Sunset Boulevard: The Original Hollywood Expose

Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard took the tinsel out of Tinseltown, the gild off the golden boy, and the cover off a forgotten murder.

Movie audiences in the naïve early days of film sometimes didn’t know that somebody had to sit down and write a movie. They thought the actors made it up as they went along. Sunset Boulevard, the 1950 film noir classic directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, did a lot to change that and other myths of old Hollywood–like the real-life murder at the heart of the story.

Sunset Boulevard told an old familiar story. William Holden’s Joe Gillis helps a timid soul named Norma Desmond cross a crowded street on Paramount’s back lot. She turns out to be a multimillionaire silent screen icon played by the legendary Gloria Swanson and she leaves him all her money, which she’s already spent, and face down in a pool.

I’m not giving anything away here. The movie opens with a shot of a dead guy floating face down in a pool, and the dead man himself tells us that it’s Joe Gillis getting bloated in the chlorine. Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. And if you find it a little odd to hear dead men telling their own tales via narration, it is less strange than hearing it from a bunch of corpses with toe-tags talking it over in the LA county morgue, which was the way the movie was originally shot.

Strange? Yeah. But also much funnier. So funny that it took away from the rest of the picture. Test audiences at the time couldn’t let go of the joke, which was why it was re-edited this way. Oh, and while we’re at it, Wilder didn’t submerge any cameras to get that underwater shot. Cinematographer John Seitz put a mirror on the bottom of the pool and filmed the reflection.

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Sunset Boulevard is also a reflection of Hollywood through a glass, darkly. When the movie first dropped, Louis B. Mayer, the Mayer in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, told everyone who would listen that Wilder disgraced the industry that made him and fed him, and urged that he be “tarred and feathered, and run out of Hollywood.” Wilder, who had been feeding himself for quite some time, told Meyer to go fuck himself.

The movie premiered in the days of restricted language, not so long after Rhett Butler controversially told Scarlett O’Hara he didn’t “give a damn” what happened to her in Gone With the Wind, a classic Paramount passed on because “who wanted to see Civil War picture?” But the old guard thought Wilder and his co-writer Charles Brackett fashioned a rope that could strangle this business of show by writing words, words, and more words. Microphones would catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor would photograph the red, swollen tongues. The old movies needed neither color nor dialogue. They had faces.

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And what faces. The movie featured the famed director Erich von Stroheim, who made photographs of Gloria Swanson move so beautifully the world was enthralled, as Max Von Mayerling, the director who made, married, and divorced the enthralling Norma Desmond–and then gave up his career in film to be her slave in butler’s clothing. Sometimes he tinkles the wheezing gothic ivories like Lurch in the original TV series The Addams Family, playing the recognizable strains of The Phantom of the Opera.

Director Cecil B. DeMille, silent film actors Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner, and Anna Q. Nilsson played waxy versions of themselves. There once was a time in this business when they had the eyes of the whole world. But that wasn’t good enough for Hollywood. They had to have the ears of the old place, too. So they opened their big mouths and out came talk. Talk! These actors were bigger than life. They stayed that way even if the pictures got small.

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Movies

Billy Wilder was one of the ultimate Hollywood insiders and he grew with film. He directed classic films like Double Indemnity, Ace in the Hole, The Apartment, The Lost Weekend, Stalag 17, Witness for the Prosecution, Sabrina, and Some Like It Hot. Sunset Boulevard‘s cinematographer John Seitz said Wilder “had wanted to do The Loved One, but couldn’t obtain the rights.” British author Evelyn Waugh’s satirical 1948 novel was about a failed screenwriter who lives with a silent film star and works in a cemetery. At one point Norma mistakes Joe for a funeral director and asks for her coffin to be white, as well as specially lined with satin. White, pink, or maybe bright flaming red. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who plays herself in the movie, wrote that “Billy Wilder … was crazy about Evelyn Waugh’s book The Loved One, and the studio wanted to buy it.”

Sometimes it’s interesting to see just how bad, bad writing can be. This promised to go the limit. Wilder and Brackett told everyone at Paramount and the Production code that the screenplay was based on the story A Can of Beans by Wilder, Brackett, and D.M. Marshman Jr. Sunset Boulevard was the last time Brackett and Wilder collaborated on a film. They had paired up in pictures since 1938. New York-born novelist and screenwriter Brackett was head of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1930s, and president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1949 to 1955. Brackett and Wilder worked together on more than a dozen movies including The Lost Weekend. They swore each other off over the montage where Norma struggles to lose weight for her comeback. Brackett thought it was too mean while Wilder felt it was necessary.

