Hollywood Exposed: Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard, a cinematic expose on Hollywood.. Read Lee's latest historical piece. 

Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard was one of the first films to expose the dirty side of Hollywood. While critics praised the film’s gritty honesty, there were many in Hollywood who loathed the picture. The film stars Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, a faded star from the silent film era. After a chance encounter, she recruits the help of Joe Gillis, a struggling screenwriter desperate for work. While penning her comeback to the big screen, Gillis (played by William Holden) plays along with Ms. Desmond's delusional idea that it was “talkies” that ruined her career. Swanson is sensational in the role, bringing Desmond to life with glamorous paranoia. Her convincing performance helps enlighten a truth that is just as prevalent then as it is today - An actress' career is only as long as her youth. 

Several Hollywood legends make appearances in the film, giving Sunset’s theme a surreal reality. Most notably, director Cecil B. DeMille plays himself in the film. It was an ironic choice, considering Swanson starred in several of DeMille’s films during the silent era, mirroring her character in Sunset. DeMille’s scene is a nail in the coffin performance, lifting the curtain to the illusions of a grand Hollywood. His on-screen character presents a pleasant facade, acting with endearing concern for the once great actress only to snicker behind her back once she leaves. It’s an eye opening sequence, and a bold statement on both DeMille and Wilder's behalf. 

Sunset Boulevard received praise from critics and would earn 11 Academy Award nominations. Yet, despite the film’s popularity with the public, it was those in the film industry who took offense. After an advance screening, an infuriated Louis B. Mayer, co-founder of MGM studios, publicly confronted Wilder. With a room full of celebrities present, Mayer spat, "You Bastard! You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!". The producer also allegedly told Wilder (both men were Jewish) that he'd be “better off being sent back to Germany”. This comment (1950) was a low blow considering many of Wilder's family members perished in the Holocaust. Wilder responded in classic fashion. "I am Mr. Wilder," the director said, "and go fuck yourself!". As he was leaving he also told Mayer to "go shit in your hat!". Many rumors circulated afterwards that Mayer tried to buy the film with intentions of destroying it.

Sunset Boulevard’s cold harsh truth divided Hollywood. How ironic that a film was responsible. Perhaps it was Wilder’s intentions all along. It can be argued that Sunset Boulevard didn't divide Hollywood, it only exposed that the industry was already comprised of two sides. More importantly, It shined a light on which side everyone stood. While craving the spotlight is nothing new in Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard proved that not all spotlights come with admiration.  

-Lee L. Lind

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