Close-up on Sunset Boulevard: Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond, and the Dark Hollywood Dream by Sam Staggs

By Rose

‘She was the greatest of them all. You would not know; you are too young. In one week, she received 17, 000 fan letters. Men bribed her hairdresser to get a lock of her hair. There was a maharajah who came all the way from India to beg one of her silk stockings. Later he strangled himself with it.’

Just one example of the marvellous dialogue from the film script ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ These sentences reveal the heights of fame Norma Desmond glided as a silent superstar. Her on-screen image beguiled audiences of the silent era. You can imagine the drop from such stature, the plunge from the stratospheres to become a neglected isolated figure. Yet at the end of the dialogue, the comic genius of Billy Wilder resonates with ‘the stocking the maharajah strangled himself with.’ Sunset Boulevard is a project that moves deftly from part film noir to comedy. There are times when you laugh out loud, other times when you are submerged into the innermost trenches of Norma Desmond’s delusional and entitled mind. The crumbling mansion she lives exemplifies the cognitive processes of her madness, the multitude of rooms represent her many memories where the youthful legend she once was, throbbing with life, enjoyed fame with a cataclysmic intensity. The fanaticism for re-capturing that iconic past guides her behaviour today.

When impoverished writer Joe Gillis first sees the mansion house, he comments that its grandeur has denigrated to the sort of house in which Miss Havisham might reside. This sets the scene for the type of character we are about to meet. The mansion becomes a forceful character, one that resonates with another time, long ago, now disregarded by modern society. It also exemplifies the gilded prosperity of Norma Desmond, living an exclusive lifestyle that fuels her fantasy life. Even the vintage splendour of the Isotta-Fraschini, a car that radiates opulence and timeless sophistication, demonstrates her failure to let go of the past.

How does our past life experience dictate our present and future behaviours? What effect does memory have on the future? What is it like to party in silks, under the gaze of thousands of admirers, the superstar lifestyle pulsing with a ferocity not felt by ordinary lives, where your every wish is granted? And how does it feel to lose it all?

This book is about the construction of the film, the director, producer, actors, and actresses that worked on it, and how the script was written and developed by Billy Wilder (Director) and Charles Brackett (Producer). The vision of two men and the impact of their personalities on the film’s creation. The film showcases the callousness of the Hollywood machine that dispenses with stars, substituting them with younger models. Another prominent theme is the consequence of fame on the mind, being an idolised movie star can occasionally create monstrous personalities or even the most potent insanity. Billy Wilder and Bracket had seen some challenging cases of the fall from greatness, primarily alcoholism, depression, and reclusiveness. For the role of Norma Desmond, they considered Greta Garbo who had no interest, considered Mae West and Mary Pickford. Wilder said they needed a real actress, who had lived the pinnacles of stardom but whose career had faded into obscurity. They did not believe that audiences would find an unknown actress, that had never attained star prominence convincing in the part. In the end, they chose Gloria Swanson, who was incensed when they asked her to do a screen test. Gloria Swanson, the young formidable actress, who once let a lion place his paws on her bare back in that beaded exotic dress in ‘male and female’ directed by Cecille B. DeMille, who in an interview described the lion's roar, as like a thousand vibrations moving all through her body. The fearlessness of the young Swanson must be admired. The idea of an actress being put at such risk in today’s film world is inconceivable.

Their first choice for the young writer in the film was Montgomery Clift, known as the man with the most beautiful face in Hollywood at this time, but he pulled out of the casting stating he did not think he would be convincing making love to a woman twice his age. Some said, Libby Holman, made him turn down the role, as she believed the story had too many similarities to her own life. William Holden urgently needed a good acting part, owned by the studio on a challenging contract he had been given several bad roles and his career was floundering. When he asked Billy Wilder to give him more information on his character during filming, Wilder famously said, ‘who exactly is William Holden?’A typical philosophical response.

