Billy Wilder and Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard received widespread critical and popular acclaim, solidifying its status as one of the greatest classics in cinematic history. Billy Wilder emerged as a leading figure in the Golden Age of Hollywood. He earned multiple Academy Awards nominations and took home seven Oscars during a career that spanned five decades. His versatility in navigating diverse genres – including comedy, melodrama, and noir – captivated viewers by providing a rich tapestry of complex characters and compelling narratives.

In Sunset Boulevard, Wilder examines a widely discussed issue, namely the comparison between silent and sound cinema. Towards the end of the 1920s, America experienced the introduction of sound in movies. Before this moment, silent movies had been the norm in cinema, albeit occasionally interrupted by live musical accompaniment. The arrival of sound unequivocally marked a significant transition between two distinct eras of cinema. In the movie, Norma vehemently opposes the changes brought about by the introduction of sound, insisting that sound movies are of inferior quality.

Many stars from the silent era experienced career downfall after the introduction of sound. Norma’s artistic parable resembles that of George Valentin, the lead character in Michel Hazanavicius‘ The Artist (2011).

Wilder showcases this through Norma Desmond’s dramatic expressions and grandiose gestures. The actress’s physicality effectively brings to mind silent films, particularly when the camera lingers with close-ups of her face. The director admires an era in which words were unnecessary. A simple look conveyed every nuance of feeling or emotion.

The story concerns Joe Gillis (William Holden), a screenwriter based in Los Angeles, experiences a professional crisis. One day, while trying to escape debt collectors, he encounters a seemingly abandoned mansion on Sunset Blvd. As it turns out, the estate is occupied by Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a retired silent film star living amongst old memories in a dilapidated home. Norma persuades Joe to revise a screenplay that would signify her triumphant comeback to the silver screen.

Norma Desmond is a fifty-year-old former star who is eccentric, narcissistic, and disillusioned. She lives entirely in the past, and her home is like a mausoleum filled with photos depicting her success at the pinnacle of her career. Norma refuses to accept that her career is finished and still longs for a triumphant return to the big screen. In Sunset Boulevard, Norma confronts an internal conflict between her ideal and true self. Her ideal self is the Norma of the screen, young, beautiful, and adored.

Swanson’s interpretation played a crucial role in establishing the fame of this character. Her performance strikes the ideal balance between melodrama and realism. Swanson brought to life a character that has cemented a place in the collective imagination. Norma Desmond does not fit the mold of a hero or a villain in the film. Rather, she is a woman who was shaped by, and later let down by, the very system that made her a star.

In Sunset Boulevard, Wilder critiques the Hollywood star system. During the peak of stardom in the 1920s, movie stars became the voice actors of their characters. The public idolized and projected fantasies onto them, while the studios contributed to building their images.  Hollywood also disclosed private information about stars, creating a sense of mystery around these semi-divine figures. The first stars to emerge were women. Actresses were idealized, being required to blend physical beauty with moral qualities.

Wilder shows how Norma becomes a victim of the star system. She exists solely due to the attention of the spectators, without their presence she holds no importance. Norma’s need for visibility emerges out of her inability to accept being forgotten by the public and her desire to be flattered. This need for visibility brings to mind today’s society, in which social media enables digital visibility for everyone. In Sunset Boulevard, Wilder foresees themes pertaining to the culture of exhibitionism of the 21st century and cautions against the risks of pursuing celebrity status at any expense to one’s mental and physical well-being.

Billy Wilder with Gloria Swanson on the set of Sunset Boulevard (1950).

Norma inhabits a gothic, dilapidated mansion brimming with self-portraits that commemorate her peak success. The manor resembles Miss Havisham, a character from Charles Dickens‘ Great Expectations. The parallelism is fitting as both tragic figures are trapped in the past, disconnected from reality.

You will not find in my pictures any phony camera moves or fancy setups to prove that I am a moving-picture director. My characters don’t rush around for the sake of being busy. I like to believe that movement can be achieved eloquently, elegantly, economically and logically without shooting from a hole in the ground, without hanging the camera from the chandelier and without the camera dolly dancing a polka.

Sunset Boulevard garnered multiple accolades, including three Academy Awards for Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy PictureBest Art Direction-Set Decoration – Black-and-White, and Best Story and Screenplay.

