Betty Schaefer: “I’d always heard you had some talent.”
Joe Gillis: “That was last year. This year I’m trying to earn a living.”
Man, you gotta love the wit and bite of Billy Wilder. It’s hard to pick a best film from the great Austrian-born American filmmaker who made an indelible mark on Hollywood in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, making major contributions to American cinema with “Some Like It Hot,” “Stalag 13,” “The Apartment,” the rediscovered acidic gem “Ace In The Hole,” “Double Indemnity” and “The Lost Weekend,” to name just a few (you can dive into our full-blown retrospective to get our take on all his work). But if you had to choose one picture to represent the greatness of Wilder you might be forced to acknowledge the sheer brilliance of perhaps his best known film, “Sunset Boulevard,” his last collaboration with his screenwriting partner Charles Brackett.
It’s dark, acidic and bitter, but not without its mordant humor; a scathing indictment about Hollywood, how mean, heartless and corrupt it could be and how some could sink to unspeakable depths in the name of getting ahead. It’s essentially about opportunism and its consequences and if you don’t already know for some reason, “Sunset Boulevard” is a classic melodrama about a hack screenwriter who writes a screenplay for a former silent-film star who has faded into Hollywood obscurity. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, but just winning three (“All About Eve” would take Best Picture), “Sunset Boulevard” has been lauded the world over, as well as by the U.S. Library of Congress, the National Film Registry, and the American Film Institute, just to name a few. Still, not everyone’s an egghead over this wicked 1950 classic, so in case you’re just a fan, and don’t know the inside story (and yes, some of this will be old hat to longtime fans), here’s a few things we learned while watching the new Blu-Ray/DVD that’s out this month via Paramount.
1. The opening sequence in the finished film is not the sequence the film originally started with.
“Sunset Boulevard” as you can see below, begins at the end of the film, essentially. William Holden’s character Joe Gillis is narrating his demise, while his dead body floats in a pool and the police are arriving on the scene to investigate. It’s a classic film opening and predates the “end as beginning” cliche opening which can make audiences groan now. But it wasn’t exactly what was envisioned. Originally, Wilder had a similar, but different idea: the film began in a morgue with Gillis on a slab, eyes open talking to other dead people. The exchange in the morgue is between Holden’s character who’s dead, a fat man who has passed on, and a young boy who’s dead who died from drowning. They share their “how they died” stories and the scene is meant to be mordant and morbid, but audiences found it hilarious and Wilder was extremely upset by their reaction.
The audience “roared” with laughter the late film critic Andrew Sarris said and much of it was because of the morgue “toe tags” which were real, but thought they were hysterical — absolutely not the intended reaction. Ed Sikov, author of “On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder,” one of the foremost scholars on Wilder and a major presence on the DVD extras recalls how Wilder told him the original test screenings was one of the low-points of his career. Suffice to say, he changed the scene immediately after and it’s the one you know and love today.
2. However, this new opening sequence wasn’t easy to shoot.
“That opening would be enough to stamp ‘Sunset Boulevard’ as one of the great movies,” Sarris says on the DVD extras. “It’s one of the most striking, stirring openings I’ve ever seen in a movie.” Again, William Holden’s character is dead, floating in a pool. Above him are journalists taking pictures of the body and policemen arriving on the crime scene and the scene is shot from below. It’s an indelible image and as Sikov also notes, it’s one of the few times in the movie that Wilder actually calls attention to the camera in the entire film.
Wilder once famously quipped, “Whenever somebody says, ‘What a great shot,’ it’s usually not.” It was an extremely difficult scene to set up. Wilder told the cameraman he wanted it from a fish’s point of view, and after various experiments that failed, the camera operator built a fish tank box and experimented with mirrors and dolls until he got the desired effect. After several tries they discovered if the water was about 40 degrees and no higher, because that would cause distortion, they could shoot it from above, the camera looking down at a mirror and in the mirror a reflection of William Holden’s corpse in the pool.
3. No one ever deviated for the script. Ever.
Wilder was just coming off two Oscars for “The Lost Weekend” (including Best Director and Best Screenplay) and another writing nomination for “A Foreign Affair” (before that he had five Oscar nominations to his credit including an additional Best Director nod for “Double Indemnity”). Suffice to say he was considered one of the hottest writer/directors in Hollywood at the time and that gave him plenty of juice. Actors were not allowed to change a single word, full stop. Once the script was written, he wanted the performances and delivery to come precisely as they were on the page. “We never deviated from the script,” Nancy Olson , who played Betty Schaefer, the young script-reader and Gillis-love interest in the film, said on the DVD extras. “No new lines [were delivered] for the next day. That was the tightest script I have ever worked on.”
And yet Wilder was loved and was no tyrant. He would also never really rehearsed and when he did, it would be more for the camera. Olson said Wilder was gracious. “If you were faltering,” he would generously give you “time to recover.” She described how Wilder would come over and whisper something sensitively into the the actor’s ear so only he or she could hear it. “I don’t remember any endless takes. There was 3-4 and that was on par for a film of that budget,” she recalled.