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Sunset Boulevard is a noir film and like many of the post-World War II dark classics, it is covered with a thick sheen of cynicism. Every character is jaded, except the oldest players. Gloria Swanson brings sunshine into every room as silent screen idol Norma Desmond. She is ever the star. She can sense the hot spot of every light and has never lost the wonderment of movies. Erich von Stroheim’s Max von Mayerling is equally awestruck, still caught in the wake of Norma’s star dust. There were three young directors who showed promise in those early days of silent film, D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille, and Max von Mayerling. He loves Norma so much, he even forges thousands of pages of fan mail, just to feed her delusion. Their relationship makes the film as much a love story as it is a noir film, because if ever there is a femme fatale, it is Norma Desmond.

No One Ever Leaves a Star, That’s What Makes Her a Star

But before you hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion, before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you’d like to hear the facts, the whole truth. Without Norma Desmond, there wouldn’t be any Paramount Pictures. And that young man who was found floating in the pool of her mansion, with two shots in his back and one in his stomach, was nobody important, really. He was just a movie writer with a couple of B-pictures to his credit. An inventory of his prospects added up to exactly zero. He just didn’t have what it takes. Before he became a kept man for Norma Desmond, he was thinking of wrapping up the whole Hollywood deal and trying to get his old job back as a newspaperman in Dayton, Ohio.

The movie begins about five o’clock in the morning, left coast time. The Homicide Squad, complete with detectives and newspapermen, are responding to a call about a murder from one of those great big houses in the ten thousand block of Sunset Boulevard, a 22-mile block that stretches from Figueroa Street in downtown LA to the Pacific Ocean. The murder made it to the late editions, radio, and television because one of the biggest old-time stars was involved.

Sure she was a forgotten silent star, living in exile, screening her old movies and dreaming of a comeback. Well, not a comeback, a return, a return to the millions of people who have never forgiven her for deserting the screen. Norma Desmond was the greatest of them all. In one week, she received 17,000 fan letters. Men bribed her hairdresser to get a lock of her hair. There was a maharajah who came all the way from India to beg one of her silk stockings. Later he strangled himself with it.

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But who could play the silent film diva? The first draft of the film was a straightforward comedy about a has-been actress making a comeback, and Wilder saw Mae West in the role. West wanted to rewrite her dialogue. Wilder was no fan of improvisation and was very protective of his words. The finest things in the world have been written on an empty stomach, and Wilder and Brackett rewrote the story as adrama. Mary Pickford, Pola Negri, and Greta Garbo turned down the role.

Gloria Swanson, meanwhile, was born on March 27, 1899. She was nominated for the first Academy Award in the Best Actress category. She produced and starred in Sadie Thompson and The Love of Sunya. Swanson made the transition to talkies with The Trespasser in 1929. As far as being a forgotten star, past her prime, Norma is only 50 in the movie, Swanson was 53 when she made it and was herself very busy on the then-new medium of television. The magnifying glass in Norma’s beauty makeover scene shows the skin of a young ingénue, not an aging crone.

Perhaps one of the reasons Swanson got the job was because director George Cukor mentioned that the actress once lived in a mansion on Sunset Boulevard.

Now Back to the Typewriters by Way of Washington Square

The writer was almost all washed up, one step ahead of the finance company, parking his car in a lot behind the shoeshine parlor run by Rudy, a guy who never asked any questions about finances because he could just look at the people’sr heels and know the score.

Montgomery Clift was originally cast as the writer but dropped out two weeks before the shoot. He said he’d already played a young kept man in the film The Heiress with Olivia De Havilland, and in real life with his relationship with older singer Libby Holman. Holman was 16 years older than him and was afraid people would think the movie was a parody of their relationship. She reportedly told Clift she’d kill herself if he made the movie. Fred MacMurray and Gene Kelly both turned down the role of Joe Gillis. Wilder almost hired Broadway star Marlon Brando, who would make his screen debut in The Men in 1950.

