Today! Because I am big, it’s the pictures that got small –
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Directed by Billy Wilder (x2)
Starring Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Nancy Olson, Erich von Stroheim, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough (x2), Jack Webb, Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper (x2), Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson
Even for movies about movies, which lean heavy on this formula, Sunset Boulevard’s art-imitating-life bent is almost head-spinning. By many indications, Gloria Swanson was only amping up her own persona slightly in playing damaged, faded silent star Norma Desmond, while her former director turned butler Max Von Mayerling was played by accomplished Austrian actor Erich von Stroheim, who had himself directed Swanson in the 1929 drama Queen Kelly. Cecil B. DeMille appears as himself, as do Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner, and Anna Q. Nilsson. While Hollywood cameos in Hollywood-set films is nothing new, it’s the fact that these folks would play such degraded, forgotten versions of themselves in 1950, when former silent actors were basically out on the curb, that makes it all the more remarkable.
Such is Billy Wilder’s savage masterpiece, which begins with the narrator floating dead in the swimming pool and ends with the shattered former star making that grand descent down the staircase. A number of former greats had been contacted about playing Desmond – including Norma Shearer and Mary Pickford herself – but many were turned off and/or offended by the way Hollywood was portrayed in the script. Many, including studio head Darryl F. Zanuck and Olivia de Havilland, refused to even have their names mentioned in the movie, as word of the production spread. Sure, it has gone on to all-time legendary status, but this was some kind of controversial film in its day, even if that controversy was limited to Los Angeles.
I don’t distinctly remember the first time I saw this movie – it’s the kind of classic that just seems to be around when you’re watching a lot of TCM and AMC (Do you remember when AMC just showed movies? That was a thing!) – but it was solidified in the ’90s as the Andrew Lloyd Webber stage musical came to America, coinciding with that phase where I was listening to a lot of soundtracks. Really, for all the space this era has gotten on this list, you’d think it went on for a decade, but no – we’re talking like late 1995 to about 1997 or ’98? When I realized for definite I couldn’t sing and would only really be doing straight plays from then on? That’s about when I abandoned musicals. Sure, I know most of the words to Hamilton, and loved The Book of Mormon when it came out, but that’s some pretty casual musical theater fandom, no? However, yes, I still really enjoy the stage version of Sunset Boulevard, even if it’s not exactly The Sound of Music in popularity. There are continuing rumors that a film adaptation is on the way, so just wait!
Sunset Boulevard is one of only thirteen movies to be nominated in all six top categories at the Academy Awards – Picture, Director, and all Acting awards, and was up for eleven in total, winning for Art Direction-Set Direction, Music, and Screenplay. It’s the only 1950 film on this list – so my de facto favorite movie of 1950 – but that year’s Oscars were dominated by the classic All About Eve, the most Oscar nominated film in history (tied to this day), and winner of six. The acting awards were won by four different movies, denying Holden, Swanson, Von Stroheim, and Olson, plus DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (the film set visited in Sunset Boulevard) also picked up two Oscars. Full year! Nonetheless –
This is Wilder’s second and final film on the list, following #301 Some Like it Hot, while we’ve got two acting Two-Timers, actress turned columnist Hedda Hopper (who also appeared in #190 Nothing Sacred) and Lloyd Gough, who would pop up years later in #270 The Front. Spotlight!