“You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”
” I *am* big. It’s the *pictures* that got small.”
A quintessential star with a personified urbane appearance, William Holden will forever be immortalized as the consummate actor whose successful career transcended his alcohol fueled personal life.
When one thinks about William Holden, the image of him as Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard is eternally etched in the memories of a plethora of people worldwide, but while this is the role that he is best remembered for, Holden endured a meritorious tenure in motion pictures, and appeared in many critically acclaimed productions along the way. His first claim to fame came in 1939, when he secured the pivotal role as Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy, which starred his close friend and mentor, Barbara Stanwyck.
Although, Holden was still relatively unknown at the time that Golden Boy was released, it didn’t take long for him to make his ascent to super-stardom. During the 1940’s, he was a welcoming presence in an array of notable films that featured stars who were placed in the top ranks of the movie industry. A large majority of these films were a commercial success, and Holden was often praised for his performance, but they never led to any immediate distinction. However, they did pave the way for future prosperity, and greater achievements that would plant William Holden in a reputable position among Hollywood’s constellation of stars.
When William Holden did come into prominence, it came in droves. In 1950, Holden reached his zenith when he was cast in the Academy Award winning film, Sunset Boulevard, which starred, Gloria Swanson in the role of Norma Desmond, a faded silent movie star who dreams of making her comeback, and hires Holden’s character, Joe Gillis, a fruitless screenwriter to revise her script.
The story of how the film first came to life can by quite fascinating, especially for movie enthusiasts who are interested in learning about the pioneering days of cinema. The street name itself is a glorified landmark in Hollywood, and to have a famous road commemorate a motion picture holds its own distinction, but there is much more intrigue to the background than what the title may suggest.
Sunset Boulevard, the famous palm tree lined street in Hollywood, plays an integral part in cinematic history. The road which stretches twenty two miles in length, and that traces the arc of the mountains that form the northern boundary of the Los Angeles Basin, has been widely used in films since the birth of motion pictures, and it is known today for being the destination of the towns first movie studio that opened there in 1911.
“There once was a time in this business when I had the eyes of the whole world! But that wasn’t good enough for them, oh no! They had to have the ears of the whole world too. So they opened their big mouths and out came talk. Talk! TALK!”
Adorning a large area of the street are opulent, majestic mansions with incongruous architecture, and a rather distinct appearance. These homes were built for film makers and actors when the Hollywood Star System was first introduced. Towards the end of the 1940’s, some of these luxurious abodes were still occupied by former members of the motion picture community, who were now living reclusive from the rest of the world.
“Without me, there wouldn’t be any Paramount studio.”
To many people, the ghostly ambiance that surrounded these homes were fascinating. Director, Billy Wilder, who originally hailed from Berlin was interested in American culture, and later admitted that the countries films enhanced his passion. Wilder, who was a resident of Los Angeles often drove past these houses, and wondered what type of lives the occupants were leading now that their Hollywood glory days were over.
Imagining the kind of lives that were being led by former movie stars drew great inspiration. How were these iconic legends from the bygone days of cinema spending their time? And why did they want to lead a reclusive lifestyle alone in a collateral mansion?. These were some of the questions that constantly resurfaced. Billy Wilder saw potential in this story, and started picturing a perfect scenario for a movie. After slowly piecing together different plot points, he came up with an intriguing idea that revolved around a silent film actress who lost her box-office appeal when her successful career was eclipsed.
There were a myriad of ways that a disillusioned star could be portrayed, but Wilder wanted it more realistic, and decided that the character of Norma Desmond should emulate the personalities of a plethora of real-life silent film stars in their twilight years. Some of the traits depicted in Sunset Boulevard mirrored the reclusive years of Mary Pickford, and the mental disorders that affected Clara Bow and Mae Murray. However, many sources state that Norma Desmond was based on the decline of Norma Talmadge, while a few film historians believe that Norma Desmond’s name is a combination of Mabel Normand and Norman Desmond Taylor, because these two stars served as the main source of inspiration for the character, but whatever the truth, the character known as Norma Desmond was inspired by a conglomerate of movie folk.
A lot of work went into conceptualizing the character of Norma Desmond, but the developmental stage of delving into the history of the character, and mapping out a story proved to be more difficult. Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett began working on a script in 1948, and in August of that year they hired D.M. Marshman Jr., a former writer from Life magazine to expand on the story-line. By the time filming commenced in early May 1949, only the first third of the script was completed. At this point in time Wilder did not know how the film was going to end, but as production on Sunset Boulevard progressed, Wilder had conjured up the perfect finale.