The studio needed an actor who the audience could believe wrote a story about Okies in the Dust Bowl that played on a torpedo boat by the time it hit the screen. William Holden had a similar trajectory as a young artist in Hollywood. Born William Beedle Jr. on April 17, 1918, he was 21 when he got his first starring role as the classical fiddle playing boxer in Golden Boy in 1939. His co-star Barbara Stanwyck, a screen veteran and one of the greatest actors of all time, coached and promoted Holden personally.

The young actor also got to work with George Raft and Humphrey Bogart in the gangsters on parole movie, Invisible Stripes. He played Raft’s kid brother, who was following in his gangster footsteps and needed to be set straight. He played Bogart’s kid brother in Sabrina, Holden’s third film with director Billy Wilder, in 1954.

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Sad as this may sound, to the day he died, Holden insisted Bogart was a bastard. The older actor prided himself on needling people and he needled the shit out of Holden on the first movie, and the second movie was worse because Holden started dating Audrey Hepburn during filming. Bogart took the part hoping it would pair him back up with his wife Lauren Bacall. Holden paid it forward, becoming Hepburn’s “guardian angel.”

After working on Sunset Boulevard, Swanson remarked, “Bill Holden was a man I could have fallen in love with. He was perfection on and off-screen.” Holden was a bit of an anti-hero, or at least a very flawed hero. His characters were always angling for something, whether it was silk stockings in a POW Camp in Stalag 17 from 1953, which won him a Best Actor Oscar, or to clear impersonation charges in in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) with Alec Guinness.

Holden acted in Executive Suite (1954), The Country Girl (1954) with Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), and Picnic (1955). He was Judy Holliday’s tutor in Born Yesterday (1950) and played a war correspondent in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955). He worked on dramas like The Key (1958), Westerns like John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers (1959) opposite John Wayne, and comedies like The Moon is Blue which so famously challenged the Production Code in 1953 that Hawkeye and BJ insisted it get shown at M*A*S*H 4077 to break the monotony of the Korean War.

Holden turned the tables on Lucille Ball when he appeared as a guest star on I Love Lucy at The Brown Derby. But it could just as well have been Joe’s headquarters, Schwab’s Drug Store, a kind of combination office, coffee clutch, and waiting room where actors and writers wait for the gravy train.

Holden never lost his stride as cinema changed. He starred in Sam Peckinpah’s masterwork Western The Wild Bunch. He played an older version of Joe in Sidney Lumet’s classic Network (1976), written by the cynical Paddy Chayefsky. Holden’s last movie, Blake Edwards’s S.O.B., was another masterpiece of Hollywood cynicism.

Art Imitates an Imitation of Life

Sunset Boulevard mixed fiction with the realities of filmmaking. Wilder used real names like Darryl Zanuck, Tyrone Power, and Alan Ladd. When Norma visits Cecil B. De Mille at Paramount, the director is shooting the film Samson and Delilah, which he was actually shooting at the time. It would go on to be one of his most successful movies. Wilder wanted Hedy Lamarr to sit in for a cameo, but she wanted $25,000. Wilder asked how much she’d charge just to shoot the chair and Lamarr said $10,000. Norma wound up sitting in Mr. DeMille’s chair.

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Norma’s waxworks card sharps were Swedish-born Anna Q. Nilsson, H. B. Warner and Buster Keaton. The silent comedian had a reputation as one of Hollywood’s best bridge players. Wilder told the actors to kibbutz and let him shuffle.

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Erich von Stroheim, who made the masterpiece Greed in 1924, directed Swanson in Queen Kelly (1928), the flick Holden’s character cuddles up with Norma to watch in the dark screening room of the dark mansion. Queen Kelly nearly ruined both of their careers after Joe Kennedy, JFK’s dad who produced the film, replaced von Stroheim as director because Swanson complained about the racy material. The clips in Sunset Boulevard were the first time American audiences saw it. Swanson and von Stroheim are playing themselves in that scene.

Von Stroheim didn’t know how to drive, and the scene where he’s driving the exotic leopard-upholstered Isotta-Fraschini was shot as the car was being towed. The director turned actor was still able to steer the expensive Italian car into the Paramount gate. The actor-turned-director bitched about “that goddamned butler role” for the rest his life.

