Sunset Boulevard (film)
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|Directed by||Billy Wilder|
|Produced by||Charles Brackett|
|Written by||Billy Wilder
D.M. Marshman Jr.
|Starring|| William Holden
Erich von Stroheim
|Music by||Franz Waxman|
|Cinematography||John F. Seitz, ASC|
|Editing by||Arthur Schmidt|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Release date(s)||4 August Frisian: 1950|
|Running time||110 mins.|
|Budget||$1,752,000 USD (est.)|
Sunset Boulevard is a 1950 American film noir classic. Directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, it was named after the famous boulevard of the same name that runs through Los Angeles and Beverly Hills.
It stars William Holden as down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis, and Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, a faded movie star and femme fatale who entraps the unsuspecting Gillis into her fantasy world in which she dreams of making a triumphant return to the screen. Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough and Jack Webb play supporting roles. Director Cecil B. DeMille and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper play themselves, and the film includes cameo appearances by leading silent film figures Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson.
Praised by many critics when first released, Sunset Boulevard was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won three. It is widely accepted as a classic, often cited as one of the most noteworthy films of American cinema. Deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the U.S. Library of Congress in 1989, Sunset Boulevard was included in the first group of films selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. In 1998 it was ranked number twelve on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 best American films of the 20th century, dropping to number 16 on the 10th Anniversary edition published in 2007.
The opening scene reveals that a man has been killed and his corpse is seen floating face down in a swimming pool. A narrator explains that the dead man was an unsuccessful screenwriter. The film fades into flashback as the narrator, now identified as Joe Gillis, describes his attempt to flee by auto from two repossession agents. He turns into a driveway on Sunset Boulevard in order to escape them and sees what he assumes to be a deserted mansion. He enters the house, where he meets a German butler and an eccentric older woman who mistakes him for an undertaker, visiting to arrange the funeral for her recently deceased pet chimpanzee. Gillis recognizes her as Norma Desmond, formerly one of the great stars of the silent screen. When she learns that Gillis is a writer, she offers him a job reading the script she has been writing for her planned comeback and, seizing a rare chance to make some money, Gillis agrees.
Gillis is soon completely financially dependent upon Norma, who lavishes attention on him and buys him expensive clothing. While he occasionally shows discomfort, he makes no effort to change his situation. He is horrified when Norma reveals on New Year's Eve that she is in love with him. Rejecting her attempt at seduction, he hitches a ride to a friend's house where a party is underway and speaks with a young woman named Betty who is interested in his writing. Inspired to continue his writing, he phones the Desmond house to say he is leaving but is told Norma has attempted suicide. He rushes back to the mansion, where he comforts her and stays. The two seem relatively content as Norma continues working on her script. When she considers it to be complete, she sends it to Paramount Studios. She receives telephone calls from Cecil B. DeMille's office at the studio and assumes he is interested in filming the project. She travels to the studio and meets with him; Gillis and the butler learn the studio only wants to hire Norma's vintage Isotta-Fraschini car for use in a film and has no interest in her script. The two of them keep this from her. Joe begins secretly meeting with Betty to work on a screenplay and they fall in love. When Norma discovers this, she phones Betty and insinuates what sort of man Joe really is. Joe returns to the house in time to hear what Norma has said and takes the phone from her. He tells Betty to come to the house, where he explains his side of the situation before turning Betty away. Misunderstanding his actions, Norma is grateful to Joe, but he brushes her aside and begins packing to leave. Norma threatens to shoot herself but he does not take her seriously. As he walks away, she follows and shoots him three times before he falls dead into the pool.
Having explained the corpse in the pool, the film returns to the present, where Norma Desmond appears to be lost in fantasy. News cameras arrive to film her and she thinks she is on the set of her new film. Norma slowly descends her grand staircase and, after making a speech declaring her happiness at making a new film (culminating in the film's most famous line: "Alright, Mr DeMille, I'm ready for my close up".), she reaches for the camera, the screen fades to white and the narrator concludes that Norma's dream of performing for the cameras has in an unexpected way come true for her.
