Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Seventy years ago today, the film Sunset Boulevard premiered. The first time I saw this movie, I was sitting on the floor of a figure drawing studio at Interlochen. The 35mm copy required a reel change halfway through, and we all left with our hands and seats covered in charcoal dust from the previous class. I have seen it multiple times since, and fell in love with it a bit more each time. You have to see this movie.

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Title: Sunset Boulevard
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Produced by: Charles Brackett
Written by: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D. M. Marshman Jr.
Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough
Music by: Franz Waxman
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Edited by: Doane Harrison, Arthur Schmidt
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Release date: August 10, 1950
Running time: 110 minutes
Budget: $1.75 million
Box office: $5 million

At a mansion on Sunset Boulevard, the body of Joe Gillis floats in the swimming pool. In a flashback, Joe relates the events leading to his death.

Six months earlier, down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe tries selling Paramount Pictures producer Sheldrake on a story he submitted. Script reader Betty Schaefer harshly critiques it, unaware that Joe is listening. Later, while fleeing from repossession men seeking his car, Joe turns into the driveway of a seemingly deserted mansion. After concealing the car, he hears a woman inside call to him, mistaking him for someone else. Ushered in by Max, the butler, Joe recognizes the woman as long-forgotten silent film star Norma Desmond. Learning Joe is a writer, Norma asks his opinion of a script she has written for a film about Salome. She plans to play the role herself in a return to the screen. Joe finds her script abysmal, but flatters her into hiring him as a script doctor.

Moved into Norma’s mansion at her insistence, Joe resents but gradually accepts his dependent situation. He sees that Norma refuses to accept that her fame has evaporated and learns that the fan letters she still receives are secretly written by Max, who explains that Norma is emotionally fragile and has attempted suicide. Norma lavishes attention on Joe and buys him expensive clothes. At her New Year’s Eve party, he discovers that he is the only guest and realizes she has fallen in love with him. Joe tries to let her down gently, but Norma slaps him and retreats to her room. Joe visits his friend Artie Green to ask about staying at his place. He again meets Betty, whom he learns is Artie’s lover. Betty thinks a scene in one of Joe’s scripts has potential, but Joe is uninterested. When he phones Max to have him pack his things, Max tells him Norma cut her wrists with his razor. Joe returns to Norma.

Norma has Max deliver the edited Salome script to her former director Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount. She starts getting calls from Paramount executive Gordon Cole, but petulantly refuses to speak to anyone except DeMille. Eventually, she has Max drive her and Joe to Paramount in her 1929 Isotta Fraschini. The older studio employees recognize her and warmly greet her. DeMille receives her affectionately and treats her with great respect, tactfully evading her questions about her script. Meanwhile, Max learns that Cole merely wants to rent her unusual car for a film.

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Preparing for her imagined comeback, Norma undergoes rigorous beauty treatments. Joe secretly works nights at Betty’s Paramount office, collaborating on an original screenplay. His moonlighting is found out by Max, who reveals that he was a respected film director, discovered Norma as a teenage girl, made her a star and was her first husband. After she divorced him, he found life without her unbearable and abandoned his career to become her servant. Meanwhile, despite Betty’s engagement to Artie, she and Joe fall in love. After Norma discovers a manuscript with Joe’s and Betty’s names on it, she phones Betty and insinuates what sort of man Joe really is. Joe, overhearing, invites Betty to come see for herself. When she arrives, he pretends he is satisfied being a gigolo, but after she tearfully leaves he packs for a return to his old Ohio newspaper job. He bluntly informs Norma there will be no comeback, her fan mail comes from Max, and she has been forgotten. He disregards Norma’s threat to kill herself and the gun she shows him to back it up. As Joe walks out of the house, Norma shoots him three times and he falls into the pool.

The flashback ends. The house is filled with police and reporters. Norma, having lost touch with reality, believes the newsreel cameras are there to film Salome. Max and the police play along. Max sets up a scene for her and calls, “Action!” As the cameras roll, Norma dramatically descends her grand staircase. She pauses and makes an impromptu speech about how happy she is to be making a film again, ending with, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” as she then steps in a hallucination of grandeur toward the camera.


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Awards and nominations

Award Category Nominee(s) Result
Academy Awards[44] Best Motion Picture Charles Brackett Nominated
Best Director Billy Wilder Nominated
Best Actor William Holden Nominated
Best Actress Gloria Swanson Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Erich von Stroheim Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Nancy Olson Nominated
Best Story and Screenplay Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and D. M. Marshman Jr. Won
Best Art Direction – Black-and-White Hans Dreier, John Meehan, Samuel M. Comer and Ray Moyer Won
Best Cinematography – Black-and-White John F. Seitz Nominated
Best Film Editing Arthur P. Schmidt and Doane Harrison Nominated
Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture Franz Waxman Won
Blue Ribbon Awards Best Foreign Film Billy Wilder Won
Bodil Awards Best American Film Won
Cahiers du Cinéma Best Film Nominated
Directors Guild of America Awards Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Nominated
DVD Exclusive Awards Best Overall New Extra Features – Library Release John Barbour (for the “Special Collector’s Edition”) Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Drama Sunset Boulevard Won
Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Gloria Swanson Won
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture Erich von Stroheim Nominated
Best Director – Motion Picture Billy Wilder Won
Best Screenplay – Motion Picture Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and D. M. Marshman Jr. Nominated
Best Original Score – Motion Picture Franz Waxman Won
Best Cinematography – Black and White John F. Seitz Nominated
Jussi Awards Best Foreign Actress Gloria Swanson Won
Nastro d’Argento Best Foreign Director Billy Wilder Won
Best Foreign Actress Gloria Swanson Won
National Board of Review Awards Best Film Sunset Boulevard Won
Top Ten Films Won
Best Actress Gloria Swanson Won
National Film Preservation Board National Film Registry Sunset Boulevard Inducted
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Film Won
Best Director Billy Wilder Won
Best Actress Gloria Swanson Won
Online Film & Television Association Hall of Fame – Motion Picture Sunset Boulevard Won
Picturegoer Awards Best Actor William Holden Nominated
Best Actress Gloria Swanson Nominated
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Written American Drama Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and D. M. Marshman Jr. Won

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