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Sunset Boulevard: Life beyond the camera


“I wanted to do a comedy about Hollywood. God forgive me, look what became of that idea!”

—Billy Wilder on ‘Sunset Boulevard’


Named after the thoroughfare that runs through Los Angeles and Beverly Hills California, ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1950) presents the dark side of the glamour that is synonymous with Hollywood.

Director Billy Wilder and producer Charles Brackett began working on a related script in 1948, but the result did not completely satisfy them. In August 1948, D M Marshman Jr, formerly a writer for ‘Life’ magazine 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, the writers submitted the script a few pages at a time. The Breen Office however insisted certain lines be rewritten.

The role of Norma Desmond was initially offered to actress Mae West, who rejected the part. Wilder also thought of signing another silent era star, Pola Negri for this role, however upon telephoning her, he found that Negri’s Polish accent, which had killed her career, was still too thick for the dialog-heavy film. Norma Shearer was also asked, but she rejected the role due to her retirement and distaste for it. The filmmakers further approached Greta Garbo, but she expressed no interest. The role then went to Mary Pickford, who demanded too much project control. Finally, on the advice of director, George Cukor, Hollywood’s top box office magnet from the silent film era, Gloria Swanson was approached and she signed a contract for $50,000. 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. Swanson, in turn tried to get fellow silent-screen superstar, William Haines, to play a part in the film. He said no.

Actor Montgomery Clift was signed to play Joe Gillis for $5,000 per week for a guaranteed 12 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’ (1949), in which he felt he had been unconvincing. Wilder quickly offered the role to Fred MacMurray, who immediately refused. Finally forced to consider the available Paramount stars, Wilder and Brackett focused on William Holden, who after making an impressive debut a decade earlier in ‘Golden Boy’ (1939) had gone to serve in the military in World War II, and his return to the screen afterward had been moderately successful. He did not know that his salary in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ was $39,000 less than that offered to Clift.

Erich von Stroheim, a leading film director of the 1920s, who had directed Swanson, was signed to play Max, Norma’s faithful servant, protector and former husband. 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 actress Nancy Olson, who had recently been considered for the role of Delilah in Cecil B DeMille’s ‘Samson and Delilah’ (1949).

The music of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ was scored by Franz Waxman. His theme for Norma Desmond was based on tango music. 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 dark, shadowy cinematography was the work of John F Seitz. Wilder had worked with him on several projects before, and trusted his judgment, allowing him to make his own decisions. For some interior shots, Seitz sprinkled dust in front of the camera before filming to suggest mustiness. The film had the option to be shot in colour, however it was shot in black and white to be more reflective of the noir genre.

Originally the film opened and closed at the Los Angeles County Morgue. In a scene described by Wilder as one of the best he had ever shot, the body of Joe Gillis is rolled into the Morgue to join three dozen other corpses, some of whom – in voice-over – tell Gillis how they died. Eventually Gillis tells his story, which takes us to a flashback of his affair with Norma Desmond. The movie was previewed with this opening, in Illinois and Long Island and as both audiences inappropriately found the morgue scene hilarious, the film’s release was delayed six months so that a new beginning could be shot in which police find Gillis’ corpse floating in Norma’s swimming pool while Gillis’ voice narrates the events leading to his death. This death scene had to be filmed via a mirror placed on the bottom of the pool.

‘Sunset Boulevard’ had its world premiere at Radio City Music Hall, New York on August 10, 1950. After a seven-week run, ‘Variety’ magazine reported the film had grossed around $1,020,000, making it one of that theatre’s most successful pictures. To promote the film, Swanson travelled by train throughout the US 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.

The film 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”. Produced at a budget of $1,752,000 million, the film grossed an estimated $5,123,000 at the US Box Office and grossed $5,303,175 at the global level.

‘Sunset Boulevard’ received 11 Oscar nominations including in the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress categories, but won three including for its score. That year, ‘All About Eve’ (1950) won all major Oscars.

From 1952 to 1956, Swanson worked with actor Richard Stapley and cabaret singer/ pianist Dickson Hughes on musical stage adaptation of the film titled, ‘Boulevard!’ which ended on a happier note. Although Paramount gave verbal permission to proceed with the musical, there was no formal legal permission. In the late 1950s, Paramount withdrew its consent, shutting down the production. In 1994, Dickson Hughes incorporated material from ‘Boulevard!’ into a musical, ‘Swanson on Sunset’ based on his and Stapley’s experiences in writing ‘Boulevard!’

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