The street after which the film is named has been associated with Hollywood film production since 1911 when the town's first film studio opened on Sunset Boulevard. The film workers lived modestly in the growing neighbourhood, but during the 1920s profits and salaries rose to unprecedented levels. With the advent of the star system, luxurious homes noted for their often incongruous grandeur were built in the area. The stars were the subject of public fascination throughout the world as magazines and newspapers reported the excesses of their lives.
As a young man Billy Wilder was interested in American culture, with much of his interest fueled by the country's films. In the late 1940s many of the grand Hollywood houses remained, and Wilder, now a Los Angeles resident, found they were part of his everyday world. Many former stars from the silent era still lived in them, although most were no longer involved in the film business. Wilder wondered how they spent their time now that "the parade had passed them by" and began imagining the story of a star who had lost her celebrity and box-office appeal.
- Gloria Swanson ..... Norma Desmond
- William Holden ..... Joe Gillis
- Erich von Stroheim ..... Max von Mayerling
- Nancy Olson ..... Betty Schaefer
- Fred Clark ..... Sheldrake
- Jack Webb ..... Artie Green
According to Brackett, he and Wilder never considered anyone except Gloria Swanson for the role of Norma Desmond. Wilder, however, had a different recollection. He recalled first wanting Mae West and Marlon Brando for the leads, but never approached either with an offer. He contacted Pola Negri by telephone, but had too much difficulty understanding her heavy Polish accent. He remembered he and Brackett then visited Mary Pickford, but before they even discussed the plot with her Wilder realized she would consider their proposal of a role in which she would have an affair with a man half her age an insult, and they graciously departed.
According to Wilder, he asked George Cukor for advice, and he suggested Swanson, one of the most feted actresses of the silent-screen era, known for her beauty, talent and extravagant lifestyle. At the peak of her career in 1925 she was said to have received 10,000 fan letters in a single week and had lived on Sunset Boulevard in an elaborate Italianate palace from 1920 until the early 1930s. In many ways she resembled the Norma Desmond character and, like her, she had been unable to make a smooth transition into talking pictures. The similarities ended there though, as Swanson accepted the end of her film career and in the early 1930s moved to New York City where she worked in radio and, from the mid 1940s, in television. Although Swanson was not seeking a comeback, she was intrigued when Wilder discussed the role with her.
Swanson was chagrined at the notion of submitting to a screen test, saying she had "made twenty films for Paramount. Why do they want me to audition?" Her reaction was later echoed in the screenplay when Norma Desmond declares, "without me there wouldn't be any Paramount." In her memoir Swanson recalled asking Cukor if it was unreasonable to refuse the screen test. He replied that Norma Desmond was the role for which she would be remembered. "If they ask you to do ten screen tests, do ten screen tests, or I will personally shoot you," Cukor replied. His enthusiasm convinced Swanson to participate, and she signed a contract for $50,000 . In a 1975 interview Wilder recalled Swanson's reaction with the observation, "there was a lot of Norma in her, you know."
Montgomery Clift was signed to play Joe Gillis for $5,000 per week for a guaranteed twelve weeks, but just prior to the start of filming he withdrew from the project. As an excuse, he claimed his role of a young man involved with an older woman as too similar to the one he had played in The Heiress, in which he felt he had been unconvincing. An infuriated Wilder responded, "If he's any kind of actor, he could be convincing making love to any woman.". It has been suggested that the fact that Clift was himself having an affair with a much older woman (the singer Libby Holman), was his real motivation for withdrawing from the film. .
Forced to consider the available Paramount stars, Wilder and Brackett focused on William Holden, who had made an impressive debut in Golden Boy in 1939. Following an appearance in Our Town (1940), he served in the military in World War II, and his return to the screen afterward had been moderately successful. He was enthusiastic about the script and eager to accept the role. Unbeknownst to him, his salary was $39,000 less than that offered to Clift.