Wilder left behind several classic cinema masterpieces, including A Foreign Affair (1948), Some Like It Hot (1959), and The Apartment (1960), among others. Sunset Boulevard is his iconic contribution to cinema history.

Sunset Boulevard is a fundamental example of self-representation within the Hollywood industry. By exploiting the allure of silent cinema, Wilder emphasizes the detrimental nature of the star system, a problem that remains highly pertinent within contemporary Hollywood. Norma Desmond, a character who has become a cultural icon, epitomizes the archetype of a diva constrained by her own excessive self-worship.

Billy Wilder with Gloria Swanson and Cecil B. DeMille on the set of Sunset Boulevard (1950).

Billy Wilder and his reliable writing partner Charles Brackett, who had been called the happiest union in Hollywood, had been toying with the idea of making a film about Hollywood for a number of years.

The story was originally conceived as a light-hearted comedy about a silent screen star coming out of the darkness of her obscurity to triumph over her enemies, but the storyline soon descended into a darker direction, with Wilder’s exquisite cynicism starting to dominate the theme of the project. In order to keep Paramount, their home studio, at bay, the pair chose to pretend they were actually making a piece called A Can of Beans. When Brackett and Wilder finally reached a block in their creative process, they decided to turn to reporter D. M. Marshman Jr., their frequent bridge partner and former reporter for Life, whom they brought onto the project to assist with the screenplay. The story of a struggling Hollywood screenwriter who encounters an aging, almost completely forgotten silent film star living in a delusional world in which she’s convinced that her major comeback is waiting just around the corner, was appropriately called Sunset Boulevard after the famous street which was a kind of a symbol of Hollywood film production ever since the 1910s. It was the place where Hollywood’s first studio was opened, and a neighborhood flooded with glorious, luxurious mansions belonging to the biggest movie stars of the period.

In 1940s, when Brackett and Wilder began working on the story, many of the houses still remained, sticking out of the scenery with their grandiose decadence and occupants who once frequented the billboards and posters of the long-extinguished silent movie era. The creation of Norma Desmond, the central figure of Sunset Boulevard, may have been inspired by any of those former stars living out the remainder of their lives clinging only to their memories of stardom. Sunset Boulevard stands out as one of the most haunting, memorable and honest depictions of the American film industry ever created.

Almost universally praised by the critics, enthusiastically received by the audience of the day, Sunset Boulevard simply hit too close to home for many film industry executives of the period, with MGM head Louis B. Mayer’s furious reaction still being cited as a funny anecdote and proof of the film’s authenticity and value. “You bastard!” Mayer allegedly yelled at Wilder, “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you!” Rumors had it Mayer was so displeased with the picture he even tried to buy it so he could bury it somewhere out of sight.

The greatness and importance of Sunset Boulevard lie not only in its technical mastery, in Brackett and Wilder’s dark but humorous script with several of the most frequently quoted lines of all time (“I am big, it’s the pictures that got small”) or even in the career-defining performances of these great actors. A good deal of the film’s value stems from its audacity: first of all, it took a lot of talent and expert maneuvering to get the film made with regard to the Production Code, especially considering the delicacy of the relationship between the two main characters of the picture. Secondly, and crucially, Sunset Boulevard was a shocking breath of fresh air when it came out thanks to the target of its arrows of cynicism.

After Sunset Boulevard, Brackett and I parted friends. Twelve years together, but the split had been coming. It’s like a box of matches: you pick up the match and strike it against the box, and there’s always fire, but then one day there is just one small corner of that abrasive paper left for you to strike the match on. It was not there anymore. The match wasn’t striking. One of us said, Look, whatever I have to give and whatever you have to offer, it’s just not enough. We can end on the good note of Sunset Boulevard. A picture that was revolutionary for its day. Billy Wilder

The following is an excerpt from the Paris Review, written by James Linville, ‘Billy Wilder, The Art of Screenwriting.’

I don’t know. I just get them. Some of them in the toilet, I’m afraid. I have a black book here with all sorts of entries. A little bit of dialogue I’ve overheard. An idea for a character.

Sure, I’ve made blunders, for God’s sake. Sometimes you lay an egg, and people will say, It was too early. Audiences weren’t ready for it. Bullshit. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, it’s bad.