They Took the Idols and Smashed Them

On Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950)

A film-loving audience member upon seeing Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) on its original release would have been surprised by its acting, its style, its story, and its themes. It would have seemed unpredictable and controversial to that original demographic of viewers, and it certainly would have garnered ample amounts of gossip and buzz. This will be demonstrated by a brief analysis of the careers and styles of two of the film’s main stars including a brief study of how Wilder’s film changed those careers; an analysis of one specimen of the film’s original marketing; as well as an analysis of two contemporary reviews. In the end, it will become evident that Sunset Boulevard was considered a refreshingly titillating film and it will be better understood why the film is still considered eye-opening today.

Sunset Boulevard is very much a star-driven vehicle, though does feature a notable ensemble of minor parts. Though the focus on who is the true star of the piece shifts throughout the course of the film, it can be said that, equally, Gloria Swanson and William Holden drive the film, and that the majority of screen time is devoted to the interactions between those two. To ascertain the effect of this film on the movie-going public in 1950, one needs to become acquainted with the careers and styles of both Swanson and Holden.

While it is true that fans of cinema now remember Gloria Swanson as the disillusioned tragedienne of Sunset Boulevard, prior to her involvement in the picture, she was easily “one of the biggest stars of the silent era” (Baxter 953). And, after a hiatus from film, the infamous comeback movie which Sunset Boulevardreally is, reunited a star with her mentor; Cecil B. DeMille and Gloria Swanson had worked on dozens of silent pictures, and how fortunate were they to come together almost entirely as themselves in the film at hand. According to Baxter, DeMille had rescued Swanson from the tedium of her roles in slapstick comedies, transforming her “into an elegant, vivacious, and narcissistic” siren of the screen (Baxter 953).

She became known in the late 1920s as the star of sexual comedies and Biblical epics; although, her best performances, it was said, were for the newspapers with her dramatic personal life and numerous romantic affairs, with gentlemen both older and younger than she (Baxter 953). Swanson then parlayed her blend of real-life personal controversy with her knack for portraying sexually-empowered women into the role of the “emancipated female predator” (Baxter 953). The image change was successful, as none of her films failed at the box office except for Eric von Stroheim’s notorious Queen Kelly (1929) (Baxter 953).

Interestingly, the failed film makes a cameo in Sunset Boulevard, reminding audiences of Swanson’s return to her film career, but a triumphant one which would overcome such failures as Queen Kelly. She was known, both before and during Sunset Boulevard, for her immense adaptability; capable of playing successful roles running the gamut of comedy to romance to historical epic and back; her success was not dependant on genre and audiences often waited with excited anticipation for her latest projects to come to cinemas (Baxter 953). She took a break from film in 1941, when she filmed Jack Hively’s Father Takes a Wife, though her grand return was nine years later with the film at hand, proving once again her adaptability. It can also be confidently said that Swanson maintained her large fan-base in the interim between the two films—an impressive feat for any star who takes a sabbatical. As one can see, filming Sunset Boulevardwas no challenge for Swanson since she was invariably playing herself—an aged silent star with a penchant for younger men—but it was a shocking departure from the comedic sex kitten or Biblical heroine silent audiences knew her as. One thing they did know her as, though, was unpredictable (Baxter 953).

Moving onto the film’s other star, William Holden, we discover in him, too, a change of type when acting in the film at hand, a performance which shocked 1950 audiences. He was, according to Baxter, “impossible to dislike” no matter how many evil roles he played or how many bad ones (Baxter 464). A Holden character was never known to have “descended to self-pity” or demonstrated cowardice prior to Sunset Boulevard; he was often anticipated as the hero, even if he was not (Baxter 464). Unlike Swanson, Holden’s occupation of the screen was almost always held by genre, particularly westerns and generic comedies; the offer of a part, a starring part, no less, in Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard was unheard of, and Holden’s first real departure from genre work (Baxter 464).