Erich von Stroheim, a leading film director of the 1920s who had directed Swanson, was signed to play Max, the faithful servant and Norma's protector. For the role of Betty Schaeffer, Wilder wanted a newcomer who could project a wholesome and ordinary image to contrast with Swanson's flamboyant and obsessive Desmond. He chose Nancy Olson, who had recently been considered for the role of Delilah in DeMille's Samson and Delilah.
Wilder and Brackett began working on a script in 1948 but the result did not completely satisfy them. In August 1948 D.M. Marshman Jr., formerly a writer for Life Magazine, was hired to help develop the storyline after Wilder and Brackett were impressed by a critique he provided of their film The Emperor Waltz (1948).
In an effort to keep the full details of the story from Paramount Pictures and avoid the restrictive censorship of the Breen Code they submitted the script on an almost page-by-page basis. The Breen Office insisted certain lines be rewritten, such as Gillis' "I'm up that creek and I need a job," which became "I'm over a barrel. I need a job." Paramount executives thought Wilder was adapting a story called A Can of Beans (which did not exist) and allowed him relative freedom to proceed as he saw fit. Only the first third of the script was written when filming began in early May 1949 and Wilder was unsure how the film would end.
The script contains many references to Hollywood and screenwriters, with Joe Gillis making most of the cynical comments. He sums up his film writing career with the remark, "The last one I wrote was about Okies in the dust bowl. You'd never know because when it reached the screen, the whole thing played on a torpedo boat." In another exchange Betty comments to Gillis, "I'd always heard that you had some talent." He replies, "That was last year. This year I'm trying to make a living."
Several of Desmond's lines, such as, "All right Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my close-up," and "I am big. It's the pictures that got small!" are widely remembered and quoted. Much of the film's wit is delivered through Norma Desmond's deadpan comments, which are often followed by sarcastic retorts from Gillis. Desmond appears to not hear some of these comments, as she is absorbed by her own thoughts and in denial, and so some of Gillis' lines are heard only by the audience, with Wilder blurring the line between the events and Gillis' narration. Gillis' response to Desmond's cry that "the pictures got small" is a muttered reply, "I knew something was wrong with them." Wilder often varies the structure, with Desmond taking Gillis' comments seriously and replying in kind. An example is when the two discuss the overwrought script Desmond has been working on. "They'll love it in Pomona," observes Gillis. "They'll love it everyplace," replies Desmond firmly.
In an essay about the screenplay, film writer Richard Corliss described Sunset Boulevard as "the definitive Hollywood horror movie," noting that almost everything in the script is "ghoulish." He remarked that the story is narrated by a dead man who Norma Desmond first mistakes for an undertaker, while most of the film takes place "in an old, dark house that only opens its doors to the living dead." He compared Von Stroheim's character Max with The Phantom of the Opera, and Norma Desmond with Dracula, noting that as she seduces Joe Gillis the camera tactfully withdraws with "the traditional directorial attitude taken towards Dracula's jugular seductions." He wrote that the narrative contains an excess of "cheap sarcasm" but ultimately congratulated the writers for attributing this dialogue to Joe Gillis, who was in any case presented as little more than a hack writer.
Wilder preferred to leave analysis of his screenplays and films to others. Asked if Sunset Boulevard was a black comedy he replied, "No, just a picture."
Key creative personnel
The film's dark, shadowy black-and-white film noir cinematography was the work of John F. Seitz. Wilder had worked with him several times before, and trusted his judgment, allowing him the freedom to make his own decisions. Seitz recalled asking Wilder what he required for the pet monkey's funeral scene. Wilder replied, "you know, just your standard monkey funeral shot." For some interior shots Seitz sprinkled dust in front of the camera before filming to suggest "mustiness", a trick he had also used during production of Double Indemnity (1944).
