Eugene Walter was a prolific Hollywood screenwriter of the 1920s and 1930s. 1851 Ivar Street was the address of the Alto Nido Apartments, where Walter lived, sometimes worked, and, ultimately died in 1941. As Sunset Blvd. opens, William Holden's character Joe Gillis describes himself as a Hollywood screenwriter "living in an apartment house above Ivar Street." As the camera cranes up into the apartment, we can see it's the Alto Nido. The apartments, and the "Alto Nido" sign out front that is glimpsed briefly in the film, are still there today.
The role of Norma Desmond was initially offered to Mae West (who rejected the part), Mary Pickford (who demanded too much project control), and Pola Negri (who, like Mae West, turned it down) before being accepted by Gloria Swanson.
Montgomery Clift, signed to play the part of Joe Gillis, (on advice of Libby Holman) broke his contract just two weeks prior to the start of shooting. Billy Wilder quickly offered the role to Fred MacMurray, who turned it down because he didn't want to play a gigolo. Marlon Brando was considered, but the producers thought he was too much of an unknown as a film actor. Gene Kelly was then approached, but MGM refused to loan him out. Reluctantly, Wilder met with William Holden, who hadn't done much after the great Hollywood innovator Rouben Mamoulian's Golden Boy (1939). Holden's films after that time had not impressed Wilder (in the 1940s Holden's movies were decidedly mediocre). They eventually worked together on several films and became longtime friends. It was largely from his association with Wilder that Holden would enjoy the greatest acting successes of his career in the 1950's.
The "Desmond mansion" was located not on Sunset Blvd, but on Wilshire at S. Irving Blvd. It was built in 1924 by William Jenkins, at a cost of $250,000. Its second owner was Jean Paul Getty, who purchased it for his second wife. Mrs. Getty divorced her millionaire husband and received custody of the house; it was she who rented it to Paramount for the filming. The mansion was torn down in 1957, and an office building now stands on the spot.
Despite the fact that Erich von Stroheim plays a butler/chauffeur, he could not drive in real life. During the scenes in which he drove, the car was towed by another car. In the scene in which he drives Norma Desmond to Paramount Pictures, it was rumoured he crashed into the famous Paramount gate. According to the DVD commentary by Wilder biographer Ed Sikov, this story was most likely invented/exaggerated by Billy Wilder.
The name Norma Desmond was chosen from a combination of silent-film star Norma Talmadge and silent movie director William Desmond Taylor, whose still-unsolved murder is one of the great scandals of Hollywood history. (On the morning of Febriary 1, 1922, Taylor was shot and killed in his Hollywood bungalow. His killer was never identified.)
The original nitrate negatives for the film have long disappeared. The only extant film elements were 35mm inter-positives struck in 1952, which had undergone a great deal of decay. This inter-positive was scanned at 2,000 lines of resolution and electronically restored for the 2002 DVD reissue. The restoration was performed at Lowry Digital by Barry Allen and Steve Elkin. A new 4K high-definition scan was done in 2008 for the film's release on Blu-ray disc.
The directions made by the Paramount guard for Norma and Joe to go meet Cecil B. DeMille on "Stage 18" is accurate: this stage, one of the largest on the Paramount lot, was known for years as "The DeMille Stage," and now is called "The Star Trek Stage", as all the "Trek" movies and some scenes from the TV shows have shot there (the TV series, from Star Trek: The Next Generation onward had their main sets right across the studio street on Stages 8 and 9, which are right below the second-floor office occupied by Betty Schaefer in Sunset Blvd.. Those offices later became the home of the "Star Trek" art department.)
Gloria Swanson almost considered rejecting the role of Norma Desmond after Billy Wilder requested she do a screen test for the role. Her friend George Cukor, who initially recommended her for the part, told her, "If they want you to do ten screen tests, do ten screen tests. If you don't, I will personally shoot you." Swanson agreed to the audition, and won the role.
The movie's line "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up" was voted as the #7 movie quote by the American Film Institute. (It is also one of the most frequently misquoted movie lines, usually given as, "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.") "I am big! It's the pictures that got small." was voted #24, out of 100.
The movie's line "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up." was voted as the #6 of "The 100 Greatest Movie Lines" by Premiere in 2007. "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces." was #13. "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." was #91 .
Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett met with Greta Garbo and tried to convince her to make a comeback for the role of Norma Desmond. Garbo declined the offer. Garbo was once rumored to be engaged to the innovative Hollywood and Broadway director Rouben Mamoulian whose film Golden Boy (1939) made William Holden famous.
Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett's 17th and final screenplay collaboration. After the completion of "Sunset Boulevard," Wilder shocked his longtime collaborator by announcing that he wished to dissolve their partnership. The two men never worked together again.
Paramount were more than happy to be the subject of the film, and didn't ask for the studio to be disguised. In fact, such was the buzz about the film during production that the viewing of the daily rushes became one of the hottest tickets on the lot.
The character of Joe Gillis was very much in tune with William Holden's standing at the time. When he appeared in the innovative Hollywood director Rouben Mamoulian's 1939 film Golden Boy, he was hailed as exactly that, but had seen his stock fall, largely through his problems with alcohol and a string of unmemorable films in the 1940's. On the basis of this film and largely out of his continuing association with director Billy Wilder, Holden would reach the zenith of his career from 1950-57.
According to Gloria Swanson's daughter, Michelle Amon, her mother stayed in character throughout the entire shoot, even speaking like Norma Desmond when she arrived home in the evening after filming. On the last day of shooting, Swanson drove back to the house she, her mother and daughter shared during production, announcing "there were only three of us in it now, meaning that Norma Desmond had taken her leave."
Upon seeing the film at a star-studded preview screening at Paramount, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer screamed at director Billy Wilder that he should be tarred, feathered and horse-whipped for bringing his profession into such disrepute. Wilder's response was a terse, "Fuck you" (Mayer would find himself ousted from his position within the year by the new regime at MGM, headed by Dore Schary).
Billy Wilder originally wanted another silent star, Pola Negri, to take the part of Norma Desmond. Upon telephoning her, however, Wilder found that Negri's Polish accent, which had killed her career, was still too thick for such a dialog-heavy film.
Other actresses considered for Norma Desmond were Mae Murray and Mary Pickford. In fact, Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett even went to Pickfair to pitch the story to Pickford, but her horrified reaction as the story progressed made them stop halfway through and apologize to her.
As a practical joke, during the scene where William Holden and Nancy Olson kiss for the first time, Billy Wilder let them carry on for minutes without yelling cut (he'd already gotten the shot he needed on the first take). Eventually it wasn't Wilder who shouted "Cut!" but Holden's wife, Ardis (actress Brenda Marshall), who happened to be onset that day.
Billy Wilder was actually more friendly with the other leading gossip columnist of the day, Louella Parsons. However, he knew that her arch-rival Hedda Hopper had trained as an actress and would therefore be more convincing onscreen.
The musical version of the movie opened in London on July 12, 1993 and ran 1529 performances. It opened on Broadway at the Minskoff Theater on November 17, 1994, ran for 977 performances and won the 1995 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Book and Score.
In "On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder", Ed Sikov relates a story about Wilder's explanation of the true meaning of the strange dead chimp scene from the start of the film. Sikov says that during the mid-1990s, both Wilder and former First Lady Nancy Davis Reagan were at a party for an opening of one of the productions of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on the film, when, with Reagan nearby, an older woman approached Wilder with a question about what the chimp scene meant. Wilder's typically outrageous answer, probably intended to shock the former First Lady as much as to inform the woman of the true meaning of the scene, was, "Don't you understand? Before Joe Gillis came along, Norma Desmond was fucking the monkey."
The drugstore where Joe Gillis meets up with his old movie industry friends is Schwab's Pharmacy, then a real pharmacy/soda fountain at the intersection of Sunset Blvd. and Crescent Heights Blvd. in West Hollywood. It was widely known as a top Hollywood hangout for many actors, directors, writers and producers. F. Scott Fitzgerald suffered a heart attack while in Schwab's in 1940. (Contrary to legend, Lana Turner was not discovered by a talent agent in Schwab's but, rather, in a drugstore across from Hollywood High School, about three miles to the east.) Schwab's was torn down in 1988 to make way for a movie theater and a shopping center.
When Joe Gillis says, "They'll love it in Pomona," most people assume (correctly) that Pomona is intended to be representative of just about any average American town. But it also alludes to the fact that Pomona was one of three towns in California's Inland Empire region (Riverside and San Bernardino were the others) that were frequently used during Hollywood's Golden Age for testing preview audiences' reactions to unreleased films. These towns were favored because they were on the way to Palm Springs, where, after collecting the audience reaction cards, studio personnel would then go to relax and determine what changes should be made to to the previewed films.
