kael, s.v. Sunset Boulevard.
  34. ^ Myrna Oliver. "Writer-Director Billy Wilder Dies", Los Angeles Times, March 28, 2002. Retrieved July 21, 2005.
  35. ^ Anthony Breznican, "Oscar winning filmmaker Billy Wilder dies at 95" (Associated Press), Gettysburg Times, March 29, 2002. Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  36. ^ Robert A. Harris, "Saving Sunset", The Digital Bits, November 15, 2002. Retrieved November 21, 2011.
  37. ^ Staggs (2002), pp. 299–300.
  38. ^ Based on liner notes to Boulevard! demo recording CD release, by Richard Stapley, Tim J Hutton and Steven M Warner
  39. ^ Andrew Gans, "Diva talk: Chatting with Four-Time Tony Winner Angela Lansbury", Playbill, 3 November 2006. Retrieved 21 November 2011.
  40. ^ Staggs (2002), p. 297


  • Corliss, Richard (1974). Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema, 1927-1973. Overlook Press. ISBN 0-87951-007-2
  • Hadleigh, Boze (1996). Bette Davis Speaks. Barricade Books. ISBN 1-56980-066-9.
  • Kael, Pauline (1982). 5001 Nights at the Movies. Zenith Books. ISBN 0-09-933550-6.
  • Kirgo, Julie (1979). "Sunset Boulevard". In Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, eds, Film noir: An encyclopedic reference to the American style. Woodstock: Overlook Press, 1979. ISBN 0-87951-055-2.
  • Perry, George & Andrew Lloyd Weber (1993). Sunset Boulevard, From Movie to Musical. Pavilion. ISBN 1-85793-208-0.
  • Sikov, Ed (1998). On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. New York: Hyperion. ISBN 0-7868-6194-0.
  • Staggs, Sam (2001). All About "All About Eve". St Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-27315-0.
  • Staggs, Sam (2002). Close-up on Sunset Boulevard: Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond, and the Dark Hollywood Dream. New York St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-27453-X.
  • Swanson, Gloria (1981). Swanson on Swanson, The Making of a Hollywood Legend. Hamlyn. ISBN 0-600-20496-0.
  • Wiley, Mason and Damien Bona (1987). Inside Oscar, The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards. Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-34453-7.

External links