Legendary filmmaker Billy Wilder was born on this day in 1906. In commemoration, we take a look at the many real-life inspirations behind his greatest film, 1950’s Sunset Boulevard.
Part film noir, part horror movie, part self-reflexive critique of Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard stands as one of the greatest cinematic achievements in the history of the medium. Billy Wilder said the genesis of the film came when, as a new arrival to Hollywood in the 1940s, he would drive down Sunset Blvd. and see all the sprawling mansions built in the 1920s by mostly forgotten movie stars and wonder what their lives must be like after the parade had passed them by.
Here then are the real-life inspirations and authentic touches that led studio head Louis B. Mayer to angrily exclaim that Billy Wilder should be “tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood” for biting that hand the fed him.
One of screenwriting team Leigh Brackett and Billy Wilder’s finest creations over their long careers was Norma Desmond, the deluded silent film queen living in a decaying gothic mansion on Sunset Boulevard while she dreams of her return to the big screen. The character’s name was said to be a combination of director William Desmond Taylor and Wilder’s friend (and Mack Sennett era comedienne) Mabel Normand, but many feel the model for the character was Norma Talmadge – a huge silent movie star who became a wealthy recluse after her career was derailed by the talkies. Actress Gloria Swanson of course had her own biographical similarities to Norma Desmond, but she was far from the only actress considered for the role – Mae West was another aging star Wilder thought about casting. He talked with femme fatale Pola Negri, only to find her Polish accent unintelligible. He approached Greta Garbo, who was uninterested. Norma Shearer found the role distasteful. Mary Pickford, he feared, would be insulted. Swanson accepted the role, but she took some convincing. After viewing one of the early screenings, offended Swanson contemporary Mae Murray commented, “None of us floozies was that nuts!” Perhaps enough aging Academy voters agreed, as Swanson (and Bette Davis) lost that year’s Best Actress Oscar to relative newcomer Judy Holliday.
Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond
The rundown, creepy estate where Norma spends her waning days has such a palpable and brooding presence it acts almost as another character in the film. The exterior scenes of Norma Desmonds house were filmed at a house on Wilshire Boulevard once owned by a the ex-wife of J. Paul Getty (the house would also be used in Rebel Without a Cause), but it’s the gaudy, funereal interiors that really capture the psyche of its owner. The Oscar-winning set design was done by Hans Dreier, who had worked as an interior designer for many of the stars of the 1920s, including Mae West. Fellow designer William Haines compared Dreier’s interiors to the real-life homes of Bebe Daniels, Norma Shearer and Pola Negri. Recognize the ornate bed Norma Desmond sleeps in? It also featured in Lon Chaney’s 1925 film Phantom of the Opera. Many of the publicity stills and glamour shots crowding Desmond’s house were taken to promote Swanson’s previous films.
Joe Gillis arrives at the Desmond mansion
During one scene in the film, Desmond has invited some of her old friends over for a low stakes game of bridge, a group of “dim figures” narrator Joe Gillis sarcastically refers to as “the waxworks.” Playing themselves in the dour gathering are legendary comedian Buster Keaton, actress Anna Nilsson and H.B. Warner. Cecil B. DeMille and Hedda Hopper also play themselves in the movie, but perhaps the best bit of casting was choosing Erich Von Stroheim – one of the greatest directors of the silent era – to play Swanson’s butler and former husband, Max. When Norma watches one of her own movies in her home theatre, she’s actually viewing footage of Swanson in Queen Kelley, a film directed by von Stroheim.
Part the genius of Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is how it uses real-life references to create a plausible world for what is otherwise a nightmarish noir melodrama. To help ground the film in reality (or what passes for it in Hollywood), the script name-checked a huge number of Hollywood figures including Bebe Daniels, D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, Greta Garbo, Betty Hutton, Barbara Stanwyck, Rudolf Valentino, Pearl White and a host of others.
Controversial in its time for using so much of real-life Hollywood to create its nightmare vision, Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard would influence a number of cynical insider tales about the town, including Robert Altman’s The Player and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
Though Wilder died nearly a decade ago, its safe to say that his take on Hollywood will continue to inspire those interested in exploring what lurks beyond all the glitz and glamour in Tinseltown.