Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard Study Guide

Sunset Boulevard is a 1950 film noir, melodrama, and dark comedy directed by visionary filmmaker Billy Wilder, who also co-wrote the screenplay with one of his longtime collaborators, Charles Brackett. The duo initially conceived the film as a comedy about a has-been silent film star making a victorious comeback. As their writing evolved, the story’s focus shifted to a relationship between the aging silent film star and a younger man. Wilder and Brackett’s final product is one of the most famous and respected films about Hollywood. It effortlessly blends acerbic wit, ironic self-referentiality, and cynical criticism of the destructive impacts of the new movie industry.

Sunset Boulevard stars William Holden as Joe Gillis, a screenwriter who stumbles upon the grandiose mansion of faded silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Norma lives as a recluse and her career has faded into obscurity, but she nonetheless believes the whole world is eagerly awaiting her career resurgence. The only other resident of the mansion is Norma’s butler and ex-husband—Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim)—who devotes his life to keeping Norma’s delusions alive. Norma hires Joe to ghost-write for her triumphant return to the big screen. Soon, however, Joe moves in full-time and acts as her gigolo, lover, and general ego-stroker. The simple premise progresses into a bleak meditation on narcissism, unrequited love, discontent, and delusion.

The film’s fictional setup boldly infuses the reality of filmmaking. Intertextuality and allusions pervade the film, with silent film stars H.B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilson, and Buster Keaton playing Norma’s card-playing friends, and legendary director Cecil B. DeMille and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper make cameo appearances as themselves. Paramount Studios itself is one of the film’s most crucial settings, as is the titular Sunset Boulevard - the Los Angeles street that's synonymous with the grandeur and luxury of 1920s Hollywood. Additionally, Erich von Stroheim was a visionary director in his own right, and he even directed Gloria Swanson in Queen Kelly (1929)—the film Norma, Joe, and Max watch together early on in the film.

Wilder and Brackett’s commitment to radical, disconcerted realism was not unanimously embraced, in part proven by the arduous casting process. Silent film stars Mae West, Mary Pickford, and Pola Negri were approached for the role of Norma Desmond, but they viewed the character as unflattering. Montgomery Clift was cast as Joe and dropped out of the film 2 weeks before the shoot, and Fred MacMurray—star of Wilder’s Double Indemnity and The Apartmentalso turned down a part in the film. Additionally, some Hollywood insiders condemned Sunset Boulevard’s biting cynicism toward the film industry, including producer and MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer, who lamented, “How dare this young man, Wilder, bite the hand that feeds him?” after an early film screening (Wilder responded, “I am Mr. Wilder and go f--- yourself”).

Even if some egos were squashed upon viewing Hollywood’s most intimate, self-referential exposé, Sunset Boulevard was met with widespread enthusiastic reviews upon release, with The New York Times’ Thomas M. Pryor praising the film as “that rare blend of pungent writing, expert acting, masterly direction, and unobtrusively artistic photography.” The film received 11 Academy Awards nominations, including all 4 acting categories, and won 3: Best Music (Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture), Best Art Direction (Black and White), and Best Writing (Story and Screenplay).

Since then, Sunset Boulevard has become one of the most celebrated American films of all time. In 1989, the U.S. Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” and it was one of the first 25 films selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. The American Film Institute’s esteemed “100 Years...100 Movies” list ranked it as the 12th best American film ever made in 1998, and 16th in 2007 on its 10th Anniversary list. Notably, Sunset Boulevard permeates pop culture, from the inclusion of the line "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille” in Mrs. Doubtfire (1983), to an homage of the iconic opening scene in Archer, to crucially influencing filmmaker David Lynch’s work, in particular Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire, and Twin Peaks: The Return.

Sunset Boulevard's sharp, darkly humorous script, masterful cinematography, and tour de force performances all contribute to the film’s abiding legacy. Perhaps more importantly, the film’s somber criticism of Hollywood was groundbreaking and a breath of fresh air compared to the countless cheery musicals and comedies previously comprising the genre of films about films. While Wilder and Brackett took a risk in creating a work of great depth and honesty, it certainly paid off, as proven by the film’s enduring respect within the entertainment world.