Joe Gillis mentions that the painting of wild horses that covers the projection screen in Norma Desmond's mansion was given to her by "some Nevada Chamber of Commerce." This is a nod to retired silent movie star Clara Bow, whose husband Rex Bell, a former star of Western B-movies, was the president of the Nevada Chamber of Commerce, and later Lieutenant Governor of Nevada.
According to Cameron Crowe, who shadowed Billy Wilder in his twilight years, a typical day in his office would consist of him answering numerous phone calls from people requesting to remake this film, upon which he would inform them that he didn't own the rights and promptly hang up.
Jay Livingston, Ray Evans:
The Paramount songwriting duo are seen at the piano at Artie Green's New Years party. They are singing a parody of their song, "Buttons and Bows," from the movie The Paleface, for which they won an Oscar in 1949, the year Sunset Blvd. was made. (Ironically, in the parody they are singing, they lament that "Hollywood to us ain't been so good")
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Originally opened and closed the story at the Los Angeles County Morgue. In a scene described by director Billy Wilder as one of the best he'd ever shot, the body of Joe Gillis is rolled into the Morgue to join three dozen other corpses, some of whom - in voice-over - tell Gillis how they died. Eventually Gillis tells his story, which takes us to a flashback of his affair with Norma Desmond. The movie was previewed with this opening, in Illinois, Long Island, New York, and Poughkeepsie, New York. Because all three audiences inappropriately found the morgue scene hilarious, the film's release was delayed six months so that a new beginning could be shot in which police find Gillis' corpse floating in Norma's pool while Gillis' voice narrates the events leading to his death. Distortion caused by water meant that this scene had to be filmed via a mirror placed on the bottom of the pool.
Gloria Swanson played her final descent on the staircase - and into madness - barefoot, as she was terrified of tripping if she'd worn high heels. Since her part required her to gaze at the newsreel cameramen and "fans" (the waiting police) gathered in the foyer below, she couldn't watch where she placed her feet. She burst into tears upon completion of the scene.
There's a little dig in the scene when Cecil B. DeMille finds out that Paramount has been calling Norma Desmond because it wants to rent her car for "the Crosby picture." The truth of the matter was that Bing Crosby was one of the very few actors to whom Billy Wilder had borne a grudge, mainly because Crosby had done the unthinkable during filming of The Emperor Waltz, and ad-libbed dialog, something he and Bob Hope had done for years as standard operating procedure in their breezy "Road" pictures. Charles Brackett and Wilder were just as adamant that nothing in their scripts should be changed, and nothing new added.
In the penultimate scene, as Max tells Norma that "the cameras have arrived," the high strings in composer Franz Waxman's Oscar-winning score quote a chord from Richard Strauss's "The Dance of the Seven Veils" (from his opera "Salome", a reference to the now-mad Norma's final possession by the woman Salome with which she'd been so obsessed). The same musical quote from "Salome" is used again as she descends the stairs, where Waxman segues into his own original musical statement of "The Dance of the Seven Veils".
Highly unusual at the time, Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder had Joe Gillis narrate, from beyond the grave, the sad tale of the final months of his life, while the film simultaneously depicts the still-living Gillis experiencing those events unaware of the fate his dead self already knows. This parallel narrative - two perspectives from the same character, one omniscient, the other blissfully ignorant - that converge at the moment of Joe's death, are a major reason the film retains such dramatic and emotional power.
When Joe Gillis and Norma Desmond watch one of Norma's old silent movies, they are watching a scene from Queen Kelly, starring a young Gloria Swanson. Erich von Stroheim, who directed Swanson in Queen Kelly plays Max the butler, who serves as the projectionist in the scene. Later in the film, Max tells Joe Gillis that he was the silent movie director who discovered Norma Desmond, and put her in films. According to Billy Wilder, it was von Stroheim's idea to use a clip from Queen Kelly in Sunset Blvd., as a way of "art imitating life."
Billy Wilder was frustrated with people assuming that the ending was meant to be ambiguous and asking him what happens to Norma after the final dissolve. "I have no idea! All I know is that she's meshuggah, that's all. That's the end."