“Sunset Boulevard” begins with the sight of Joe Gillis(Holden) a young screen writer, floating dead in a swimming pool. The movie then becomes a flashback, as Joe, acting as narrator, explains the events that led to his death. It seems that sometime before, a struggling Joe Gillis, while fleeing from creditors, takes refuge in the garage of a Hollywood mansion belonging to Norma Desmond, a one-time star from the silent era. Aside from her loyal German butler Max (Von Stroheim), Norma is a virtual recluse, but learning that Joe is a writer, she becomes intrigued with the idea of his writing a screenplay which will propel her back into the limelight. Joe, having no other sources of income, agrees, and soon finds himself living in Norma’s spacious home, but the arrangement becomes even more complicated when Joe realizes that Norma’s designs on him go well beyond producing scripts.
“Sunset Boulevard” was well received initially, garnering 11 Academy Award Nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Holden), Best Actress (Swanson) and Best Director, and winning Oscars for Best Music Scoring, Best Screenplay, and Best Set Decoration. During the 60 years since its release, the film’s status as a classic has grown, as demonstrated by its number 12 ranking in the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 top American films. “Sunset Boulevard” also helped establish William Holden, leading him to starring roles in “Stalag 17,” “Picnic,” “Born Yesterday,” “Sabrina,” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”
As effective as Gloria Swanson and William Holden were in “Sunset Boulevard,” they were not the first actors Billy Wilder considered for the film. Mae West, Norma Shearer and Mary Pickford were on Wilder’s short list to play Norma Desmond, while Marlon Brando, Fred MacMurray and Montgomery Clift were all in the running to portray Joe.
Trivia: Among the notable cameos in “Sunset Boulevard” is the songwriting team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, who are probably best known for composing the theme to “Bonanza.”