Sunset Boulevard Film Themes
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Billy Wilder - Sunset Blvd. (opening, VOSTFR)
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Ushered in by Max, the butler, Joe recognizes the woman as a forgotten silent film star, Norma Desmond. Learning that Joe is a writer, Norma asks his opinion of a script she has written for a film about Salome. She plans to play the role herself in her return to the screen. Joe finds her script abysmal but flatters her into hiring him as a script doctor. Moved into Norma's mansion at her insistence, Joe resents but gradually accepts his dependent situation. He sees that Norma refuses to accept that her fame has evaporated, and learns that Max secretly writes the fan letters she receives. Max explains that Norma is emotionally fragile and has attempted suicide.
Norma lavishes attention on Joe and buys him expensive clothes. At her New Year's Eve party, he discovers that he is the only guest and realizes she has fallen in love with him. Joe tries to let her down gently, but Norma slaps him and retreats to her room. Joe visits his friend Artie Green to ask about staying at his place. He again meets Betty, who is Artie's girlfriend. Betty thinks a scene in one of Joe's scripts has potential, but Joe is uninterested.
When he phones Max to have him pack his things, Max tells him Norma cut her wrists with his razor. Joe returns to Norma. Norma has Max deliver the edited Salome script to her former director Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount. She starts getting calls from Paramount executive Gordon Cole but petulantly refuses to speak to anyone except DeMille. The older studio employees recognize her and warmly greet her. DeMille welcomes her affectionately and treats her with great respect, tactfully evading her questions about her script, which he secretly considers awful. Meanwhile, Max learns that Cole merely wants to rent her unusual car for a film. Preparing for her imagined comeback, Norma undergoes rigorous beauty treatments. Joe secretly works nights at Betty's Paramount office, collaborating on an original screenplay.
His moonlighting is found out by Max, who reveals that he was a respected film director who discovered Norma as a teenage girl, made her a star, and was her first husband. After she divorced him, he found life without her unbearable and abandoned his career to become her servant. Meanwhile, despite Betty's engagement to Artie, she falls in love with Joe, who feels guilty. After Norma discovers a manuscript with Joe's and Betty's names on it, she phones Betty. She insinuates that Joe is not the man he seems. Joe, overhearing, invites Betty to see for herself. When she arrives, he pretends he is satisfied being a gigolo. However, after she tearfully leaves, he packs for a return to his old Ohio newspaper job.
He bluntly informs Norma there will be no comeback; her fan mail comes from Max, and she has been forgotten. He disregards Norma's threat to kill herself and the gun she shows him to back it up. As Joe walks out of the house, Norma shoots him three times, and he falls into the pool. The flashback ends. The house is filled with police and reporters. Norma, having lost touch with reality, believes the newsreel cameras are there to film Salome. Max and the police play along. Max sets up a scene for her and calls, "Action! She pauses and makes an impromptu speech about how happy she is to be making a film again, ending with, "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up. The street known as Sunset Boulevard has been associated with Hollywood film production since , when the town's first film studio, Nestor , opened there.
The film workers lived modestly in the growing neighborhood, but during the s, 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. As a young man living in Berlin in the s, Billy Wilder was interested in American culture, with much of his interest fueled by the country's films.
In the late s, many of the grand Hollywood houses remained, and Wilder, then a Los Angeles resident, found them to be a 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. The character of Norma Desmond mirrors aspects of the twilight years of several real-life faded silent-film stars, such as the reclusive existences of Greta Garbo , Mary Pickford and Pola Negri and the mental disorders of Mae Murray , Valeska Surratt and Clara Bow.
It is usually regarded as a fictional composite inspired by several different people, not just a thinly disguised portrait of one in particular. Nevertheless, some [ who? Dave Kehr has asserted that Norma Talmadge is "the obvious if unacknowledged source of Norma Desmond, the grotesque, predatory silent movie queen" of the film. Wilder and Brackett began working on a script in , but the result did not completely satisfy them. In August , D. Marshman Jr. 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. Only the first third of the script was written when filming began in early May , and Wilder was unsure how the film would end. 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. 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". Wilder, however, had a different recollection. He recalled first wanting Mae West and Marlon Brando for the leads. West rejected the offer out-right. West portrayed herself as a sex symbol through her senior years, and was offended that she should be asked to play a Hollywood has-been.
The filmmakers approached Greta Garbo , but she was not interested. Wilder contacted Pola Negri by telephone, but had a difficult time understanding her heavy Polish accent. He then reached out to Clara Bow , the famed IT Girl of the s, but she declined citing that she had no interest in engaging in the film industry again due to how hard it was for her during the transition of sound films and that she'd prefer to remain in seclusion with her husband and sons while leaving her previous life behind her.
They also offered the part of Norma Desmond to Norma Shearer , but she rejected the role due to both her retirement and distaste for the script. They were considering Fred MacMurray to play opposite her as Joe. Wilder and Brackett then visited Mary Pickford , but before even discussing the plot with her, Wilder realized she would consider a role involving an affair with a man half her age an insult, so they departed. They had considered pairing Montgomery Clift with her. 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; Swanson made a handful of talking pictures.
She accepted the end of her film career, and in the early s moved to New York City , where she worked in radio. In the mids, she worked in television and on the New York stage and had last appeared in the film Father Takes a Wife. Though Swanson was not seeking a movie comeback, she became intrigued when Wilder discussed the role with her. Swanson was glad for the opportunity to earn a greater salary than she had been making in television and on stage.
Why do they want me to audition? He replied that since 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. Queen Kelly wasn't released in the United States for over 50 years  after Swanson walked off the set. An infuriated Wilder responded, "If he's any kind of actor, he could be convincing making love to any woman.
