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  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Writer-director Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard used the conventions of film noir and mingled fact and fiction to create one of the Hollywood studio system’s darkest and most biting satires, a satire whose target was Hollywood itself. Wilder laid bare the opportunism, the ruined lives, and the obsession with success hiding beneath the public image of Hollywood as a “dream factory.”

Summary of Event

Writer-director Billy Wilder knew that Sunset Boulevard (1950) would prove controversial, even though Paramount Pictures allowed directors unusual freedom in selecting and shaping their material. Writers Wilder, his longtime collaborator Charles Brackett, and journalist and film critic D. M. Marshman Marshman, D. M. circulated the first thirty pages of dialogue and narrative on December 21, 1948, but labeled the document top secret, limited its circulation, and gave it a harmless title, A Can of Beans. They faced censorship Censorship;United States by the studio and by the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 Hays Code , as well as possible government condemnation. The Wilder/Brackett film A Foreign Affair Foreign Affair, A (Wilder) (1948) had already been attacked in the U.S. House of Representatives and by the Department of Defense for its refusal to glamorize American servicemen. Brackett, in fact, wanted to make a light comedy instead of the noir tragedy Wilder filmed; as filming ended, Wilder terminated their long collaboration. Sunset Boulevard (Wilder) Film noir Hollywood studio system;exposés [kw]Sunset Boulevard Premiers (Aug. 10, 1950) Sunset Boulevard (Wilder) Film noir Hollywood studio system;exposés [g]North America;Aug. 10, 1950: Sunset Boulevard Premiers[03240] [g]United States;Aug. 10, 1950: Sunset Boulevard Premiers[03240] [c]Motion pictures and video;Aug. 10, 1950: Sunset Boulevard Premiers[03240] Wilder, Billy Swanson, Gloria Holden, William Stroheim, Erich von Brackett, Charles DeMille, Cecil B.

Principal photography for the film was completed in spring, 1949. The film was then screened, not at a traditional Hollywood premier, but in private viewings for select Hollywood leaders. At one, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer head Louis B. Mayer Mayer, Louis B. became enraged, saying Wilder should be driven from Hollywood. Public sneak previews presented other problems. Wilder’s original film began with a body being delivered to a morgue, where the dead bodies explained how they died. Sneak preview audiences laughed—not at all the effect the director desired.

Reluctantly, Wilder reshot the opening. Screaming police sirens now told the audience what kind of film to expect, and the dead protagonist’s voice-over introduced the story while his body still floated in a swimming pool. The film finally opened on August 10, 1950, at New York’s Radio City Music Hall to considerable critical and popular acclaim. At Radio City, it posted seven-week gross receipts of approximately $1,020,000, the sixth-largest gross in the famed theater’s history. With its emphasis on the disillusionment and despair behind the appearance of success, however, the film did not appeal to mainstream audiences in middle America.

Like other films noirs, the black-and-white cinematography of Sunset Boulevard is marked by startling contrasts of light and darkness. The film features a brooding, pessimistic tone, and a weak antihero, minor hack screenwriter Joe Gillis. Silent film actor Norma Desmond’s overly furnished and ornamented mansion is seen in relative darkness, in contrast to the lightness of other scenes. The pessimistic tone, established by Franz Waxman’s Waxman, Franz music, is sustained throughout; automobiles are seen as more valuable than are humans.

In the film, Gillis (played by William Holden) has succumbed to Hollywood values since he left a smalltown Ohio newspaper to pursue success as a screenwriter. Behind in his car payments, he is hounded by men trying to repossess the convertible. He tries to borrow money, telling his agent, in language softened by the era’s censorship, that he would be emasculated without the car. Fleeing the repossession men, a sudden flat tire forces him to seek shelter in the gloomy mansion of Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a character who, like Swanson herself, had been a top box-office star of silent films. The Desmond character was not based on Swanson alone, but—understanding Wilder’s intent—Swanson allowed the director to borrow props from her own films and to show a clip from her film Queen Kelly (production terminated, 1929), presenting them as objects from Desmond’s past.

Desmond, despite her wealth, has retreated into her mansion, hiding from the modern world of 1950 and surrounding herself with old possessions to deny that anything has changed. From the film’s beginning, her behavior is overly theatrical, signaling her fragile mental condition. She is served by her butler, Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim in what is arguably the film’s most brilliant performance), who supports her delusions. Stroheim was the director of one of the greatest films of the silent era, Greed (1924), and he plays Desmond’s former director and husband, now relegated to the role of butler in her life. He adores and pities her; he writes the many fan letters she receives, to fool her into believing she is still remembered and loved.

Desperate to restart her career, Desmond has developed a potential script for a film of Salome. The aging woman hopes to play the teenage heroine. Gillis sees the ridiculousness of her ambition and her script, but he allows himself to be seduced by the security and luxury she offers him. He moves into the mansion, accepts expensive gifts, and pretends to edit her script. Together, they watch her old films, and he meets her bridge partners, played by long-forgotten silent stars Anna Q. Nilsson, and H. B. Warner, as well as Buster Keaton (who was arguably less obscure than the others).

