It started with a corpse

The great Billy Wilder is now nearly 93. His macabre fable about Hollywood lives on too. David Thomson looks back 50 years to the making of `Sunset Boulevard'
In the spring of 1949, Billy Wilder was in overdrive, cursing feeble actors and wondering if his new, tricky project could ever work. Tricky? Late in l948, when Wilder and his partner, Charles Brackett, showed Paramount the first 60 pages of script, they wrote on it, "Due to the peculiar nature of the project, we ask all our co-workers to regard it as top secret."

They knew there were going to be eyebrows raised. They had one central character - a half-crazy relic from silent pictures, a diva dreaming of comeback in a mouldy mansion on Sunset. And the other was a screenwriter who'd be dead when the picture started, but telling the story to the other stiffs in the county morgue. Wilder was eager to shoot that scene. And things looked up when Montgomery Clift agreed to play the writer. He had opened that year in Red River, and no one was in greater demand.

Not that this was an actors' showcase. It was one of those movies that said actors were close to nuts. There would be a sour, sardonic tone to Sunset Boulevard - that's what they called it - that suggested Hollywood itself was a sick place, and that the widespread human urge to be in the movies was a malaise. "So why are you in pictures, still, Billy?" someone might have asked. And Billy would likely have answered, "Because I'm the sickest of them all."

That spring, Wilder was close to 43, and hotter than Clift. Born in a village near Krakow, he had been raised in Vienna, first as a journalist, then a screenwriter. He was a counter-punching wit, not far from cruel sometimes - a joker, a survivor, ambitious, dark in his assumptions about human nature. He had a lot of cronies, and plenty of women, but few got close to him - because he never trusted anyone. He was too volatile, too itchy with killer remarks.

He arrived in Hollywood in 1934 (his mother and other relatives would die in concentration camps), and wrote screenplays - Bluebeard's Eighth Wife for Lubitsch (written with Charles Brackett), and then, as a team, Midnight, Ninotchka, Hold Back the Dawn and Ball of Fire. By 1942, they had written The Major and the Minor, Wilder's first American directing job, and thereafter they were a production partnership on Five Graves to Cairo, The Lost Weekend and A Foreign Affair. The Lost Weekend - with Ray Milland as a drunk - had been a typical Wilder experience. Hollywood said the project was too bleak and unappealing. But he ignored them, made a tough, nasty picture and won Oscars for best picture, director, screenplay, and for Milland. There was another knock-out in Wilder's record: without Brackett, he had done Double Indemnity, which got nominations for picture, direction, script and for Barbara Stanwyck as maybe the most glowing bitch in all film noir.

Wilder's world view was blunt, if gloating; his best jokes left an acid aftertaste. In Double Indemnity, an easy-going insurance salesman commits murder because he's infatuated with a snake; in The Lost Weekend, a brittle charmer tells any lie to protect a bottle of booze from discovery. And in Sunset Boulevard, Wilder promised, there'd be a murder. "Well, who murders whom?" asked Gloria Swanson, an actress he was talking to. To tell you the truth, he said, I haven't made up my mind yet.

He was lying: he had the idea al-ready of the hack writer whose most saleable story concerns his own death, with the great lady of the silent screen being limo'd to the nuthouse. But maybe Swanson didn't see herself as a killer. So he wouldn't offer that until he'd got her hooked and signed. After all, he and Brackett had been up to see Mary Pickford about the part first, but as they sat in one of the salons at Pickfair, and confronted America's sweetheart - then aged 56 - they couldn't admit what they had to offer her because it seemed so squalid. Who could believe in Mary losing her mind, keeping a pet monkey and a gigolo, and killing the latter when he turned on her?

But Swanson was different. There was a wild, fiery look in her eyes - there always had been. And she was not nearly as sweet, modest or practical as Mary. Gloria believed in herself. That was a vital thing about Norma Desmond - truth to tell, Norma knew it was the world that had gone crazy. Gloria Swanson was 52 in 1949, and in tigress condition. She had just rid herself of her fifth husband (with only legal violence); she had lived in Europe for a while and been a marquise for a few years. She got Wilder and Brackett in an instant: the Viennese Jew was "elfin, witty, confident and a bit overactive"; Brackett was "quieter, more refined, the New York, Eastern type". She said she wasn't sure about the part or the project - the script was unfinished, still - but she was lying, too. Like Norma Desmond, she'd have done anything for a second chance.

