What's the Big Deal?: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Whats Big Deal Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard is a 24-mile piece of road that runs through Hollywood and Beverly Hills on its way to the Pacific Ocean. It has been associated with the movie industry -- many studio lots and private celebrity homes have had Sunset Boulevard addresses -- for nearly a century. So Sunset Boulevard was an excellent choice, both as title and setting, for Billy Wilder's critique of Hollywood. Today, some 60 years later, it's still considered a classic. Why has the movie Sunset Boulevard endured almost as long as the street Sunset Boulevard? Let's fish the body out of the swimming pool and investigate.

The praise: Sunset Boulevard was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, a feat matched by only a handful of other movies at the time (or since, for that matter). It won three of them, for its screenplay, music, and art direction; the losses were for best picture, director, cinematography, editing, actor and actress, and supporting actor and actress. In 1989, when the Library of Congress began preserving 'culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant' films in the National Film Registry, Sunset Boulevard was one of the first 25 movies chosen. It placed 12th on the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the best American movies ever made, and 16th on the 2007 revised list. Two quotes from the movie are in the pantheon of famous lines: 'All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up' and 'I am big, it's the pictures that got small.'

The context: It would be hard to overstate how much the switch from silent films to talking pictures changed the movie business. We tend to think of cinema as being in its infancy when the transition began (the late 1920s), but in fact, movies had been a significant part of American culture for a good 20 years by then, and certain stars were among the most famous people in the world. It wasn't like some obscure, up-and-coming technology had gotten an overhaul. Movies were front-and-center -- and now, suddenly, they were doing something they'd never done before.

And so the advent of sound was probably the most significant change in the history of movies. Color and widescreen were big, too, but neither of those innovations put any actors out of work. Plenty of silent stars, however, found their careers ending prematurely when sound came in. Their speaking voices, which had never mattered before, suddenly mattered more than anything. Elocution, diction, and delivery became important. Movie acting no longer centered on big, theatrical gestures and facial expressions; now it was more subtle, with dialogue as a new tool for storytelling. (As Norma Desmond put it, 'We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!') For the actors, it was as if they'd been trained in football and were now being asked to play rugby. Some made the switch; some didn't.

About 20 years later, enough time had passed for Hollywood to start reflecting on this momentous shift. Singin' in the Rain (1952) addressed the silent-to-talkie transition comedically, but before that there was Sunset Boulevard , a brutal evisceration of Hollywood's fickleness and cruelty that managed to be darkly funny, too.

It was directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, an Austrian immigrant (he became a U.S. citizen in 1934) who was already a big-shot in Hollywood when he conceived Sunset Boulevard . He'd won Oscars for writing and directing The Lost Weekend (1945), had been nominated in both categories for Double Indemnity (1944), and had three other writing nominations for previous films. He was also keenly interested in the machinations of showbiz, and had been ever since he was a kid in Europe. Now he'd been in Hollywood long enough to have some firsthand knowledge on the subject.

Wilder had the clout to get the names and faces that would give Sunset Boulevard authenticity. Instead of creating a fictitious movie studio for the story to take place in, he convinced Paramount (where he was making the film) to let him call it Paramount. Legendary director Cecil B. DeMille plays himself in a crucial role; silent-film director Erich von Stroheim appears as a has-been director now working as a butler; real-life gossip columnist Hedda Hopper plays herself. In one scene, silent stars Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner, and Anna Q. Nilsson appear as themselves. Their names aren't mentioned, though. Why? Because audiences in 1950 would have known who they were. At the very least, they'd have recognized them as former stars.

The film's most inspired casting, though, was in its female lead. The character, Norma Desmond, is supposed to have been one of the greatest stars of the silent era, and one of the unfortunates whose opportunities dried up when talkies arrived. Now, some 20 years later, she lives in a decrepit mansion and has deluded herself into thinking she can stage a comeback -- er, sorry, a 'return' -- in a Cecil B. DeMille epic. To play Norma Desmond, Wilder recruited Gloria Swanson, who had indeed been a major star in the silent era with an extravagant lifestyle and a mansion on Sunset Boulevard, and who had in fact made a few movies with DeMille back in the day. Swanson wasn't bitter or crazy like Norma Desmond, and she had weathered the transition to sound films better than her fictional counterpart, but she was otherwise a perfect choice for the part.

