13 Close-Up Facts About Sunset Boulevard
Sunset Boulevard, one of Hollywood's most cruelly accurate depictions of itself, is now 65 years old—older, even, than its main character, who's washed up at 50. Sunset Boulevard is no has-been, though. If anything, its observations on the greedy machinations of Tinseltown are truer now than they were in 1950. (Norma Desmond would be quick to point out that, thanks to computers and iPads, the pictures have gotten even smaller.)
It came out the same year as another behind-the-scenes showbiz classic, All About Eve, which took most of the Oscars. But trophies or not, Sunset Boulevard has stayed near the top of the list of great movies about moviemaking. Here's some backstage information to enhance your experience the next time you visit the Paramount lot.
1. MAE WEST WAS BILLY WILDER'S FIRST CHOICE TO STAR.
Initially, writer-director Wilder envisioned the movie as a straightforward comedy, and the famously saucy West seemed like a perfect fit. But she wanted to rewrite her dialogue (as was her custom)—a nonstarter for Wilder, who seldom let his actors change their lines even slightly from what was on the page. It's probably just as well, since the darker, more nuanced story that eventually emerged was quite different from West's wheelhouse anyway.
2. MONTGOMERY CLIFT WAS THE FIRST CHOICE FOR JOE GILLIS.
The much sought after but highly finicky leading man accepted the role, then backed out. Some speculated it was because he was dating an older woman at the time (actress Libby Holman, 16 years his senior) and didn't want people to think the movie was a parody of that relationship. Clift's biographers say it was because he had a strong following among older women, who wrote him letters describing how they'd like to mother him, and he didn't want to encourage such behavior.
3. IT WAS PARTLY INSPIRED BY AN EVELYN WAUGH NOVEL.
The British author's satirical The Loved One was published in 1948, after Waugh had spent time in Hollywood observing the film industry and, of all things, the funeral industry. (The book is about a failed screenwriter who works for a cemetery and lives with a forgotten silent-film star.) Wilder and his co-writers reversed several elements, and there was no official connection between the movie and Waugh's book. But as commentator Steve Sailer points out, more than one contemporary source mentions it as an inspiration. Sunset Boulevard's cinematographer, John Seitz, said Wilder "had wanted to do The Loved One, but couldn't obtain the rights." And gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (who appears in the movie as herself) wrote that "Billy Wilder ... was crazy about Evelyn Waugh's book The Loved One, and the studio wanted to buy it."
4. GLORIA SWANSON AND CECIL B. DEMILLE USED THEIR REAL PET NAMES FOR EACH OTHER.
When Norma Desmond visits her old friend at Paramount, she affectionately calls him "Mr. DeMille" (not Cecil or C.B.), and he calls her "young fellow." In real life, when Swanson and DeMille had worked together, that was what they always called each other. It's kind of sweet, actually.
5. THE OPENING SCENE HAD TO BE SCRAPPED BECAUSE THE AUDIENCE FOUND IT TOO FUNNY.
Sunset Boulevard now begins with police cars racing to Norma Desmond's house, where a dead body is floating in the pool. But it originally began in the L.A. county morgue, with toe-tagged corpses—including Joe's—speaking to each other (in voiceover) about how they died. It was meant to be slightly humorous in a morbid way, but the audience at the first test screening found it flat-out hysterical, setting the wrong mood for the rest of the picture. When two more test audiences reacted the same way, Wilder cut the scene and the movie was saved.
6. THE UNDERWATER SHOT WAS NOT FILMED UNDERWATER.
One of the few showy bits of camerawork in the film is near the beginning, when the corpse floating in Norma Desmond's pool is seen from underneath. But it was too difficult to put a camera underwater to get the shot, so Wilder and cinematographer John Seitz came up with an ingenious solution: they put a mirror on the bottom of the pool and filmed the reflection from above.
7. NORMA DESMOND'S HOUSE WAS ON A DIFFERENT BOULEVARD, AND WAS LATER SEEN IN ANOTHER MOVIE.
The interiors of Norma's decaying mansion were actually a set at Paramount Studios. The exterior shots were of a house located not on Sunset but Irving Boulevard, near the corner of Wilshire, owned by the J. Paul Getty family. Like most old things in L.A., the house has since been replaced by an office building. But before that happened, it appeared in Rebel Without a Cause as the abandoned mansion in which the kids hang out. Also, the house didn't have a pool, so Paramount paid to have one installed on the condition that if Mrs. Getty didn't like it, they'd remove it after filming was over. (She liked it.)
