Austrian-born director Erich von Stroheim, like underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger, was a fantastic teller of tall tales and had one hell of a big chip on his shoulder. After his initial success in Hollywood, he found himself snubbed by Tinseltown’s powers-that-be. It was thus only too appropriate that Anger devoted a short chapter to Stroheim in his infamous book, ‘Hollywood Babylon’.
Stroheim had a megalomaniac personality. His tendency to go over-budget, constantly re-shooting scenes while enjoying directing orgies on the set, eventually contributed to his downfall. Near the end of his life, the once wealthy director was destitute, scratching out a living writing and acting with a jaded edge. Stroheim’s most notorious role was that of the curmudgeonly butler, Max von Mayerling, in Billy Wilder’s 1950 film noir masterpiece, ‘Sunset Boulevard’.
Being a sucker for true stories of the fallen gods and goddesses of Hollywood, I felt that the temperamental Stroheim would be perfectly cast for a role in my book, Sinemania! Seeing as how ‘Sunset Boulevard’ is one of my favorite movies of all time, it made perfect sense for me to spoof that film and feature Stroheim as the main character recalling his flamboyant life while twisting the facts around. Using silent film-style title cards, I wanted to contrast his lies with the sad reality of his life.
What makes ‘Sunset Boulevard’ stand out on a list of legendary film noirs is the way its plot reflects the true facts about the decline and fall of a once hugely successful actress, Gloria Swanson, as well as Erich von Stroheim and some of their peers. The movie isn’t only great in and of itself, it also serves as a timeless and powerful piece of Hollywood history.
Billy Wilder couldn’t have made a bad picture even if he had tried. And his reputation as one of the finest ever filmmakers is well deserved. But like the protagonist of ‘Sunset Boulevard’, Joe Gillis, Wilder struggled for years as a writer. He had a hard time paying the bills until he found success in 1944 with his film noir hit, ‘Double Indemnity’. And just like Joe Gillis, when he was a young journalist in Vienna, Wilder made extra money charging older women to be his partners on the dance floor. No wonder that writing the script for ‘Sunset Boulevard’ came naturally to him.
‘Sunset Boulevard’ is full of wonderful cameos of silver screen legends and practically feels like a documentary or “cinema vérité” film. Besides Gloria Swanson portraying Norma Desmond, a fictitious has-been goddess of the silent movie era, and Stroheim playing her man-servant, other Hollywood legends actually appear as themselves, including Buster Keaton, Hedda Hopper, Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner, and Cecil B. DeMille.
In ‘Sunset Boulevard’, when Swanson as Norma Desmond visits DeMille at Paramount Studios, the director is shown on the genuine set of his 1949 film, ‘Samson and Delilah’. (DeMille and Swanson worked together a number of times in real life. He was even credited as the man who made her a star, affectionately nicknaming her ‘Young Fella’ years earlier, just like he does in ‘Sunset Boulevard’.) Fiction and reality also intersect when Norma Desmond mentions her admiration for Greta Garbo. ‘Sunset Boulevard’ also makes references to numerous other real Hollywood luminaries and even jokes about the shocking ‘Black Dahlia’ murder during a party scene.
All the Norma Desmond memorabilia in her mansion consists of Swanson’s own artifacts of her former golden years. One scene in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ depicts Desmond mesmerized by her past beauty and stardom while watching ‘Queen Kelly’, a film the real Gloria Swanson starred in and financed. And, get this, it was directed by… Erich Von Stroheim! Who in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ happens to play her butler and ex-husband and the director who brought Norma to stardom. Oh yeah, before I forget, I should also mention that ‘Queen Kelly’ made the real life Gloria Swanson go bankrupt and brought about the decline of her career.
You see, Stroheim and Swanson happened to be their own worst enemies. Like Norma Desmond, whose long deluded tirades make the movie that much more colorful, the real Gloria Swanson had once been a very powerful film star. Her fortune had been astronomical and the fact that she had had Joe Kennedy for her lover had made her indestructible in the Hollywood hierarchy. Well, that’s what she believed before she got together with Stroheim for the production of ‘Queen Kelly’. Its sulfuric script was too extreme for the era, and making an extremely expensive silent movie and releasing it after the talkies were taking over turned out to be the perfect recipe for a flop of epic proportions. As a result, Swanson (like Desmond), saw her stardom and career eclipsed by the new talent the talkies attracted.
It’s hard to imagine another actress better suited to play Norma Desmond. But, bizarrely enough, Gloria Swanson was not Billy Wilder’s first choice. Both Mae West and then Mary Pickford declined the role for personal reasons. It was actually a fellow filmmaker, George Cukor, who suggested Swanson. To portray struggling writer Joe Gillis, Wilder thought of Marlon Brando or Montgomery Clift, but finally went with William Holden who was thirty-one in 1949. Swanson was fifty and at a time when cougars were mostly found in zoos, they made for one pretty odd couple in ‘Sunset Boulevard’. But it was a perfect match.
One aspect of the movie that remains ageless is the problem of ageism. Turning forty for an actress was, and continues to be, the kiss of death! If she wants a good part after hitting the big 4-0, she has to play a matronly or despicable vile woman eaten alive by jealousy, or else forget about it! Just look at the kinds of roles Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Shelley Winters, and Bette Davis got after they reached middle age. These days, with the help of plastic surgery, some actresses try to delay the onset of the ordeal of bad parts by trying to hide their true age on IMDb.com.
At the time of ‘Sunset Boulevard’, Hollywood films never had a problem with showing older men with spring chickens. But depicting an older woman with a younger stud was seen as very gutsy. By playing Norma Desmond, Gloria Swanson took a risk that kind of paid off for her. It put her back on the map, but also gave her the stigma of being “the most glamorous grand-mother in America”! All the roles she got after ‘Sunset Boulevard’ were those of mean old ladies.
Swanson even ended up playing Aggripina with the very young and beautiful Brigitte Bardot in a very forgettable 1956 Italian movie called ‘Mio figlio Nerone’. At the time Jergens Face Cream was actually showing Swanson in their ads, asking the reader: “Will you be as fascinating as Gloria Swanson at 52?” When Bardot got to be that age, she was far away from the spotlight and I’m sure Clarins never had her in mind to sponsor their cream.
Yes, my dear reader, watching ‘Sunset Boulevard’ is like reading Kenneth Anger’s ‘Hollywood Babylon’. Wilder’s picture is one great tour of the underbelly of Hollywood. It mixes murder with the dark side of stardom and the fear of ageing, of being forgotten, or becoming invisible. That fictitious yet true-to-life tale of ‘the boulevard of broken dreams’ will always strike a chord and will forever remain an all too real human tragedy.