Wilder was adamant that the corpse of Joe Gillis be seen from the bottom of the pool, but creating the effect was difficult. The camera was placed inside a specially made box and lowered underwater, but the result disappointed Wilder, who insisted on further experiments. The shot was finally achieved by placing a mirror on the bottom of the pool and filming Holden's reflection from above with the distorted image of the policemen standing around the pool and forming a backdrop.
Film historian Tom Stempel wrote, "In both Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, Seitz does something that has always impressed me. Both are films noir, and he finesses the fact that both are set in the sunniest of locales, Los Angeles... he brings together the light and the dark in the same film without any seams showing... he brings together the realistic lighting of Joe Gillis out in the real world with the gothic look of Norma Desmond's mansion. Again with no seams showing."
Edith Head designed the costumes. Wilder, Head and Swanson agreed Norma Desmond would have kept somewhat up to date with fashion trends so Head designed costumes closely resembling the Dior and Chanel look of the mid-1940s. Embellishments were added to personalize them and reflect Norma Desmond's taste. Swanson recalled in her biography that the costumes were only "a trifle outdated, a trifle exotic." Head later described her assignment as "the most challenging of my career," and explained her approach with the comment, "Because Norma Desmond was an actress who had become lost in her own imagination, I tried to make her look like she was always impersonating someone." Head later said she relied on Swanson's expertise because "she was creating a past that she knew and I didn't."
Head also designed the costumes for William Holden and the minor characters but for authenticity, Wilder instructed Von Stroheim and Nancy Olson to wear their own clothing.
The musical score was created by Franz Waxman. His theme for Norma Desmond was based on tango music, inspired by her reference to dancing the tango with Rudolph Valentino. This style was contrasted with Joe Gillis' bebop theme. Waxman also used distorted arrangements of popular film music styles from the 1920s and 1930s to suggest Norma Desmond's state of mind. The film's soundtrack was released on compact disc for the first time in 2002.
The overstated decadence of Norma Desmond's home was created by set designer Hans Dreier, whose career extended back to the silent era. He had also done the interior design for some movie stars' residences, including Mae West's. William Haines, an interior designer and former actor, later defended criticism of Dreier's set design with the observation, " Bebe Daniels, Norma Shearer and Pola Negri all had homes with ugly interiors like that."
During filming considerable publicity was given to health-conscious Gloria Swanson's youthful appearance, which did not contrast enough with William Holden's mature looks. Wilder insisted the age difference be delineated and instructed makeup supervisor Wally Westmore to make Swanson look older. Swanson argued that a woman of Norma Desmond's age, with her considerable wealth and devotion to self, would not necessarily look old, and suggested makeup be applied to Holden to make him appear younger. Wilder agreed and Westmore was assigned the task of making Holden appear younger, which allowed Swanson to portray Norma Desmond as a more sophisticated and glamorous figure than Wilder had originally anticipated.
Touches of authenticity
In dissecting Hollywood's "world of illusion" Wilder carefully placed the story within as authentic a setting as possible and made use of Hollywood history. Norma Desmond's name is believed to have been inspired by actor/director William Desmond Taylor, who had been murdered in 1922, and his close associate and friend Mabel Normand, whose career was marked by scandals surrounding the murder.
Swanson was considered a fitting representative of Hollywood's past, remembered nostalgically by older fans but unknown to many younger movie viewers. Her personal collection of photographs decorated the set of Norma Desmond's home, causing Desmond's fictional past to resemble Swanson's authentic career.
The script refers to real films such as Gone with the Wind and real people such as Darryl F. Zanuck, D. W. Griffith, Tyrone Power, Alan Ladd, William Demarest, Adolphe Menjou, Rudolph Valentino, Rod La Rocque, Vilma Bánky, John Gilbert, Mabel Normand, Bebe Daniels, Marie Prevost, Betty Hutton and Barbara Stanwyck along with the Black Dahlia murder case. Norma Desmond declares admiration for Greta Garbo.
