Sunset Boulevard Revisited

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Sunset Boulevard Revisited

When the film Sunset Boulevard premiered in Hollywood in 1950, the picture caused a riot in the theatre after the feature finished. Director Billy Wilder commented, “I’ve never seen so many prominent people at once – the word was out that this was a stunner, you see. After the picture ended there were violent reactions, from excitement to pure horror”(May 570). Wilder did whatever he could to keep the plot of Sunset Boulevard a secret outside of the walls of Paramount Studios because of its controversial subject matter. Today, Sunset Boulevard is hailed as one of the best films in motion picture history, so what was so controversial about it that made Hollywood so scared? The answer is that the film dealt with the truth about Hollywood and its stars. It scared people because it portrayed the life of a faded movie star in a realistic way, making members of Hollywood evaluate their careers and life after stardom. However, it was not only the plot that terrified Hollywood, but also Wilder’s casting of Gloria Swanson and Erich Von Stroheim in two of the leading roles. Both had been film stars of the silent era back in the roaring twenties, but had fallen on hard times after their careers had fizzled. Therefore, the “stunner” that Wilder talks about is not the plot of Sunset Boulevard, but the terrifying realism demonstrated by the actor’s lives molding the characters they play in the film.

The protagonist of the film is Norma Desmond, a washed-up actress who has delusions about reclaiming her fame again. At the end of the film, her sanity snaps when she loses her lover, Joe Gillis, and realizes that she will never return to the stardom that she once knew in her youth. On casting the role of Norma, Wilder knew that enlisting an actress from the early years of cinema would be ideal for the story he wanted to tell, rather than hiring a popular actress from the current Hollywood roster. Wilder discussed Mae West and Mary Pickford for the role, but finally decided on Gloria Swanson. Gloria Swanson had been very famous in the twenties, acting for such names as Sam Wood and Cecil B.
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