Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim
Plot: In Hollywood of the 50's, the obscure screenplay writer Joe Gillis is not able to sell his work to the studios, is full of debts. While trying to escape from his creditors, he has a flat tire and parks his car in a decadent mansion in Sunset Boulevard. He meets the owner and former silent-movie star Norma Desmond, who lives alone wit her butler and driver Max von Mayerling. Norma is demented and believes she will return to the cinema industry and proposes Joe to move to the mansion and help her in writing a screenplay for her comeback to the cinema.
The photos of the young Norma Desmond that decorate the house are all genuine publicity photos from Gloria Swanson's heyday.
In the book "On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder", Ed Sikov relates a story about Wilder's explanation of the true meaning of the strange dead chimp scene from the start of the film. Sikov says that during the mid-1990s, both Wilder and former First Lady Nancy Reagan were at a party for an opening of one of the productions of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on the film, when, with Reagan nearby, an older woman approached Wilder with a question about what the chimp scene meant. Wilder's typically outrageous answer, probably intended to shock the former First Lady as much as to inform the woman of the true meaning of the scene, was, "Don't you understand? Before Joe Gillis came along, Norma Desmond was fucking the monkey."
When Norma Desmond says to the guard at the Paramount Studio gates 'Without me there wouldn't be any Paramount Studio' the words could apply to Gloria Swanson as she was their top star 6 years running.
The movie's line "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up" was voted as the #7 movie quote by the American Film Institute. The other line, "I am big! It's the pictures that got small." was voted #24, out of 100.
Cecil B. DeMille agreed to do his cameo for a $10,000 fee and a brand-new Cadillac. When Billy Wilder went back to him later to secure a close-up, DeMille charged him another $10,000.
According to Gloria Swanson's daughter, Michelle Amon, her mother stayed in character throughout the entire shoot, even speaking like Norma Desmond when she arrived home in the evening after filming. On the last day of shooting, Swanson drove back to the house she, her mother and daughter shared during production, announcing "there were only three of us in it now, meaning that Norma Desmond had taken her leave."
Gloria Swanson almost considered rejecting the role of Norma Desmond after Billy Wilder requested she do a screen test for the role. Her friend George Cukor, who initially recommended her for the part, told her, "If they want you to do ten screen tests, do ten screen tests. If you don't, I will personally shoot you." Swanson agreed to the audition, and won the role.
Unlike the character she played, Gloria Swanson had accepted the fact that the movies didn't want her anymore so had moved to New York where she worked on radio, and later, on television. Although she had long before ruled out the possibility of a movie comeback, she was nevertheless highly intrigued when she got the offer to play the lead.
To everyone's surprise, Judy Holliday won the Best Actress Oscar in 1951 for Born Yesterday (1950) beating Gloria Swanson and Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950). The general consensus was that the two titans had cancelled each other out, leaving the field clear for Holliday. In later interviews, Davis admitted that she thought Swanson's work in the film was absolutely outstanding.
The name Norma Desmond was chosen from a combination of silent-film star Norma Talmadge and silent movie director William Desmond Taylor, whose still-unsolved murder is one of the great scandals of Hollywood history. (On the morning of February 1, 1922, Taylor was shot and killed in his Hollywood bungalow. His killer was never identified.)
When Gloria Swanson finished Norma's final scene, the mad staircase descent, she burst into tears and the crew applauded. Even though it wasn't the last scene filmed, Billy Wilder threw a party for her as soon as the shot was finished.
Cecil B. DeMille features in the film on a studio set. This was the actual set of Samson and Delilah (1949) that de Mille was making at the time.
Cecil B. DeMille had a pet name for Gloria Swanson - "Young Fellow" - because he said she was braver than any man. Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder retained the term of endearment for the scene in which DeMille greets Norma Desmond at the door of the soundstage.
Billy Wilder originally wanted another silent star, Pola Negri, to take the part of Norma Desmond. Upon telephoning her, however, Wilder found that Negri's Polish accent, which had killed her career, was still too thick for such a dialog-heavy film.
Gloria Swanson's film career was not revitalized by the film. The actress was disappointed to see that all the parts she was offered subsequently were watered down versions of Norma Desmond. Ultimately she retired completely from films, making only sporadic appearances, notably in Airport 1975 (1974).
Billy Wilder originally approached William Haines to play one of Norma's bridge partners. Haines, whose career had ended because of his homosexual off-screen life, was too happy in his new profession as an interior decorator to want to call attention to his past as an actor. In his place, Wilder hired Buster Keaton.
Gloria Swanson played her final descent on the staircase - and into madness - barefoot, as she was terrified of tripping if she'd worn high heels. Since her part required her to gaze at the newsreel cameramen and "fans" (the waiting police) gathered in the foyer below, she couldn't watch where she placed her feet. She burst into tears upon completion of the scene.
When Joe Gillis and Norma Desmond watch one of Norma's old silent movies, they are watching a scene from Queen Kelly (1929), starring a young Gloria Swanson. Erich von Stroheim, who directed Swanson in Queen Kelly (1929) plays Max the butler, who serves as the projectionist in the scene. Later in the film, Max tells Joe Gillis that he was the silent movie director who discovered Norma Desmond, and put her in films. According to Billy Wilder, it was von Stroheim's idea to use a clip from Queen Kelly (1929) in Sunset Boulevard (1950), as a way of "art imitating life." As well as starring in 'Queen Kelly' Gloria also produced it and fired Erich for causing costs to go double over budget and with no end to filming in sight.
Originally opened and closed the story at the Los Angeles County Morgue. In a scene described by director Billy Wilder as one of the best he'd 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. Part of the dialogue goes: Fat Man: "Where did you drown? The ocean?' Gillis: "No, swimming pool." Fat Man: "A husky fellow like you?" Gillis: "Well I had a few extra holes in me, two in the chest and one in the stomach." Fat Man: "You were murdered?" Gillis: "Yes I was murdered." The movie was previewed with this opening, in Illinois, Long Island, New York, and Poughkeepsie, New York. Because all three audiences inappropriately found the morgue scene hilarious, the film's release was delayed six months so that a new beginning could be shot.