Welcome to a weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film considered to be essential to the cinema’s golden age. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
During the early days of movie production, film workers lived humbly in the surrounding neighborhoods of Hollywood. In the 1920s, actors’ salaries and profits soared higher than ever before. With the dawn of the star system, big name stars of the silver screen started to build enormous homes in those same neighborhoods. Gossip magazines and newspapers alike wrote about the stars’ lavish lives, and the public were completely fascinated by it.
As time went on and motion pictures became “talkies,” many of the silent era’s biggest names were left behind. Superstars of 1920s cinema such as William Haines and Theda Bara had uneasy transitions to sound. Their popularity plummeted, and they soon retired from movies altogether. Most actors continued to live in their luxurious Hollywood homes, away from the spotlight.
Director Billy Wilder was transfixed by these silent stars shut away from the spotlight. He wondered what these folks got up to in their day to day lives spent in their grandiose mansions. Wilder began working on a script with author Charles Brackett centered around a starlet’s struggle to survive and stay relevant in the film industry. They named their script after the most famous street that extends from Los Angeles through the lush houses of Beverly Hills, Sunset Boulevard.
Sunset Boulevard tells the story of down and out screenwriter Joe Gills (played by William Holden) who has fallen on hard times. He comes across a decrepit mansion and hides out there, thinking it is unoccupied. Gillis discovers that the home belongs to aging former silent era superstar Norma Desmond (portrayed by Gloria Swanson). Gillis agrees to work on a script for Desmond as her possible long awaited comeback project. Meanwhile, a young script reader takes notice of Gillis – which attracts jealousy from his employer. This sets the stage for one eventful encounter that changes everything.
One of the definitive movies about the inside world of Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard is an essential watch for any movie fan. The film has been praised by critics and audiences alike for its realism, an unflinching portrayal of an aging starlet that does not shy away from dark subject matter. For one of the first times on screen, audiences saw a serious depiction of the Hollywood lifestyle. It was a true triumph the film’s subject matter got past the strict standards of the Motion Picture Production Code at the time.
This landmark film is a shining example of Billy Wilder’s skill as a director, along with Charles Brackett’s production prowess. Subtle details show the director’s keen eye, including the shot of a pair of doors in Desmond’s house in which the locks have been removed. The shot illustrates how serious Desmond’s attempts to take her own life have been. Other details such as the decaying beauty of Desmond’s house, a relic of a former era, owe a debt to the incredible art direction team of Hans Dreier and John Meehan. Sunset Boulevard went on to influence other key films throughout the 1950s including The Star and The Barefoot Contessa.
Norma Desmond’s famous line “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” has been featured in several other movies throughout the years, including Mrs. Doubtfire.
From 1952 to 1956, Gloria Swanson worked directly with pianist and cabaret singer Dickson Hughes, along with Richard Stapley, on a musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard.
The movie inspired an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1959 called “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine.”
Montgomery Clift originally signed on to play the role of Joe Gillis. He broke his contract and exited the picture two weeks before shooting was supposed to commence.
Sunset Boulevard is available to stream on Netflix.
What’s your favorite film noir? What other classic films would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!
Michelle Buchman is the social media manager at Nerdist Industries. She’s also a huge cinephile. Feel free to follow and chat movies with her on Twitter, @michelledeidre.