The stars read the stars. This is absolutely true, Nancy Reagan continued consulting her astrologer long after she stopped parking at studio lots. This still goes on today. “Now that we are getting closer to Awards Season in here in Hollywood, I’m getting more and more interest from nominees and prospective nominees who want to know in advance if they are going home with the gold,” Marie Bargas, known for years as the Hollywood Witch, told Den of Geek. “It gives them an opportunity to write really good acceptances speeches. No one wants to get caught by surprise anymore. ”

At one point, Norma decides the time is right to send Gillis’ script to DeMille because is a Leo. Norma is Scorpio, and Mars had been transiting Jupiter for weeks and that was the day of greatest conjunction. It said so on the chart from her astrologer, who read DeMille’s horoscope. She reads everyone and everything in Hollywood, except Joe’s script.

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There is No Virgin, But Joe is the Whore

Joe insists he’s not a Hollywood whore, but he accepts Norma’s gifts, gold cigarette cases, a platinum watch, suits, shirts, and shoes that would impress Rudy. Old whores don’t fuck for fun, as the old saying goes. Sunset Boulevard turns the tables on film noir by casting Joe in the oldest role on the books. That should make the young blond Paramount actress-turned-script reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) the virgin in the “virgin/whore” dynamic that film noir so often (and happily) deals in. But she fits it like a round peg in a square hole. A modern-girl Jiminy Cricket, Betty asks, “Don’t you sometimes hate yourself?” and Joe corrects her, “Constantly.”

Betty is engaged to be married to Jack Webb’s character, Arthur “Artie” Green, who is such a good buddy to Joe that he offers to put him up on the couch for a few weeks. She hates all of Joe’s writing except for about six pages. Betty is an idealist, more closely resembling Norma’s rose-colored outlook, but with darker shades she wants to bring to light. See, Betty’s a message gal, not a virgin, and there are no whores in Hollywood. Idealists can screw for fun and for power, because sex is good for business but love is a luxury Hollywood gals can’t live without. Joe could have slept with Norma and loved Betty, and owned the pool that would be his final resting place.

Betty and Joe fall in love after they sneak off to the studio backlot by moonlight to collaborate on a screenplay. Words are as good as sex to two writers. But Joe wouldn’t have fallen so hard if he weren’t so shackled. The moment he discovers that life could be beautiful, Norma slits her wrist with Joe’s razor. 

Oh, wake up, Norma. You’re killing yourself for an empty house. The audience left 20 years ago. Norma is perceived as the evil force, even if she uses a white phone while Betty is relegated to a poor black phone. Norma is at the edge of insanity through the whole movie, but that doesn’t mean she’s not fun. Her Stockholm Syndrome is positively infectious. She puts on a show playing a Max Sennett bathing girl and Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character, though Max’s bad timing is a little too on the nose. Joe’s voice even starts to take on more and more of her theatrical flourish after too much exposure. The butler stonewalls Joe from the outside world until he’s rolling up twenties tight enough snort through to deal with even the shortest withdrawal from the big empty house.

No Place Like Home

The great big white elephant of a mansion on Sunset Boulevard was actually on Wilshire Boulevard and would be used again as the abandoned mansion in the film Rebel Without a Cause. It was a the kind of a place crazy movie people built in the crazy ’20s. A neglected house gets an unhappy look. This one had it in spades. It was like that old woman in Great Expectations, Miss Havisham in her rotting wedding dress and her torn veil, taking it out on the world because she’d been given the go-by. The whole place seemed to have been stricken with the kind of creeping paralysis, out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion.

The house was owned by the J. Paul Getty family. The structure in the film required a tennis court, or rather the ghost of a tennis court, with faded markings and a sagging net. And, of course, a pool. Getty always wanted a pool, the poor dope. Who didn’t then? Well, in the end, he got himself a pool–only the price turned out to be a little high, so Paramount paid to have one installed on the condition that if Mrs. Getty didn’t like it, they’d remove it after filming was over.

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Hollywood was known for its excesses long before Michael Jackson hit town. Such extravagances were so commonplace that when Wilder was planning to shoot the funeral of Norma’s chimpanzee, the director told the crew to just set-up “the usual monkey-funeral sequence.”