8. WILLIAM HOLDEN'S WIFE DIDN'T APPRECIATE THAT KISS.
Brenda Marshall, Holden's wife since 1941, was visiting the set when Holden and Nancy Olson had their kissing scene. Wilder, ever the merry prankster, told Holden and Olson to keep kissing until he called "cut": he was going to fade out at the end of the scene, and he needed to make sure the kiss didn't end prematurely. Well, they kissed, and kissed, and kept kissing, and the crew began to snicker, and finally Marshall's voice rang out: "Cut, dammit!" Everyone had a good laugh, though the record doesn't reflect whether Marshall joined in.
9. HEDY LAMARR WANTED $25,000 TO DO A CAMEO.
When Norma visits DeMille at Paramount, he's in the midst of shooting Samson and Delilah, which really is what he was up to at the time. For added meta-truthfulness, Wilder wanted to have that film's lead actress, Hedy Lamarr, be there too, so that DeMille could ask her to let Norma sit in her chair (you know, those behind-the-scenes chairs that have the star's name on them). For this Lamarr wanted $25,000 (which would be about $250,000 in 2015 dollars). Wilder changed the scene so that DeMille offered Lamarr's chair to Norma without Lamarr being present. But even to show a chair with her name on it, Lamarr wanted $10,000. So Wilder gave up, and DeMille (who was already being compensated) gave Norma his own chair.
10. THE SILENT FILM NORMA WATCHES HAD GREAT BEHIND-THE-SCENES SIGNIFICANCE.
In her private screening room, with butler Max running the projector, Norma cuddles up with Joe to watch one of her own films. The footage we see is from Queen Kelly (1929), which starred Gloria Swanson and was directed by Max himself, Erich von Stroheim. Queen Kelly nearly ruined both of their careers: von Stroheim was replaced as director midway through after complaints from Swanson about the racy material and arguments with the producer (JFK's father!) over the spiraling budget.
An ending for the film was cobbled together, but the movie was never shown in the U.S. The clips in Sunset Boulevard were the first American audiences had seen of it. For Swanson, whose career was already being threatened by the advent of talkies, Queen Kelly was another blow. Still, whatever hard feelings there may have been between Swanson and von Stroheim, they were gone by the time Sunset Boulevard came along.
11. ERICH VON STROHEIM RESENTED THE MOVIE.
The actor-turned-director-turned-actor-again, who had indeed been one of the great silent-filmmakers, winced at playing a character so self-referential and demeaning, but he needed the money. He called it "that goddamned butler role" for the remaining seven years of his life.
12. IT WAS THE END OF A LONG PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN BILLY WILDER AND CHARLES BRACKETT.
Brackett was a New York-born novelist and screenwriter, head of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1930s, and president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1949 to 1955 (during which time he won two screenwriting Oscars—good news for conspiracy theorists). Brackett was also a frequent collaborator with Billy Wilder, co-writing and producing a dozen movies with him (including The Lost Weekend) before Sunset Boulevard proved to be their last.
Wilder was, well, the wilder of the two, often bawdy and crass, while Brackett was genteel. This dynamic served them well for years, each man's extreme tendencies being balanced by the other's, but during Sunset Boulevard it finally became unworkable. A disagreement over the montage where Norma puts herself through hell getting thinner and younger for her comeback nearly resulted in physical violence: Brackett thought it was too mean, while Wilder felt it was necessary to show what lengths a desperate actor would go to in Hollywood. Wilder's version is the one they went with (he was the director, after all), but the argument marked a turning point for him, and he decided never to work with Brackett again. Their partnership ended in a professional and gentlemanly manner—there was no airing of any dirty laundry—but it did end.
13. THE LIVE MUSICAL VERSION WAS ALMOST 40 YEARS IN THE MAKING.
You probably know about the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of Sunset Boulevard that premiered in London in 1993 and headed to Broadway in 1994 with Glenn Close in the lead role. But attempts to turn the movie into a stage musical began almost immediately, spearheaded by none other than Gloria Swanson. With unofficial permission from Paramount, she worked for a few years with writer Dickson Hughes and actor Richard Stapley developing a show called Starring Norma Desmond (later changed to Boulevard). But in 1957, Paramount formally asked Desmond to stop, the studio bosses having decided not to grant permission after all.
A few years later, Stephen Sondheim became interested in writing a musical version of his own, working with writer Burt Shevelove (with whom he ended up writing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum). But when Sondheim pitched the idea to Billy Wilder at a party, Wilder said, "You can't write a musical about Sunset Boulevard. It has to be an opera. After all, it's about a dethroned queen." Sondheim respectfully stopped work on the project and, on the same grounds, later declined an offer to write the score for a proposed movie remake.
Blu-ray features and commentary
American Film Institute
On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, by Ed Sikov