Gillis becomes bored, attempts to leave, and goes to a New Year’s Eve party at the home of his best friend, Artie Green (Jack Webb Webb, Jack ). There, he talks with Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson Olson, Nancy ). Although she is engaged to Green, Gillis flirts with her. Faced with a chance to better her career, she quickly shifts allegiance from Green to Gillis. Gillis is oblivious to his betrayal of both Green and Desmond, although he returns to Desmond when he hears she has attempted suicide. Desmond and Gillis become lovers, but he sneaks out of Desmond’s mansion to work with Schaefer on a screenplay.

Desmond is heartened by repeated calls from Paramount; refusing to take the calls, she assumes Paramount is inviting her to renew her career. She undergoes a frenetic beauty regime to prepare herself, but the studio does not want her. It simply wants to borrow her expensive antique car. Not knowing this, she visits Paramount to meet with famed director Cecil B. DeMille, played by himself. DeMille, who directed both Swanson and Desmond early in their respective careers, is, apart from Max, the one compassionate figure in the film. Remembering her as she was and remembering how much money and success she brought to the studio, he treats her sympathetically. Upon learning the truth, he cancels the order for the car, telling the properties manager to leave her alone.

For the moment, Desmond’s delusions are unshaken, but she learns that Gillis is seeing Schaefer. She calls Betty, who visits the house. Gillis decides to do the right thing: he refuses to leave with Betty, telling her to go back to Artie, and once she is gone, he tells Desmond that he is returning to Ohio. He packs to leave. As he goes, however, Desmond—having finally succumbed to madness—shoots him. He dies facedown in the swimming pool that, earlier in the film, he had said he had always wanted.

Wilder, who lost his mother and other relatives to a World War II Nazi concentration camp, felt strongly about those who valued success and possessions more than human beings. In this, he carried into the twentieth century the values of nineteenth century novelist and reformer Charles Dickens Dickens, Charles . Wilder acknowledged this debt by allowing Gillis to describe Desmond as resembling Miss Havisham from Dickens’s 1860-1861 novel Great Expectations. By implication, Gillis represents an older version of Dickens’s young hero Pip. Both lack loyalty, feel contempt for the weak, and feel superior to the world around them.

For Gillis, Desmond is a mere convenience. He is shocked when, after he deserts her on New Year’s Eve, she attempts suicide. He suddenly realizes she is a human being with desperate needs of her own. Desmond refuses to be shunted aside and forgotten, relegated to waiting for death as are the former silent stars who play bridge with her, but despite her best attempts time has irrevocably passed her by. There is no place for her in this new superficial world. In contrast with Gillis’s opportunism are figures from the past. Successful director DeMille and unsuccessful director von Mayering are men of compassion and loyalty. DeMille understands Desmond’s need to keep her pride. Von Mayering sacrifices himself to her needs.

Wilder’s target was not simply Hollywood. His next film, Ace in the Hole Ace in the Hole (Wilder) (1951), showed that he was attacking the shallow values undermining postwar American culture in general. Ace in the Hole (1951) starred Kirk Douglas as a newspaperman willing to jeopardize human life for his own success.


Sunset Boulevard was one of the first mainstream films to depict the disillusionment and despair underlying Hollywood’s glamour. It was nominated for Academy Awards in eleven categories, including Best Picture and Best Director, but won only three Oscars. Wilder, Brackett, and Marshman won the award for Best Screenplay, Academy Awards;Best Screenplay Franz Waxman won for Best Score, Academy Awards;Best Score and Hans Dreier, John Meehan, Sam Comer, and Ray Moyer won for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White Academy Awards;Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White[Best Art Direction Set Decoration, Black and White] . Photography (later called cinematography) was not mentioned, although the film forced the invention of a new way to shoot upward through water. Cinema;stylistic innovation

The National Board of Review named Sunset Boulevard the best picture of the year, as did the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which also gave Golden Globe awards Golden Globe Awards to Swanson, Wilder, and Waxman. The American Film Institute listed the movie among the top fifty films of all time in 1977 and among the top one hundred films in 1998. In 1989, the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress listed it as one of twenty-five landmark films exemplifying American cinematic art. Andrew Lloyd Webber produced a stage musical based on the film; it opened in London in July, 1993. Sunset Boulevard (Wilder) Film noir Hollywood studio system;exposés

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Basinger, Jeanine. Silent Stars. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. Provides details of Gloria Swanson’s career from which Wilder and Brackett developed the figure of Norma Desmond.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hopp, Glenn. Billy Wilder: The Cinema of Wit, 1906-2002. Köhn, Germany: Taschen, 2003. Lavishly illustrated history allows Sunset Boulevard to be seen in the context of Wilder’s total achievement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Koszarski, Richard. Von: The Life and Films of Erich von Stroheim. New York: Limelight, 2001. Biography of the director who plays a failed director in Wilder’s film.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perry, George.“Sunset Boulevard”: From Movie to Musical. New York: Henry Holt, 1993. Chapters describe Sunset Boulevard as a place, the development of the film, and the later Andrew Lloyd Webber musical version.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sikov, Ed. On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. New York: Hyperion, 1998. Comprehensive, well researched study of Wilder and his films from birth to time of publication.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Staggs, Sam. Close-Up on “Sunset Boulevard”: Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond, and the Dark Hollywood Dream. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002. Describes in detail the creative and technical collaboration that created film.

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Categories: History