Interestingly, just how Holden scored the role of Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard was on the rebound, just as how he scored every one of his other part then to date (Baxter 464). He was always the second choice of directors, but it served him well. He was known for playing roles in which he never gave orders or took initiative, which does fit the part of Joe Gillis in Wilder’s opus, but he still shocked audiences by not playing a cowboy or numbskull. Sunset Boulevard made him a star, as prior to then, he was merely attempt to emerge (Quirk 16-22). He was, according to Baxter, a pretty face in the movies, even “Adonis-like” so it would have shocked 1950 audiences to see him in such a comparatively ugly role as Norma Desmond’s kept man (Baxter 464). Just as with Gloria Swanson, William Holden was destined to change his audience’s opinion of him by taking a job in Sunset Boulevard. Both, it can be observed, maintained their cinematic styles, but wagered with new outlets in the 1950 film.

Audiences’ expectations about Sunset Boulevard’s director, Billy Wilder, rested on that of a European whose best talent was to observe Hollywood from the inside out, given that he had always been an outsider (Kashner and MacNair 11-12). Through that immigrant lens, Wilder established a reputation as someone who depicted what he knew, and when, in Sunset Boulevard, one of the stars portrays a younger man having relations with an older woman, that, too, came from experience, wherein Wilder had once been a “taxi dancer”—or, gigolo (Kashner and MacNair 339). Wilder was known for making semi-autobiographical pictures, and when Joe Gillis loses his rooms in the Alto-Nido Apartments, it hit close to home for Billy who actually once lived there and had that same unfortunate thing happen (Kashner and MacNair 339).

Apart from imbibing his films with his personal trials and tribulations, Wilder was known to George Cukor as “the brightest thing at Paramount” and to audiences as well as a very good director (Swanson 479). He was also known to encourage his actors to look deep inside their psyches to formulate characters, a precursor, of course, to the Method of the Actors Studio in New York (Swanson 481-482). He was also known for his dark, morbid humour, and jokes on-screen as well as off (Swanson 484). His “films were known for a certain ambience, one which was deep and aged (Quirk 109).”

Wilder was a successful director whose two biggest films in Hollywood had been a film noir (Double Indemnity, 1944) and a social commentary on alcoholism (The Lost Weekend, 1945), so understandably, with the appearance of a star-driven vehicle depicting a corrupt and seedy Hollywood, shocked as much as the other two pleased (Gemünden 6). According to Gemünden, “[h]allmarks of journalism often dominate his films” and Sunset Boulevard was no exception, with Joe Gillis, a failed writer, acting like an investigative journalist, and the presence of the press both in the opening scene and the last so prominently (Quirk 13).

To Kemp, “Wilder presents a disillusioned world” (Kemp 922). “Themes of impersonation and deception, especially emotional deception, pervade Wilder’s work. People disguise themselves as others, or feign passions they do not feel, to gain some ulterior end (Kemp 922).” And above all, Wilder was known for the blackest of comedies, through which he was able to merge his tact for drama, social realism, humour, and captivation. Audiences were shocked, however, not by how Sunset Boulevard made its message, but rather by what the message was: Hollywood crumbles like everything else.

With it established that audience expectations of the stars of Sunset Boulevardwere shattered upon seeing the film, as well as the reputation of a dark director, one must now consider the film’s marketing. How did the studio, Paramount, decide to lead (or mislead) audiences in 1950? The present specimen will be a poster original to the 1950 release date. It has an interesting, simple colour scheme of red, white, yellow, and black, suggesting, aptly, a sunset over a piece of pavement, or, the titular Sunset Boulevard. Very clever, and very effective. Gloria Swanson’s face is the largest of those of herself, William Holden, and Nancy Olson on display, and seems to indicate an obvious prominence though also a tragic or suffering face.

She is in pure red and white, more like the sunset than any of the three figures, while the other two look up above the horizon, almost at the figurative sunset, clutching each other in fear. Paramount has marketed the film, so far, as a sort of thriller, evidenced, also, by the black or pavement element of the abstract scene, in this case, a filmstrip, tangled and tied into a knot. Depravity and the upturning of order seems to be expressed, as well as a literal involvement in film—of course, hinting at the film industry which the film explores. The film’s tagline—“A Hollywood story”—appears almost as boldly as the title itself and hits home the notion that the film is about Hollywood itself, though it is not clear whether the story is a romance, a thriller, or crime drama. It is definite, though, that the picture is no comedy.