Wilder extended his Hollywood references into some of his casting choices. Erich von Stroheim was a leading director of the silent era. In the role of Max he watches a film with Norma Desmond and the briefly shown scene is from Queen Kelly (1929), which von Stroheim himself directed with Swanson in the title role. Cecil B. De Mille, often credited as the person most responsible for making Swanson a star, plays himself, and was filmed on the set of his current film Samson and Delilah at Paramount Studios. He calls Norma "young fella," the nickname he had called Swanson, a tiny detail of authenticity suggested by De Mille.
Norma's friends who come to play bridge with her, described in the script as "The Waxworks", are Swanson's contemporaries Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H. B. Warner, who, like De Mille, play themselves. Hedda Hopper also plays herself reporting on Norma Desmond's downfall in the film's final scenes.
In a comic scene Norma Desmond performs a pantomime for Joe Gillis as a Mack Sennett "Bathing Beauty", in homage to Swanson's earliest film roles. She also performs a Charles Chaplin impersonation identical to one she performed in the film Masquerade (1924).
Wilder also made use of authentic locales. Joe Gillis's home in the Alto-Nido apartments was a real apartment block located near Paramount Studios and often populated by struggling writers. The scenes of Gillis and Betty Schaefer on Paramount's backlot were filmed on the actual backlot and the interior of Schwab's Drug Store was carefully recreated for several scenes. The exterior scenes of the Desmond house were filmed in the vicinity of an old home on Wilshire Blvd. built during the 1920s, which by 1949 was owned by the former wife of J. Paul Getty. The house was also featured in Rebel Without A Cause. It has since been demolished and an office building stands in its location.
Wilder and Brackett were nervous about a major screening in Hollywood and decided to have the film preview in Evanston, Illinois. The original edit opened with a scene inside a morgue, with the assembled corpses discussing how they had come to be there. Joe Gillis was one of the corpses and began telling about his murder. The audience reacted with laughter and seemed unsure whether to view the rest of the film as a drama or a comedy. After a similar reaction during its second screening the opening scene was deleted. The new edit was well-received in Poughkeepsie, New York.
In Hollywood Paramount arranged a private screening for the various studio heads and specially invited guests. After viewing the film, Barbara Stanwyck bowed to kiss the hem of Gloria Swanson's skirt. Swanson later remembered looking for Mary Pickford only to be told "She can't show herself, Gloria. She's too overcome. We all are." Louis B. Mayer berated Wilder before the crowd of celebrities, saying, "You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood." Actress Mae Murray, a contemporary of Swanson's, was offended by the film and commented "None of us floozies was that nuts."
Sunset Boulevard attracted a range of positive reviews from critics. Time described it as a story of "Hollywood at its worst told by Hollywood at its best" while Boxoffice Review wrote "the picture will keep spectators spellbound." James Agee, writing for Sight and Sound, praised the film and said Wilder and Brackett were "beautifully equipped to do the cold, exact, adroit, sardonic job they have done." Good Housekeeping described Swanson as a "great lady [who] spans another decade with her magic," while Look Magazine praised her "brilliant and haunting performance."
Some critics accurately foresaw the film's lasting appeal. The Hollywood Reporter wrote that future generations would "set themselves the task of analyzing the durability and greatness" of the film while the magazine Commonweal said that in the future "the Library of Congress will be glad to have in its archives a print of Sunset Boulevard."
The rare negative comments included those from The New Yorker which described the film as "a pretentious slice of Roquefort," containing only "the germ of a good idea." Thomas M. Pryor wrote for the New York Times that the plot device of using the dead Joe Gillis as narrator was "completely unworthy of Brackett and Wilder, but happily it does not interfere with the success of Sunset Boulevard."
After a seven-week run at Radio City Music Hall, Variety magazine reported the film had grossed "around $1,020,000" making it one of Radio City Music Hall's most successful pictures. Variety also noted that while it was "breaking records in major cities, it is doing below average in ... the sticks." To promote the film, Gloria Swanson traveled by train throughout the United States, visiting 33 cities in a few months. The publicity helped attract people to the cinemas but in many provincial areas it was considered less than a hit.