Wilder and Brackett discussed creative suggestions for the plot, yet for a long time, all they had was the idea of an older actress who had lost her mind, obsessed with recapturing her fame, and a cynical young writer desperate for money and a job. Beyond this, they had few concepts of how the plot should move, even at the start of filming. The storyline evolved while working with the actors. This was most unusual for this time; most studios would want to read the full script right at the start before approving filming. Possibly, due to Billy Wilder’s reputation as a director, he was allowed more freedom.

Sunset Boulevard also examines the dismal way writers were treated in Hollywood, with the character, Joe Gillis. His lifestyle is the opposite of Norma Desmond’s. In the script, he tells us that the audience never considers the writers of a film. His character began his career with a big dream, ultimately, he became aware of the way Hollywood operated and became a jaded figure. He lives in a small one-room apartment in a bad neighbourhood, constantly dodging debts and unable to pay for food or his car, in an act of desperation he takes Norma Desmond’s job offer, eventually becoming entrenched into the insanity of the actress, who lives in an imaginary world, powered by her faithful butler, completely bereft of realism. The writer’s guilt and shame at being a ‘kept man’ lead to him keep his personal life a secret from everybody, except one young female writer, he eventually falls in love with. The environment of the mansion house he must navigate infects his mind, imprinting his moods and slowly changing his personality. Somehow, even when he packs to leave, he seems to sense he will not make it. There is a fatalistic feel to the end of the film, that bellies the death scene about to happen. The truth, that his life had become a place he could never escape, that it is all too late, due to financial hardship and missed chances, builds a haunted personality.

The set designs and atmosphere are genuinely one of the fantastic features of this film. The book illustrates the set and the design of the film. From the beginning, we enter an entombed life, with incessant photographs of the beautiful star in an assortment of elegant poses, her glowing assured seductive stare, a constant reminder of her youth and formidable position in the past. The interior rooms of the film are meant to create a haunted ambience, a feeling of being stuck in a particular time. A time when silent pictures were dominant and actors like Valentino were treated like Gods. The dead monkey lies on a satin lace pillow, giant cherub statues decorate the lacy bed, the eerie whistling of the old pipe organ echoes through the house. Her personality breathes inside every corner of the interior, her affluence visible to all. To Norma money is something that she does not have to think about, for him money is something that he has to fight for daily.

The depiction of older women in film is well documented and it was very much a dominating feature at the time this film was created. One could say that ageism is still very much a part of society and film. There is no part in the film where the writer, Joe Gillis, looks genuinely attracted to Norma, nor does he seem to like her, largely he looks dismayed, pitying, and appalled by her presence. The idea that a man of his age would find a woman of her age desirable is rooted in the story. Norma Desmond is given grotesque scenes to play, where she parades around the room as the Norma Desmond Follies, in swimsuit and as Charlie Chaplin. She is portrayed as clingy and cloying, loud brash and neurotic. There are a few sympathetic scenes, particularly the ones with the Cecil De Mille who directed Swanson in earlier movies and appears as himself. This depiction of the older female reiterates the feeling of society and culture that was dominated by males in power at the time. Women were deemed unattractive by the time they have reached fifty years old; they may also be irrational, and insane. In the pain of her loneliness, Norma desperately tries to keep the young writer, despite knowing that he does not love her, nor even like her. Instead, he is willing to sacrifice himself, for the lifestyle that she has provided. Yet, he loses his creativity in the process. The disappearance of youth and how youth is still a central component in modern culture and the importance of the female image is potent. Norma’s dialogue is loaded with sentences that reflect the image she has of herself, as someone powerful, arrogant, and exceptional. It is also evident that Norma Desmond has a serious mental health condition. Thus, her behaviour is not completely her fault.  

The book is a plethora of knowledge about the making of the film, the author has interviewed the children and grandchildren of many of the key people that developed it. He also interviewed Nancy Olson. The personal lives and background of Wilder, Swanson and Brackett and the way the production teams and Hollywood functioned at this time in history are fascinating to read. There are some parts where the author makes his own analysis, whether he is right or not, we have to judge ourselves.  All in all, it is a comprehensive body of work on the film. Perhaps my only problem at times was the order he chose for some subjects.