It exudes a very certain severity. Holden receives first-billing, though he, Swanson, and Erich von Stroheim all receive top-billing. Director Billy Wilder is listed with the minor credits, but notably has his name in a larger, bolder typeface than the others in that section of the poster. Clearly, it is a star-driven vehicle, and one of severe import. This is how Paramount marketed the film, back in 1950—with a teaser poster not giving much away about the project. This would have led, even more strongly, to the shock experienced by audiences upon viewing.

Up until now, we have examined the audience’s likely reaction based upon the film itself, through its stars, its director, even its official marketing, but what remains is the critical reception of the time. Two reviews will be examined, one from William Bogdon in industry publication, Variety, and another from fellow industry specialist in Sight and Sound, James Agee. Both favour the film, and marks its innovation both in technical achievement (notably, both adore its cinematography and art direction) and in its take on a then-changing industry. Both are aware, just as aware as Wilder, that the Classical Era of Hollywood is ending. The two reviews criticize one thing above all others: the film’s opening sequence—which already had been redone before the film hit national cinemas, due to Paramount’s being startled by a corpse talking in a morgue.

Bogdon notes how “extremely ‘trade-y’” the film has been made, and suggests that all of the many industry jokes will make the studios chuckle or at least get their attention. Agee elaborates on the same notion, saying “this is essentially a picture-maker’s picture” and though establishing it as in industry-inspired picture, importantly notes that in 1950 (when he was writing), “there is a wide difference of reaction, ranging from moderate liking or disappointment all the way to boredom, intense dislike, or even contempt.” The two critics who note the film’s emphasis on trade seem to attribute a general mixed though shocked reaction to the very thing. Perhaps focusing too closely on Hollywood instead of being Hollywood led to Sunset Boulevard’s fate—that of a confusing picture which startles as well as entertains.

As the reader can now see, Sunset Boulevardis a film which shocked those who saw it in 1950. Critics and industry people were shocked at its strikingly real abstraction of a nervous industry at the time, while audiences were shocked its stars took such a gamble—and won. Its director did not entirely deviate from his tried and true course, but even he spiced things up. Sunset Boulevard holds a mirror up, but it is a mirror in which only a select few can find a reflection, and because of this, the film initially alienated it viewers—most of whom were unable to relate to being stars or studio executives. Audiences found the film controversial.


Agee, James. Rev. of Sunset Boulevard, dir. Billy Wilder. Sight and Sound Nov. 1950: 283. Periodicals Archive Online. Web. 28 Dec. 2009.

Baxter, John. “Gloria Swanson.” International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Vol. 3. Chicago: St. James, 1992. 952-953. Print.

———. “William Holden.” International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Vol. 3. Chicago: St. James, 1992. 463-464. Print.

Bogdon, William. Rev. of Sunset Boulevard, dir. Billy Wilder. Variety 19 Apr. 1950. Movie Review Query Engine. Web. 28 Dec. 2009.

Gemünden, Gerd. A Foreign Affair: Billy Wilder’s American Films. New York: Berghahn, 2008. Print.

Kashner, Sam, and Jennifer MacNair. The Bad and the Beautiful: Hollywood in the Fifties. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002. Print.

Kemp, Philip. “Billy Wilder.” International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Vol. 2. Chicago: St. James, 1991. 919-922. Print.

Poster for Sunset Boulevard. 1950. Rpt. in MovieZeal. Ed. Luke T. Harrington. 18 Aug. 2008. 28 Dec. 2009. Web. <;

Quirk, Lawrence J. The Films of William Holden. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel, 1973. Print.

Sunset Boulevard. Dir. Billy Wilder. 1950. Paramount, 2002. DVD.

Swanson, Gloria. Swanson on Swanson. New York: Random House, 1980. Print.