The movie: Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a desperate young Hollywood screenwriter who's down to his last dime and ready to call it quits when he meets Norma Desmond, the faded screen legend who lives with her faithful butler in a creepy old mansion. Norma has written a screenplay as a comeback vehicle, and she's sure Cecil B. DeMille will direct it once she hires Joe to do a little editing. In the process of working for her, Joe becomes Norma's 'kept man,' living in her house and wearing the expensive clothes she buys him. Things don't go well, though, on account of Norma is c-r-a-z-y crazy.

What it influenced: There's a familiar image of a forgotten Hollywood star living in obscurity in a once-palatial manor. That stereotype comes almost entirely from Sunset Boulevard . Norma Desmond is the prototype -- it's her we're thinking of when we imagine a reclusive has-been clinging to former glory. The character has come to represent all such castaways.

'All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up' has been repurposed dozens of times, usually misquoted as 'I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.' You'll find a partial list of such references on Sunset Boulevard 's 'movie connections' page on IMDb. The basic plot has been the subject of homage and parody many times, too, including an episode of The Twilight Zone ('The 16 Millimeter Shrine').

In 1993, a musical version of Sunset Boulevard -- with tunes by Andrew Lloyd Webber -- opened in London, with a Broadway production coming the following year. (Patti LuPone played Norma in London, Glenn Close in New York.) It had successful runs in both places, as well as in Canada, Germany, and Australia, and later made two U.S. tours. There were talks of turning it into a movie -- a movie based on a musical based on a movie -- but the project stalled at some point and doesn't seem to be going anywhere now.

What to look for: Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis represent the old and new Hollywoods, and Swanson and Holden's acting styles reflect this. Swanson plays Norma as a grandiose, melodramatic character, given to theatrical gestures and over-the-top reactions. In her daily life, Norma behaves like a character in one of her old silent movies. Joe, meanwhile, is more grounded in reality, the way movie acting had gotten by 1950. (The Method actors would soon make it even more naturalistic.)

Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity helped establish many of the characteristics that would come to define film noir, and he uses some of them in Sunset Boulevard . To wit: the cynical, hard-boiled narrator with a knack for turning a colorful phrase; the glamorous femme fatale; the discovery of a dead body early in the story; the Los Angeles setting. Note that there's a ton of narration in Sunset Boulevard , further distancing it from the silent films of Norma Desmond's heyday.

Norma watches one of her old silent films with Joe. The clip shown is an actual Gloria Swanson picture, Queen Kelly , from 1929. It was directed by none other than Erich von Stroheim (who plays Norma's faithful butler and former director), and was one of the debacles that ended his filmmaking career. Swanson got von Stroheim fired from Queen Kelly less than halfway through, but they had apparently patched things up by the time they co-starred in Sunset Boulevard .

Another example of the film's authenticity is the sequence where Norma visits Cecil B. DeMille on the set of his current film. Though the title isn't mentioned, DeMille is clearly directing Samson and Delilah (1949), which he'd just finished shooting when the cameras started rolling on Sunset Boulevard . Costumes were rescued and some actors were rehired in order to re-create the Samson and Delilah shooting set.

The more you know about mid-century Hollywood, the more you'll appreciate Joe's sarcasm. (That snark is really Billy Wilder's, though. Joe doesn't talk like the Midwesterner he's supposed to be. He talks like a Jewish European immigrant, which is what Wilder was.) The general ideas are fairly timeless, though: mediocrity is prized over ingenuity, selling out is the only way to make a living, Hollywood is an assembly line, etc.

It's a fairly minor motif, but notice how automobiles represent virility. Joe is driven to action over his desperate financial state only when the threat of losing his car arises. To be without a car -- in L.A., especially -- would be akin to impotence. He is grateful to find Norma Desmond's big empty garage as a hiding place for his car (interpret that metaphor however you want), and feels emasculated when his vehicle is repossessed and he has to rely on Norma's. Notice also how Paramount is interested not in Norma but in her vintage automobile, a callous attitude that symbolizes Hollywood's fixation on appearances and outward displays of power.

What's the big deal: Hollywood has always been one of its own favorite subjects; there have been movies about making movies for as long as there have been movies. Sunset Boulevard is noteworthy for being a ruthlessly accurate depiction of the way Hollywood destroys its own legacies. In addition, the film is eerily timeless. While the specifics have changed, the general ideas in Sunset Boulevard are alive and well in Hollywood today, perhaps even more than they were in 1950. Billy Wilder set out to make a movie that was current and in-the-moment; he wound up with a classic.

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Eric D. Snider ( website ) is still big. It's the Internet that got small.