Movie Club Weekly – American Film Institute

August 4, 2020



SUNSET BLVD. is celebrating its 70th anniversary this month! The quintessential LA film noir is ranked #16 on AFI’s list of the 100 greatest movies of all time. AFI Life Achievement Award recipient Billy Wilder directed the movie, and Gloria Swanson’s iconic lines “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up” and “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small” are ranked #7 and #24 on AFI’s list of the great movie quotes in cinematic history.

Did you know?


The original script for SUNSET BLVD. was titled “A Can of Beans” to give the impression of a comedy because the writers were afraid the studio wouldn’t support a script that was critical of the film industry.

Co-writer Charles Brackett initially conceived of the idea as a Hollywood comedy in which an aging silent movie star overcomes adversity and makes a successful comeback. The idea would develop into a much more jaded appraisal of the film industry and the Hollywood Dream Machine as it evolved.

The film originally began with a scene in the LA County morgue in which Joe Gillis talks with the other corpses around him, before narrating his own story. However, after audiences laughed at the sequence during preview screenings, the morgue scene was cut in favor of the iconic swimming pool opening.

While William Holden would play the down-on-his-luck Hollywood writer Joe Gillis in the final film, initially Montgomery Clift was cast in the part. Mae West was considered for the character of Norma Desmond, but Gloria Swanson would ultimately land the role of the reclusive silent film star.

Gloria Swanson was 51 when she shot SUNSET BLVD. She worked in silent cinema in the 1920s, frequently collaborating with director Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount. More than 100 early photographs of Swanson at the height of her career are seen throughout the film.

The name “Norma Desmond” is generally thought to be a combination of the names of silent film star Norma Talmadge and silent movie director William Desmond Taylor, whose still-unsolved murder is one of the great scandals of Hollywood history.

In real life, Norma’s mansion was actually on Wilshire Boulevard, not Sunset Blvd. It had belonged to J. Paul Getty’s family and it would be featured a few years later in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE.

SUNSET BLVD. is the first film in which Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim (Max Von Mayerling) worked together since QUEEN KELLY– an extravagant production that was never released in the U.S. in which producer/star Swanson actually fired von Stroheim. Footage of QUEEN KELLY can be seen in SUNSET BLVD. and it led to a belated release of Swanson’s version in 1957.

SUNSET BLVD. director Billy Wilder cast silent film stars in bit roles – including Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson, Gertrude Astor, Eva Novak and Franklyn Farnum.

When Gillis and Norma Desmond visit Cecil B. De Mille at Paramount, the director was actually filming SAMSON AND DELILAH in real life, which would become the top-grossing picture of the year. Billy Wilder wanted star Hedy Lamarr to have a cameo in SUNSET BLVD. but her rate was too steep.

Several movie executives were irate when they saw how Hollywood was depicted in the film. At the premiere, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer denounced Billy Wilder, saying, “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!”

SUNSET BLVD. was nominated for 11 Academy Awards® and won three Oscars®, including Best Writing, Best Art Direction and Best Music.

SUNSET BLVD. was the last film Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett collaborated on after working together for 14 years on projects, including NINOTCHKA and THE LOST WEEKEND.

The movie doesn’t end at the credits. Engage with your family, friends and others like you who love the movies. Check out the AFI Movie Club Discussion Questions for this movie and post your responses in the comment section!


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