Sunset Boulevard won Academy Awards in the categories of:
- Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White ( Hans Dreier, John Meehan, Sam Comer and Ray Moyer)
- Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture ( Franz Waxman)
- Best Writing, Story and Screenplay ( Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and D.M. Marshman Jr.)
It was also nominated in the categories of:
- Best Picture
- Best Director (Billy Wilder)
- Best Actor in a Leading Role ( William Holden)
- Best Actor in a Supporting Role ( Erich von Stroheim)
- Best Actress in a Leading Role ( Gloria Swanson)
- Best Actress in a Supporting Role ( Nancy Olson)
- Best Cinematography, Black-and-White ( John F. Seitz)
- Best Film Editing (Arthur P. Schmidt and Doane Harrison)
Sunset Boulevard's eleven nominations were exceeded only by the fourteen nominations received by All About Eve which won six awards including Best Picture and Best Director. Many critics predicted that the Best Actress award would be given to Gloria Swanson or Bette Davis for All About Eve and were surprised that the recipient was newcomer Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday. Swanson recalled the press' reaction following Holliday's win, writing "It slowly dawned on me that they were asking for a larger-than-life scene, or better still, a mad scene. More accurately they were trying to flush out Norma Desmond."
In an interview years later Davis bluntly stated she and Swanson had "cancelled each other out", though in 1982 she told Playboy Magazine of her admiration for Swanson's performance, saying, "If she'd won, I'd have shouted hooray. She was sensational, just fantastic".
Sunset Boulevard also received Golden Globe awards for Best Motion Picture - Drama, Best Motion Picture Actress (Swanson), Best Motion Picture Director and Best Motion Picture Score. Wilder and Brackett won a Writers Guild of America, East Award for Best Written American Drama while the Directors Guild of America nominated Wilder for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures. The National Board of Review voted it Best Picture and Swanson received Best Actress.
American Film Institute recognition
- 1998 - AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies - #12
- 2005 - AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes:
- "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up." - #7
- "I am big! It's the pictures that got small." - #24
- 2005 - AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores - #16
- 2007 - AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) - #16
After Sunset Boulevard
Sunset Boulevard was the last collaboration between Wilder and Brackett. They parted responsibly if not completely amicably and respected their long-term partnership by not airing any grievances publicly. Their mutual respect and courteous integrity remained in force throughout the rest of their lives. In later years, Brackett confided in screenwriter/director Garson Kanin that he had not anticipated the split, nor did he ever understand exactly what happened or why it did. He described it as "an unexpected blow" from which he never recovered fully. When asked to respond to Brackett's comments, Wilder remained silent.
The two men briefly reunited in October 1951 to face charges they had plagiarized Sunset. Former Paramount accountant Stephanie Joan Carlson alleged in 1947 she had submitted to Wilder and Brackett, at their request, manuscripts of stories, both fictional and based on fact, she had written about studio life. She claimed one in particular, Past Performance, served as the basis for the Sunset script and sued the screenwriters and Paramount for $100,000 in general damages, $250,000 in punitive damages, $700,000 based on the box office returns, and an additional $350,000 for good measure, for a total of $1,400,000. Carlson's suit was dismissed after two and a half years. In 1954, a similar suit was filed by playwright Edra Buckler, who claimed material she had written had been the screenplay's source. Her suit was dismissed the following year.
Brackett's Hollywood career continued after his split with Wilder. He won an Academy Award for his screenplay for Titanic (1953), and wrote Niagara (1953), which was the breakthrough film for Marilyn Monroe as a dramatic actress. It was Wilder however, who realized Monroe's comedic abilities in The Seven Year Itch and Some Like it Hot. Brackett's career waned by the end of the decade.
William Holden began receiving more important parts and his career rose. In 1953, he won the Best Actor Oscar for Stalag 17 (also directed by Wilder) and by 1956 he was the number one box-office attraction in the United States.