The casting aspects of the film were not as complicated. However, some suggest that finding the perfect Norma Desmond was an arduous battle, but according to Charles Brackett, he and Wilder never endured any problems. Gloria Swanson was the only actress they ever considered for the role, and in Brackett’s opinion, she was the one actress who could fulfill the demands and perfectly execute the role of a disillusioned silent star with a formidable existence. On the other hand, Billy Wilder expressed his recollections of the casting process, and stated that he had initially wanted Mae West and Marlon Brando for the leads, but never approached either star with the offer. He also said that Pola Negri was being favored for a while, but her heavy Polish accent made him detour away from that idea, and instead he approached Norma Shearer, Mary Pickford and Greta Garbo, who all declined the part.
One of the most common myths is that Billy Wilder consulted with George Cukor for his advice, and it was Cukor who suggested that they hire Gloria Swanson. Noted for her exotic beauty, and her extravagant lifestyle, Swanson shared many similarities with Norma Desmond. Like Desmond, Swanson had also lived in a colossal Italianate palace on Sunset Boulevard for a large part of her life, and like Desmond, her transition into talking pictures was not smooth and successful. However, their lives weren’t always parallel. While Norma Desmond renounces her decline, Swanson accepted the fact that her career was floundering, and when she realized that her tenure in motion pictures was about to be dimmed, she relocated to New York, where she secured work on television, radio, and the New York stage.
The last thing that Gloria Swanson had expected was making a Hollywood comeback. At this point in her career she was prominently established in New York, and she was a revered member of the entertainment circuit. Even though she thought that making a return was out of the question, she was eager to learn about the role, and was absorbed in the prospects of portraying a character, who she felt was identical to her in many ways.
William Holden wasn’t the first actor in mind to play Joe Gillis. Initially the role was assigned to Montgomery Clift, who was going to receive $5,000 per week for a guaranteed twelve weeks, though problems arose just before filming commenced when Clift withdrew from the project, stating that he thought the role was too close to the one he had played in The Heiress. He was after something more convincing, and refused to play a character who was having an affair with an older woman. In response to Clift, Wilder replied, “If he’s any kind of actor, he could be convincing making love to any woman.”.
“She was the greatest of them all. You wouldn’t know, you’re too young. In one week she received 17,000 fan letters. Men bribed her hairdresser to get a lock of her hair. There was a maharajah who came all the way from India to beg one of her silk stockings. Later he strangled himself with it!”
At the last minute, Wilder and Brackett were forced to select another Paramount player, who they thought would be compatible for the role. The only star that really impressed them was William Holden, an underappreciated individual who was yearning to be recognized. As an actor, Holden had displayed great potential since making his starring debut in 1939’s, Golden Boy, and in the years that followed he had appeared in a string of moderately successful films that did nothing to augment his appeal.
Upon hearing that he was being closely considered for the role, Holden displayed a spectrum of happy emotions. This was a film that spelled success, and Holden knew that this part would help him endure a much needed career Resurrection. What he didn’t know is that his salary would be $39,000 less than what Montgomery Clift would have received, but at this stage of his life, Holden’s primary focus was to attain the role of Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard.
Sunset Boulevard also reunited Gloria Swanson with Erich Von Stroheim, a prolific film director of the 1920’s, who had directed Swanson in an array of successful productions during her prime. Stroheim was cast in the role of Max, Norma’s faithful servant who will never admit to Norma that she is now a fading obscure star of the past. Stroheim received an Academy Award nomination for ‘Best Supporting Actor’, but lost to George Sanders who attained the award that year for his performance in All About Eve.
Joining the stellar cast of lead players was Nancy Olson, who portrayed Betty Schaefer, an aspiring screen writer, who witnesses potential in Joe, and wants to work on a script with him. Prior to Sunset Boulevard, Olson had only appeared in two pictures, one of them being an uncredited part in Portrait Of Jennie ( 1948 ). Despite the fact that Olson was still only an amateur, she exhibited enough prowess to prove that she was more than capable of taking on a notable role in a picture that was set to be a staple.