Then Clift got cold feet, despite being offered $5,000 a week for 12 weeks. Maybe he'd reasoned that it wasn't right for his clean-cut image to play a gigolo, a bad writer, and someone who ended up dead. Dead lacked dignity or class. Maybe Libby Holman, the singer with whom he was having an affair, who was nearly 50 herself, said look what people were going to say. So Clift got out of the deal - he would do A Place in the Sun with Elizabeth Taylor instead.

Wilder spat blood, looked around, and thought of William Holden. Holden had been a second-level star for a decade, without ever having a big picture. But Wilder liked the slippery air to Holden, his readiness for compromise, or putting on a bright face to hide shabby truths. The more he thought about it, the better - and cheaper - Holden was for Joe Gillis. But Holden knew the role was his greatest challenge. He fretted about it with Wilder, until the director said, "Look, you know Bill Holden, don't you?" "Well, sure," said the actor.

"That's who you're playing," said Wilder, with that grin of his, as the hook went into the soft part of your body. It was another side of Wilder's wicked humour that this film would be full of inside touches. They'd shoot on Sunset, even if the mansion they found for Norma was actually the Getty place on Wilshire. They'd shoot at Schwab's drugstore, and on the Paramount lot. There'd even be a scene where Cecil B. DeMille (one of Swanson's directors in the 1920s) would play himself. And in the key supporting role of Max von Mayerling (Norma's butler now, as well as keeper of her flame, but director and husband in the past), Wilder cast Erich von Stroheim (who had played Rommel in his Five Graves to Cairo).

Stroheim was a sadder Hollywood outcast than Norma Desmond. He had been a master director and an unhindered ego once. He had made Greed as a 10- hour epic. But the system, in the form of Irving Thalberg, had humbled him and cut the picture down to two hours (in which form it remains one of the great silent films). Stroheim's career had lurched. But Queen Kelly was to be his comeback - a film starring Gloria Swanson and funded by her lover, Joseph Kennedy. But it all went wrong and Gloria had fired Stroheim. By the late 1930s he was washed up as a director. But he was a wandering actor - most notably as the prison commandant in Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion.

Who better for the humiliated Max, thought Wilder. And he added one finishing touch: when Norma shows Joe one of her old movies, it's Queen Kelly, with Max working the projector. In the spring and early summer of 1949, they shot Sunset Boulevard, without too much difficulty. Swanson and Holden were as good as Wilder had guessed. People like Buster Keaton and Hedda Hopper came in for the bridge game. Nancy Olson was the new girl Gillis falls in love with. And the picture opened with Holden talking to the other corpses, and his voice-over leading you into the story.

That summer, they previewed the picture in Evanston, Illinois. As soon as the dead bodies started talking, the audience went into fits of laughter. They never sobered up for the rest of the film. In Poughkeepsie, New York, they got the same reaction. So the morgue was cut - does it exist still, in the Paramount vaults? - and the whole picture was set up on Gillis, face down in Norma's pool, dead, but, like any writer, still pitching his story. It was a striking image - with us, the audience, at the bottom of the pool, looking up at Joe and the cops. Suddenly the tone of the thing worked. There was laughter in the picture, but it was a macabre fairy tale about the magic kingdom.

Months later, at a trade screening, Louis B. Mayer, production head at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, railed at Wilder for biting the hand that fed him.

"Fuck you," said Wilder.

Hollywood rolled over. Mayer was fired a couple of years later. The system laughed at itself, and became more entranced with its sickly legend. A kind of campness was born. Sunset Boulevard played beautifully. It always has. It was nominated for 11 Oscars. But it lost in all crucial areas to Joseph Mankiewicz's All About Eve, another warning about actors. Still, Eve was made from the point of view of a band of brothers and sisters who love theatre and despise Eve Harrington. Sunset Boulevard is more entrapping. It asks whether Norma is the crazy one. Or Joe. Or us, for falling for such melodrama. That case is not settled yet. And Billy Wilder - bless his tricky heart - is 93 this June, and a prize guest at every Hollywood party.