Nancy Olson's pairing with William Holden was considered a success, and she appeared opposite him in several films during the 1950s, although none of them repeated their earlier success. She went on to star in The Absent-Minded Professor (1960) and Son of Flubber (1961), in which she was paired with Fred MacMurray, but despite the films' popularity with movie-goers, her career stalled.
Similarly, Gloria Swanson was not able to leverage her own success in Sunset Boulevard. Although offered scripts, she felt that they all were poor imitations of Norma Desmond. Imagining a career that would eventually reduce her to playing "a parody of a parody," she virtually retired from films.
In 1957 Swanson initiated discussions with Paramount Studios to adapt Sunset Boulevard into a musical called Boulevard! In her version the romance between Gillis and Shaefer was allowed to blossom and rather than shoot Gillis at the end, Norma gave the couple her blessing, sending them on their way to live "happily ever after." Swanson employed Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley to compose the score, which was completed and recorded, later appearing on LP; Swanson performed a fully-orchestrated selection on The Steve Allen Show. Paramount Studios, which owned the copyright, encouraged Swanson to continue but withdrew its consent in 1959, saying it would not permit an interpretation that would damage the existing and future reputation of the film. It allowed television productions for Lux Video Theatre with Miriam Hopkins, and Robert Montgomery Presents with Mary Astor and Darren McGavin, because the storyline remained faithful to the original script.
Sunset Boulevard was shown in New York City in 1960 and drew such a positive response that Paramount arranged for a limited rerelease in theaters throughout the United States. It is arguably best known to modern audiences as a result of its television screenings since the 1960s.
In 1989 the film was among the first group of 25 deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Polls conducted by the American Film Institute have demonstrated the lasting appeal of Sunset Boulevard and the esteem in which it is held by the modern filmmakers who respond to these polls. In 1998 it was ranked number twelve on a list of " 100 Greatest Films". In 2004 two quotes from Sunset Boulevard were included in their poll of " Greatest Movie Quotes": All right, Mr. De Mille. I'm ready for my close-up (#7) and I am big. It's the pictures that got small (#24). In 2005, Franz Waxman's score was named #16 of the top 25 film scores in the AFI's "100 Years of Film Scores list.
Roger Ebert has praised the acting of Holden and von Stroheim and has described Swanson's as "one of the all time greatest performances." He says Sunset Boulevard "remains the best drama ever made about the movies because it sees through the illusions." Pauline Kael described the film as "almost too clever, but at its best in its cleverness," and also wrote it was common to "hear Billy Wilder called the world's greatest director." When Wilder died, many obituaries singled out Sunset Boulevard for comment, describing it as one of his most significant works along with Double Indemnity (1944) and Some Like it Hot (1959).
By the late 1990s, most Sunset Boulevard prints were in poor condition, and since the film was one of the last to be filmed on cellulose nitrate filmstock, much of the original negative had perished. Paramount Studios, believing the film merited the effort of a complete restoration, mounted an expensive project to have the film digitally restored. The restored version was released on DVD in 2002. A 2003 BBC review of the restored film described it as "the finest movie ever made about the narcissistic hellhole that is Hollywood."
Other films about Hollywood
While Hollywood had been making films about itself since the 1920s, many of them, such as It's a Great Feeling (1949), were good-natured and fun. Others, such as What Price Hollywood? (1932) and A Star Is Born (1937), hinted at the darker side of Hollywood without explicitly showing it. Sunset Boulevard is considered to be the first to employ such extreme cynicism. It was soon followed by The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Singin' in the Rain (1952) and the musical remake of A Star Is Born (1954). Though none of them was as harshly self-critical, they each depicted the ease and cruelty with which Hollywood could discard a movie star past his or her prime.