Directed by Billy Wilder, and produced by Charles Brackett, Sunset Boulevard is a chilling tale of unrequited love and jealously, which lead to tragic consequences. Set in one of Hollywood’s famous locales, the story revolves around Joe Gillis ( William Holden ), a struggling screenwriter, who unexpectedly lands in the driveway of an incongruous and atmospheric mansion when his car gets a flat Tyre. Occupying the decaying residence is Max Von Mayerling ( Erich Von Stroheim ), and Norma Desmond ( Gloria Swanson ), a faded silent movie star whose career was extinguished many years earlier. Embittered with her current existence, Norma plans to make her motion picture comeback by playing the lead character in her proposed production titled, Salome, a film in which she has written the script for.
What Joe Gillis didn’t realize is that he selected the wrong driveway to pull into. Instead of a quick visit inside the dwelling to call for help regarding his current situation, Joe finds himself in a complex entanglement when Norma hires him to edit her script. At first it seems like a plan for Joe who is heavily in debt, but the deal comes at a high price. If Joe is going to work on her script, he is required to move into the mansion. Reluctantly, he accepts the offer, a decision that proves to be disastrous when Joe discovers that he is being swept into an enigmatical love triangle, which is fueled by jealousy, irrational psychotic behavior, and danger.
Sunset Boulevard is a sordid account of Hollywood, and the torture associated with being a star. The film examines the demons that control one prominent individual whose career has gone to wreckage. Norma Desmond was a star of the highest magnitude. She had churned out film after film to mounting success. The studios loved her, and audiences worshiped her, but just when she thought that she had it all, talking pictures were introduced, and Norma Desmond made a hasty descent to debris.
Making a transition into talking pictures was difficult for a large majority of stars from the silent screen. Some actors had a smooth run, but others struggled to cope with the sudden transformation, and were left to face the harsh realities of life. The abrupt change didn’t register with Norma Desmond. She was convinced that she was the only star of all, and when the convoluted particles began to control her mind, she was sent on a downward spiral.
Sunset Boulevard paints a clear picture of what can happen when your mind has been emotionally destroyed by tragic events of the past. Even though the film is fictionalized, many of Norma’s traits resembled the characteristics of other stars from the bygone era. Loneliness and seclusion are common factors. A multitude of silent film actors were living as a recluse by the time the 1940’s and 1950’s progressed. In Norma Desmond’s case, the only interaction she got with the outside world is when she played bridge at her mansion with other Hollywood luminaries, like, Buster Keaton, and Hedda Hopper, who made cameo appearances as themselves, or when Norma visited Paramount Studios to consult with Cecil B. Demille, who also played himself. Apart from that, the only person who broke Norma’s solitary and trifling existence was her butler, past directer, and ex husband, Max, who continues to support Norma, and encourages her to turn a blind eye on the fact that her public has forgotten her by sending her fan letters.
The stellar array of stars worked well under Billy Wilder’s masterful direction. In a part that was tailor made for her, Gloria Swanson received an Academy Award nomination for her towering portrayal of Norma Desmond. Playing the part of a former Hollywood luminary whose once recognizable name is in clouds was no easy feat, but Swanson’s performance took high precedence. She graced the screen with her immaculate presence, theatrical delivery, a gamut of emotions, and memorable dialogue. To serve as a great counterpart to Desmond, William Holden’s character, Joe Gillis epitomizes the working class man who is fighting for a dollar, but realizes that he will never be on the same pedestal that Norma Desmond once was.
An as accompaniment, Sunset Boulevard features some of the best cinematography ever seen in a motion picture. John F. Seitz, who had been employed as a cinematographer and inventor since 1916, is the mastermind behind the films dark shadowy themes, and being no stranger to Film Noir, he applied some unique effects that enhances the ghostly ambiance that surrounded the production. Edith Head, who was well revered in Hollywood for her prolific work as a costume designer created the gowns in the film. Since Head was well versed in fashion, she suggested that Norma Desmond should be sporting the contemporary attire of the day, so she created costumes that mirrored the Dior style of the 1940’s. However, some changes were applied to personalize and reflect Norma Desmond’s taste. In her autobiography, Swanson stated that the costumes were a “trifle outdated and a trifle exotic”. On the other hand, Edith Head later recalled that her work on Sunset Boulevard was the “most challenging of my career”.
In Sunset Boulevard, hopes are crushed, and dreams are buried, but Norma Desmond continues to embody positiveness, and believes that one day she will make a comeback.