Sunset Boulevard: The film that fought back

It's a sordid story: an ageing actress driven crazy by the Hollywood machine. But how did 'Sunset Boulevard' ever get made, asks David Thomson, when it attacks the very industry that allowed it to happen?

Sunday 09 March 2003 01:00
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Over 50 years after its release, the hardest thing to grasp about Sunset Boulevard is that it was a studio picture, from Paramount, made on the lot, paid for and ordained by the system. To look at it now – a restored edition goes on release this week – you'd have to assume that some insidious virus had got into that system and perverted all its codes and rules. So it is the best tribute to the "independence" of Billy Wilder, writer and director of Sunset Boulevard, that he did it on Paramount money. And went on working for that studio after the shocking picture had opened. Indeed, he met only one rebuke.

In the summer of 1950, not quite sure what they had on their hands, Paramount put on a big preview of Sunset Boulevard on the lot. By invitation only, they brought in most of the leading figures in the picture business. Many people were taken aback – the tone of the film was so startling and sardonic; yet the rendering was so brilliant. Above all, the story of one time movie star, Norma Desmond, longing for a come-back, and failed screenwriter, Joe Gillis, desperate for a break, was a grisly, gallows-humour version of A Star is Born.

One person spoke out: Louis B Mayer, the West Coast head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. "You bastard," he said to Wilder. "You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood."

Within one year, Mr Mayer had been fired by Metro. The picture had opened to outstanding reviews and box-office success – none of which foresaw the degree to which Sunset Boulevard has passed into the collective consciousness along with only a few other films. And it had been nominated for 11 Oscars (it won three, including the award for best original story that went to Wilder, his regular colleague, Charles Brackett, and D M Marshman Jr).

So, how had it been allowed to happen? In an odd way, the answer is a tribute to the very system Sunset Boulevard seems to be attacking. For Billy Wilder had won creative power by doing good works in the business. Having arrived in Hollywood in 1934, he had worked his way up as a successful screenwriter. With his partner Charles Brackett (a WASP, a Harvard law graduate and a novelist), he had worked on Ninotchka, Ball of Fire and Hold Back the Dawn. He had begun directing in 1942 (The Major and the Minor), and in the years just before Sunset Boulevard, he had made Double Indemnity (produced by Joseph Sistrom) and The Lost Weekend and A Foreign Affair (both in partnership with Brackett).

Double Indemnity had been nominated as Best Picture, for best director and for best screenplay. It lost in all categories. But a year later, The Lost Weekend (a harrowing story about alcoholism) swept: it got best picture, best director and best screenplay. Billy Wilder was very hot, and so Paramount – to whom he was under contract – were sympathetic to his ideas. And already, with Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend, he had overcome objections that his material was very dark.

Wilder and Brackett submitted a first draft script of Sunset Boulevard in December 1948. There were plagiarism charges later – all dismissed, and all irrelevant next to the flagrant and audacious way in which Wilder intended to mine Hollywood history. Further, while Paramount may have winced, or crossed their fingers, they never objected to the outline – not even its original opening, in which Joe Gillis (William Holden) is dead, in the morgue, telling the story to the other corpses. This was filmed, and cut only quite late in the day. (As such, it is one of the gems on the new DVD.)

It was only in casting that Wilder and Brackett faced any problems. Their first Gillis was to have been Montgomery Clift. Paramount had an option on the handsome new star, and he signed to play the part. Gloria Swanson was always first choice for Norma Desmond. Though still only 52 in 1949, Swanson had been a major star of silent pictures (often at Paramount), whose career had stopped dead when sound came in. A few other people were considered – from Pola Negri to Mary Pickford – but Swanson was younger, totally American and more needy. For instance, Brackett and Wilder had flinched even from telling Pickford the story – it was so sordid, it seemed to offend her reputation. But Swanson, plainly, was still emotionally and sexually alive.

That's where Clift was getting edgy. For Sunset Boulevard would suggest that Joe was sleeping with Norma, that he was her gigolo. Clift – an insecure bisexual – was advised that this could hurt his image. What he needed, he was told, was a big romantic picture: that's why he did A Place in the Sun with Elizabeth Taylor, and that was William Holden's lucky day. Holden was two years older than Clift, but a good deal more lived in; and he had been knocking around in pictures for ten years, ever since Golden Boy in 1939. He was also under contract to Paramount. It's hard to think of another actor whose fortunes were so changed by one part.