Forced to consider the available Paramount contract players, Wilder and Brackett focused on William Holden, who had made an impressive debut a decade earlier in Golden Boy Following an appearance in Our Town , he served in the military in World War II , and his return to the screen afterward had been moderately successful. Holden was enthusiastic about the script and eager to accept the role. Erich von Stroheim, a leading film director of the s 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. DeMille's Samson and Delilah. DeMille, often credited as the person most responsible for making Swanson a star, plays himself, and was filmed on the set of Samson and Delilah at Paramount Studios. He calls Norma "young fella" as he had called Swanson. Norma's friends who come to play bridge with her, described in the script as "the waxworks", were Swanson's contemporaries Buster Keaton , Anna Q.
Nilsson , and H. Warner , who like DeMille, played themselves. Hedda Hopper also played herself, reporting on Norma Desmond's downfall in the film's final scenes. The film's dark, shadowy black-and-white , film noir cinematography was the work of John F. Wilder had worked with him on several projects 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. The film had the option to be shot in color, but it was instead shot in black and white to be more reflective of the noir genre.
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 constructed box and lowered under water, 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. Both are films noir, and he finesses the fact that both are set in the sunniest of locales, Los Angeles Again with no seams showing. 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 mids.
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. 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 been commissioned to complete the interior design for the homes of movie stars, including the house of Mae West.
William Haines , an interior designer and former actor, later rebutted criticism of Dreier's set design with the observation, " Bebe Daniels , Norma Shearer , and Pola Negri all had homes with ugly interiors like that. The bed in the shape of a boat in which Norma Desmond slept had been owned by the dancer Gaby Deslys , who died in It had originally been bought by the Universal prop department at auction after Deslys's death. Wilder also made use of authentic locales. Joe Gillis's apartment is in the Alto Nido, a real apartment block in central Hollywood that was often populated by struggling writers. The scenes of Gillis and Betty Schaefer on Paramount's back lot were filmed on the actual back lot, and the interior of Schwab's Drug Store was carefully recreated for several scenes.
The exterior scenes of the Desmond house were filmed at a house on Wilshire Boulevard built during the s by the millionaire William O. Jenkins and his family lived in it for just one year, then left it abandoned for more than a decade, which earned it the nickname, the "Phantom House". Paul Getty. It was demolished by the Gettys in to allow construction of an office building. During filming, considerable publicity was given to health-conscious Gloria Swanson's youthful appearance, which made her look the same age as Holden. Wilder insisted that the age difference between the characters 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. The musical score was the final element added to Sunset Boulevard. 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 s and s to suggest Norma Desmond's state of mind.
The film's score was recorded for compact disc by the Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Joel McNeely and released in Wilder and Brackett, nervous about a major screening in Hollywood, held a preview in Evanston, Illinois , in late 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 in Poughkeepsie, New York , and a third in Great Neck , the morgue opening was replaced by a shorter poolside opening,  using footage filmed on January 5, In Hollywood, Paramount arranged a private screening for the various studio heads and specially invited guests.
After viewing the film, Barbara Stanwyck knelt 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. 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! The few other criticisms were not so venomous. According to one often-told but later discredited anecdote,  actress Mae Murray , a contemporary of Swanson, was offended by the film and commented, "None of us floozies was that nuts. Variety also noted that, while it was "breaking records in major cities, it is doing below average in The publicity helped attract people to the cinemas, but in many areas away from major cities it was considered less than a hit.
The critical consensus states: "Arguably the greatest movie about Hollywood, Billy Wilder's masterpiece Sunset Boulevard is a tremendously entertaining combination of noir, black comedy, and character study. 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",  while Boxoffice Review wrote "the picture will keep spectators spellbound. 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.
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". 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 ". In , Roger Ebert praised the acting of Holden and von Stroheim and has described Swanson's as "one of the all time greatest performances. 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 the concealed Erik , the central character in 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. Of the various films that have attracted Academy Award nominations in all four acting categories , Sunset Boulevard is one of only three not to win in any category, the others being My Man Godfrey and American Hustle At the time its eleven Oscar nominations were exceeded only by the fourteen received by All About Eve , which won six awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
More accurately, they were trying to flush out Norma Desmond. Sunset Boulevard was dramatized as an hour-long radio play on the September 17, broadcast of Lux Radio Theater with Gloria Swanson and William Holden in their original film roles. In , 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.
Marshman, Jr. American Film Institute included the film on these lists:. 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. He described it as "an unexpected blow" from which he never recovered fully. When asked to respond to Brackett's comments, Wilder remained silent. The two men briefly reunited in October to face charges that they had plagiarized Sunset Boulevard. Former Paramount accountant Stephanie Joan Carlson alleged that in 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.
Carlson's suit was dismissed after two and a half years. In , a similar suit was filed by playwright Edra Buckler, who claimed material she had written had been the screenplay's source. Like us on Facebook to see similar stories. I'm already a fan, don't show this again. Send MSN Feedback. How can we improve? Please give an overall site rating:. Privacy Statement. Witches Zombies All Themes. Articles Features Reviews Lists.
Watch Online News All Posts. Advanced Search. Facebook Twitter RSS. Watch Trailer. Alternate Title Sunset Blvd. Flags Adult Situations Questionable for Children. Billy Wilder 's Sunset Boulevard ranks among the most scathing satires of Hollywood and the cruel fickleness of movie fandom. The story begins at the end as the body of Joe Gillis William Holden is fished out of a Hollywood swimming pool. From The Great Beyond, Joe details the circumstances of his untimely demise originally, the film contained a lengthy prologue wherein the late Mr.