4. Some people in the industry hated the bitter take on Hollywood.
At an early screening of the picture for various studio people, the great producer and studio exec Louis B. Mayer was outraged at what he had seen. “He was incensed,” Nancy Olson said, “How could you do this?” He stormed out to his car even though almost everyone else at this particular screening loved the movie. He essentially called Wilder a bastard for slinging this mud at the beloved movies and Hollywood. He was appalled at the image of Hollywood that the sardonic and bitter Wilder was about to present to the American public.
5. Gloria Swanson was not Billy Wilder’s first pick to play the now-iconic Norma Desmond.
Wilder originally wanted wanted Mae West for the part, but she told Paramount she wanted to rewrite all the dialogue as she had done in all her previous pictures. Well that was quickly shot down. Mary Pickford, a second choice, always owned her own negatives, so that ruled her out. Pola Negri and Mae Murray were other ideas. Then one day, Wilder was having lunch with director George Cukor (“My Fair Lady”) and then Cukor suggested Swanson and a lightbulb went off. Swanson was essentially that character: a silent-era star who had been forgotten. Thankfully in real life Swanson hadn’t gone batshit crazy like Norma Desmond and was the consummate professional on set. This may have been best evinced by her relationship to Erich Von Stroheim on set.
6. Life imitated art for Erich Von Stroheim in the movie.
Cinephiles love and adore Norma Desmond’s loyal and creepy butler Max Von Mayerling, played by Erich von Stroheim, the great silent era director whose career was essentially destroyed after MGM butchered his eight hour cut of 1924’s “Greed,” and a knowing Wilder used von Stronheim’s history as an ingenous movie within a movie device. While William Holden’s character meets Norma Desmond and is hired to write a screenplay for her, he is brought into her screening room to watch some of her previous works. Screened for Holden is “Queen Kelly” a real 1929 United Artists film directed by none other than Von Stroheim and starring Swanson. According to Sikov on the DVD extras, it was “Queen Kelly” that ruined Swanson’s career. Financed by Joe Kennedy, the father of JFK and Robert Kennedy, he was allegedly Swanson’s lover and lore has it that she called him from the set and said, “Joe, come out here at once, a madman is directing this picture,” and of course she was referring to Eric Von Stroheim. Apparently there was major bitterness between the two after “Queen Kelly,” but twenty years later there was not an ounce of rancor on the set of “Sunset Boulevard” between them. Eric Von Stroheim playing the butler of a washed-up, has been actor was, in some sense, an accurate depiction of who he was at that time.
7. The William Holden part was actually written for Montgomery Clift.
Montgomery Clift was Wilder and Paramount’s first choice to play Joe Gillis. The actor, very young and famous at the time — his debut picture “The Search” earned him a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actor and Howard Hawks‘ “Red River” only made him a more in-demand up-and-comer — had actually accepted the role initially and was filming “The Heiress” with Olivia De Havilland at the time. According to the DVD extras, he went skiing in Switzerland, thought about it and, perhaps, on the advice of his agent, turned down the role. Clift, who apparently felt he was unconvincing in “The Heiress,” claimed his role of a young man involved with an older woman was too close to the one he had played in the aforementioned film according to Sikov’s well-researched book. An infuriated Wilder, who wrote the role with Clifft in mind, evidently said, “If he’s any kind of actor, he could be convincing making love to any woman.” However, a purported affair with an older woman (the singer Libby Holman) was his real reason for withdrawing from the film, according to the 2003 BBC doc “Exploring Sunset Boulevard.”
8. Cecil B. Demille plays himself in the movie.
The great charismatic and well-loved director Cecil B. DeMille (“Cleopatra,” “Samson and Delilah,” “The Ten Commandments”) played himself in the film, another star from the silent era, who unlike the others had made the successful transition into talking pictures. DeMille apparently didn’t love Wilder, and the feeling was mutual, but he agreed to be in the film nonetheless. DeMille was shooting “Samson & Delilah” at the time and during his scene he used his own crew to appear in the film. Ironically, he considered Nancy Olson for Delilah, but instead cast Hedy Lamarr in the role. “It would have been ridiculous,” Olson admitted, being that she was so wholesome and clearly wrong for the part. Demille knew Swanson well, having directed her five times during her heyday including “Male and Female” (1919), “Why Change Your Wife?” (1920) and “Don’t Change Your Husband” (1919). His affectionate pet name for the actress who was 51-years-old at the time of “Sunset Boulevard” was “young fella.”
As usual, this is just the tip of the iceberg as the extras on this disc are bountiful to say the least. “Sunset Boulevard” is out now on DVD/Blu-Ray. As a treat for fans, especially those that made it all the way over to page two of this feature, we have three copies of the Blu-Ray to give away now. All you need to
do is be the first to email us the answer to this question: name any of the “Waxworks group” in the film who isn’t Buster Keaton (Unfortunately, U.S. readers only). Bonne chance. Update: Contest closed, thanks for playing!