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With Holden and Swanson together, the less than tender imagination of Billy Wilder saw another fabulous opportunity. Wilder adored the bombastic style of Erich von Stroheim, the sometime Viennese adventurer (just like Wilder) who had become a great director of silent pictures, fallen into disgrace and work as a supporting actor. Wilder had cast von Stroheim as Rommel in his second picture, Five Graves to Cairo. Now he saw that Stroheim could be Max von Mayerling, Norma's butler, but also her ex-husband and one-time director. For Stroheim and Swanson had been partners together on Queen Kelly – one of the failures that had marked Stroheim's fall as a director. When Wilder needed to show one of Norma Desmond's old movies in Sunset Boulevard, he would run a scene from Queen Kelly.

Of course, the audience never knew that – but it was a sardonic "inside" touch, and an example of the split levels in the picture. And because it was a Paramount movie, they were able to enlist Cecil B DeMille (the essential father figure in the careers of both Swanson and Desmond) – on the set of his new picture, Samson and Delilah. And there's more, including the card party with Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton and H B Warner (who had played Christ in DeMille's King of Kings).

But those inside "jokes" raise another important question – is Sunset Boulevard meant to be funny, or is it a personal tragedy? Is it a cultural autopsy? There had been pictures about Hollywood before – most notably A Star in Born (1937), which is tough and romantic at the same time, in that it shows one star rising as another falls. But there was something new in the air by 1950, and it can only be explained in terms of such obvious cultural coincidentals as the war, doubts about the dream factory and the increasing pervasiveness of film noir – a tone in which white lies get exposed.

The war had threatened American optimism in ways no victory could cover up. Wilder (Austrian by birth) was appalled at what his old Europe had done; he was pushed deeper into his own natural cynicism; and he turned on the dream factory as a target. It was as if Sunset Boulevard had a profound need to come clean. If you doubt the larger cultural point, just look at the run of movies that served to expose show business romance to a harsh light: All About Eve (1950), In a Lonely Place (1950), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), The Barefoot Contessa (1954), and the re-made A Star is Born (1954).

It's easier now to see how In A Lonely Place and Sunset Boulevard are the most adult of those pictures – while Sunset Boulevard is the most overtly popular. In the Oscars, it lost Best Picture to All About Eve – a fine, witty and entertaining movie. Yet, today, I suspect, offered the same vote, the Academy and the public would go for Sunset Boulevard. It has lasted better because it has a wider mythic reach. The story begins like a fairy tale, with a man trying to escape wandering into this Sleeping Beauty palace – and never escaping. And even if Norma Desmond is supposedly "crazy", she's sympathetic – she wants to come back; she wants great pictures again – big pictures; she wants to act and be Norma! Next to her, Joe is a feeble, minor opportunist. Norma has passion – that's why Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical is really about her.

Gloria Swanson didn't win the Oscar that year (it went to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday). That Swanson didn't win may simply be explained by the fact that her character was crazy and beyond cure – in those days, Hollywood's view of madness was that it was a passing problem, subject to treatment. Our lessons from Sunset Boulevard are more troubling: not just that some manias have no resolve, but that the picture business may be a show to drive us all quietly over the edge.

In hindsight, Sunset Boulevard is the first admission from Hollywood of camp – the first clear statement that "Hollywood" is a set of bogus attitudes and beliefs, not quite art but a kind of advertising for the soul. Yes, Wilder had bitten the hand that fed him – and then he had been able to turn the biter's grimace into smiles of victory. He had smelt a kind of decay in America that Hollywood was steadily feeding. He was smart enough to cry out in protest, and then careerist enough to add: "That's show business!" And so the bitter tease of melodrama set in that would end in none of us being able to take a Hollywood movie seriously again. Sunset Boulevard was the special spectacles that exposed the grisly act.

What happened next? Swanson's comeback didn't take off. Holden became a major star for 20 years. Wilder stayed for years at Paramount but I'm not sure he ever surpassed Sunset Boulevard. The nearest he came was Some Like It Hot – another lesson in how an old genre had turned into a mockery.

The restored 'Sunset Boulevard' is at the NFT, London SE1 (020 7928 3232) from Friday to 2 April and on limited release. The DVD (Paramount) is out on 7 April

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