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.
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."
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 Reagan 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 "Desmond mansion" was located not on Sunset Blvd, but at 3810 Wilshire on the corner of Crenshaw and 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 only addition was the swimming pool which wasn't equipped with means of circulating the water so was useless after filming. The pool was used in it's empty condition in the film Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. The mansion was torn down in 1957, and a 2 storey office building for Getty Oil built on the site and still stands on the spot.
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.)
When Norma Desmond says to the guard at the Paramount Studio gates 'Without me there wouldn't be any Paramount Studio' the words could apply to Gloria Swanson as she was their top star 6 years running.
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.
Montgomery Clift quit the production because he was, like the character of Joe, having an affair with a wealthy middle-aged former actress, Libby Holman, and he was scared the press would start prying into his background.
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.
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.
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."
The role of Norma Desmond was initially offered to Mae West (who rejected the part), Mary Pickford (Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett realised when talking to her that her image of America's Darling made her unsuitable for the part), and Pola Negri ( Billy Wilder rejected her as her thick accent would cause too many problems) before being accepted by Gloria Swanson.
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.
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 (1987) 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. (1950). Those offices later became the home of the "Star Trek" art department.)
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.
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 at the studio gates the car was pulled by men with an out of camera rope. 'He still managed to hit the gates, he had no co-ordination' said Billy Wilder in an interview for the book 'Sunset Boulevard From Movie to Musical'. According to the DVD commentary by Wilder biographer Ed Sikov, this story was most likely invented/exaggerated by Billy Wilder.
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.
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. this was the result of a fierce quarrel over a montage scene in the film. The two men never worked together again.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At Cecil B. DeMille's first appearance, his on-set cry of "Wilcoxon!" is directed toward his associate producer, Henry Wilcoxon, who had starred in his epics Cleopatra (1934), The Crusades (1935) and Unconquered (1947), later moving to a position behind the camera as DeMille's associate until the older man's death in 1959.
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.
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.
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. (1950) 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 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.
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 character of Norma Desmond is modeled on the fate of several leading actresses of the silent screen. Mary Pickford lived in seclusion, away from the public eye, while both Mae Marsh and Clara Bow had well-documented bouts of mental illness.
Unlike the character she played, Gloria Swanson had accepted the fact that the movies didn't want her anymore so had moved to New York where she worked on radio, and later, on television. Although she had long ago ruled out the possibility of a movie comeback, she was nevertheless highly intrigued when she got the offer to play the lead.
For some scenes, cinematographer John Seitz would sprinkle dust into the air so it could be caught by the lights and create a moody effect. Seitz had used a similar technique on Double Indemnity (1944).
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 (1939), 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.
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 .
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.
Make-up designer Wally Westmore found that Gloria Swanson's face belied her age and wanted to make her look older. Swanson argued that a woman like Norma would have been obsessed with her appearance and would have done her utmost not to look old. Westmore and director Billy Wilder agreed with this so William Holden was made up to look older than he was.
Costume designer Edith Head found working on the film to be one of her greatest challenges. She worked closely with Gloria Swanson on Norma Desmond's wardrobe as she figured Swanson would have had a better idea of what women of that time would have worn then and what they would be wearing now.
After a private screening for Hollywood dignitaries, Barbara Stanwyck knelt in front of Gloria Swanson and kissed the hem of her skirt. The veteran actress particularly wanted to see what Mary Pickford felt and was disappointed to see that she had left. Swanson was told "She can't show herself, Gloria, she's too overcome. We all are." Not everyone felt the same way, however. Louis B. Mayer's reaction is well documented but Mae Murray also found the film offensive.
To everyone's surprise, Judy Holliday won the Best Actress Oscar in 1951 for Born Yesterday (1950) beating Gloria Swanson and Bette Davis in _All About Eve_. The general consensus was that the two titans had canceled each other out, leaving the field clear for Holliday. In later interviews, Davis admitted that she thought Swanson's work in the film was absolutely outstanding.
Gloria Swanson's film career was not revitalized by the film. The actress was disappointed to see that all the parts she was offered subsequently were watered down versions of Norma Desmond. Ultimately she retired completely from films, making only sporadic appearances, notably in Airport 1975 (1974).
Billy Wilder wanted Hedy Lamarr to appear in a cameo in the scene where Norma and Joe visit Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount. As deMille was directing Lamarr at the time in Samson and Delilah (1949), this would have been no problem. However, deMille insisted that Lamarr be paid $25,000 for the privilege so the idea was quickly dropped.
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 (1948), for which they won an Oscar in 1949, the year Sunset Blvd. (1950) was made.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
In one of the opening shots the camera looks up from the bottom of the swimming pool at the face of Gillis' body floating in the pool with police on the poolside looking down. It's not possible to shoot through water and get a clear image beyond. This was solved by placing a large mirror on the bottom of the pool and shooting into it's reflection. This wasn't the original opening and was filmed long after completion of filming.
When Joe Gillis and Norma Desmond watch one of Norma's old silent movies, they are watching a scene from Queen Kelly (1929), starring a young Gloria Swanson. Erich von Stroheim, who directed Swanson in Queen Kelly (1929) 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 (1929) in Sunset Blvd. (1950), as a way of "art imitating life." As well as starring in 'Queen Kelly' Gloria also produced it and fired Erich for causing costs to go double over budget and with no end to filming in sight.
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.
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."
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. Part of the dialogue goes: Fat Man: "Where did you drown? The ocean?' Gillis: "No, swimming pool." Fat Man: "A husky fellow like you?" Gillis: "Well I had a few extra holes in me, two in the chest and one in the stomach." Fat Man: "You were murdered?" Gillis: "Yes I was murdered." 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 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".
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 (1948), 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.