Sunset Boulevard was followed by other films which varied the story of an older actress desperately clinging to her past glory, such as Bette Davis in The Star (1952) and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Joan Crawford in Torch Song (1953), Geraldine Page in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), Susan Hayward in Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest (1981). The scenario of an older woman with a gigolo was also used as a storyline without the Hollywood setting in such films as The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) which starred Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty, while Katharine Hepburn's descent into madness in Suddenly Last Summer (1959) has been compared to Norma Desmond's final scene. The Day of the Locust (1975), The Last Tycoon (1976), and S.O.B. (1981) depict Hollywood in bitter terms and, like Sunset Boulevard, make use of real backstage settings.
Among the more recent films to discuss Sunset Boulevard in their screenplays or imitate its scenes or dialogue are Soapdish (1991), The Player (1992), Gods and Monsters (1998), Mulholland Drive (2001) and Be Cool (2005). The ending of Cecil B. Demented (2000) is a parody of Sunset Boulevard's famous final scene.
On television, the film inspired an episode of The Twilight Zone, " The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine", in which an aging movie queen played by Ida Lupino relives her past glory through watching her movies and at the same time isolating herself from the real world.
There have been several attempts to musicalise Sunset Boulevard.
Stapley and Hughes
From approximately 1952 to 1956 Gloria Swanson herself worked with actor Richard Stapley (aka Richard Wyler) and cabaret singer/pianist Dickson Hughes on an adaptation titled Boulevard! (originally titled Starring Norma Desmond). Stapley and Hughes initially approached Swanson about appearing in a musical revue they had written, About Time (based on TIME magazine). Swanson stated that she would return to the stage only in a musical version of her comeback film. Within a week Stapley and Dickson had written three songs which met with Swanson's approval.
A demo of Boulevard! was recorded and was available at the Gloria Swanson Archives at the University of Texas. The recording was released on CD in 2008. The cast features Swanson as Norma and Hughes as Max. Performers for other parts are not credited. Swanson performed one song from the show on 10 November 1957 on The Steve Allen Show, "Those Wonderful People". Reportedly Jose Ferrer expressed interest in directing a production based on this performance.
Although Paramount gave verbal permission to proceed with the musical there was no formal legal option. In the late 1950s Paramount withdrew its consent which led to the demise of the project.
In 1994 Dickson Hughes incorporated material from Boulevard! into a musical Swanson on Sunset, based on his and Stapley's experiences in writing Boulevard!.
Other failed attempts
Around 1980 Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince were working on a musical adaptation (with Norma to be played by Angela Lansbury.
Sondheim gave up the venture after meeting Billy Wilder who proposed he write an opera instead of a musical. Then, John Kander and Fred Ebb were asked to do so. Finally Andrew Lloyd Webber took the opportunity to create a musical based on the film.
Lloyd Webber and Black & Hamptom
A musical version (also titled Sunset Boulevard) with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton was displayed at the 1992 Sydmonton festival, before opening in London, England the following year.
The production closely followed the film story, retained much of the dialogue and attempted to present similar set designs. Billy Wilder commented, "I congratulate [the writers] on something very ingenious — they left the story alone. A woman comes forward and says, 'I am big, it's the pictures that got small.' I was very much astonished when I heard the words, many of them retained and some of them to music. I'm not an expert on music but it sounded good to me." The show opened on Broadway the following year. Among the actresses to play Norma Desmond were Patti Lupone, Elaine Paige, Betty Buckley and Petula Clark in London along with Glenn Close in Los Angeles and Betty Buckley in New York.
In July 2005 Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group announced that a film version of the musical, starring Glenn Close, was to be produced in association with Paramount and the Relevant Picture Company. The planned release date was originally 2006, but the project has been delayed until 2009.
The title of the film is commonly spelled Sunset Boulevard, as for instance by the film's the original theatrical trailer and the National Film Registry. However, since the film opens with a shot of a street curb which has a stencil of Sunset Blvd. in capital letters (instead of a title sequence), the title is sometimes spelled "Sunset Blvd.", for instance by Leonard Maltin's Film Guide, the IMDb or the registration with the Library of Congress.