An Unsolved Hollywood Murder

So speaking of funerals, here’s the great real life murder mystery we teased in the opening. The name Norma Desmond was a combination of early Hollywood’s comedy star Mabel Normand and her lover, silent film director William Desmond Taylor. Normand made movies with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and lived like life was one Wild Party.

According to reports, Taylor went to the feds for help filing charges against Normand’s cocaine suppliers. The 49-year-old film director’s body was found on the morning of Feb. 2, 1922, inside his bungalow at the Alvarado Court Apartments in Westlake, Los Angeles. Someone who said they were a doctor said Taylor died of a stomach hemorrhage and then disappeared. The forensics team rolled him over and saw he had been shot at least once in the back with a small-caliber pistol.

Normand was the last person known to have seen Taylor alive and she was grilled by the Los Angeles Police Department as a result.

Taylor had $78 in his wallet, a silver cigarette case, a Waltham pocket watch, and a two-carat diamond ring on his finger when his body was found, so cops quickly ruled out robbery as the motive. The investigation found that in the weeks just prior to his death, Taylor had been making some pretty delusional statements about his place in the world and some of his friends thought he had recently gone insane.

The body was found by Henry Peavey, who took over for convicted embezzler Edward F. Sands as Taylor’s valet. Sands had forged Taylor’s name on checks and wrecked his car the summer before and left footprints on Taylor’s bed after a burglary.  Sands disappeared after the murder. Peavey reportedly wore flashy golf clothes but didn’t own golf clubs and had been arrested for “social vagrancy” and booked on “lewd and dissolute” charges just a few nights before the murder.

Florabel Muir, the New York Daily News’ Hollywood correspondent, thought Peavey was the murderer and tried to ambush him into a confession. She offered Peavey 10 dollars to identify Taylor’s grave in the Hollywood Park Cemetery and had someone wait there in a white sheet to scare it out of him. When Peavey heard the moans “I am the ghost of William Desmond Taylor. You murdered me. Confess, Peavey,” he laughed in the ghost’s face. Taylor had a British accent and the imposter sounded like he came out of Chicago’s south side. Peavey died in a San Francisco asylum, where he was being treated for syphilis-related dementia, in 1931.

There were no shortage of suspects. Newspapers printed love letters between 19-year-old former child star and screen idol Mary Miles Minter and Taylor. Minter’s mother Charlotte Shelby was a manipulative stage mother who owned a rare .38 caliber pistol that fired unusual bullets very similar to ones found inside Taylor.

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The 2014 book by William J. Mann, Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood, names Ross “Blackie Madsen” Sheridan as the killer, based on a death bed confession from actress Margaret Gibson, who beat a 1917 rap on prostitution and opium dealing. She changed her professional name to Patricia Palmer and was working with Famous Players-Lasky, Taylor’s studio at the time of his death. She said it was a blackmail scheme gone wrong.

The death was just one of many infamous Hollywood scandals of the 1920s, which included the Roscoe Arbuckle bottle rape trial, the death of Olive Thomas, the mysterious death of Thomas H. Ince, and the drug-related deaths of Wallace Reid, Barbara La Marr, and Jeanne Eagels. Normand’s career never recovered after word of her addiction leaked out and she died of tuberculosis on Feb. 23, 1930.

The killing and the media circus that followed it hurt the industry. According to a statement director King Vidor made in 1968, the Los Angeles police detective who was assigned to the case was told to lay off about a week into the investigation.

But Hollywood press has always had clout. In the movie when a cop tries to call in to the coroner’s office, he can’t get an open line because Hedda Hopper is on the phone in Norma’s room, talking to the Times City Desk and that is more important. “Don’t bother with a rewrite, man, take it direct! Ready? As day breaks…”

An Eternal Close-Up

Salome was a wonderful part for Norma Desmond’s celluloid comeback. The princess in love with a holy man, she dances the dance of the seven veils. He rejects her. So she lands his head on a golden tray, kissing his cold, dead lips. Norma Desmond promised she would never desert her audience again. She is still waving proudly to a parade which had long since passed her by. After Salome, she planned to make another picture and another picture. “You see, this is my life,” she promised. “It always will be! Nothing else! Just us and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!” Norma Desmond didn’t need dialogue, she can say whatever she wants with her eyes.

Read and download the Den of Geek SDCC 2019 Special Edition Magazine right here!

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Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.