Sunset Boulevard 1950

Read the script
Excerpt from Sunset Boulevard

The Story

Joe Gillis (William Holden), a strug­gling screen­writer, is trying to escape from a couple of car repo men when he drives into the grounds of a run down old Holly­wood mansion.

The mansion is owned by an ageing and reclusive silent screen film-star called Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who lives alone except for her chauf­feur and manser­vant Max (Eric Von Stro­heim). When she hears Joe is a writer, she offers to hire him to help her with a comeback script.

Broke and desperate, Joe accepts her offer. Norma is diffi­cult and self-obsessed but also lonely. Joe feels a little sorry for her and, despite their age differ­ence, they become lovers.  Their rela­tion­ship changes as Norma begins to buy him expensive gifts  and outfit him in new clothes.

Although a part of Joe is disgusted with himself, he stays on, working on her terrible script. But he meets a young writer called Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olsen) and starts to develop a more prom­ising screen­play with her.

When Norma finds out, she has a jealous fit and threatens to throw him out.  Joe tries to leave but Norma shoots him. The story ends, as it begins, with Joe floating dead in Norma’s swim­ming pool.

(Billy Wilder talks about the making of the film)

The Scene

The sequence in the clip is taken from the very begin­ning of the film and incor­por­ates the credit sequence. We are intro­duced to Joe as the narrator and then enter the long flash-back that is the main story of the film. In the first part of the film up until the inciting incident that kicks off the main story (Joe driving his car into the mansion grounds), we get to know the world of Joe Gillis.

We see him escaping from the men who are trying to repos­sess his car, hust­ling a studio exec­utive for a job, and chasing after his agent. Joe is resourceful and a bit cynical and has seen better days but his optimism is not yet exhausted. No ‘Pat Hobby‘ yet, he aligns himself with a young crowd, like Betty Schaefer, the script editor he meets, who are broke, ambi­tious and strug­gling to make it.

The differ­ence between age and youth, decay and energy, is one of the movie’s major themes. At the time the film was made in 1950, these were the ‘kids’ of the future; a new wave in Holly­wood, ready to sweep away the past.  Joe has little sympathy with Norma’s lost world and the ‘waxworks’ who inhabit it.  (The fact these are played by Swanson, Von Stro­heim and Buster Keaton – all genuine super­stars of that era –  is of course a delib­erate irony.)

As recounted in the inter­view with Wilder, the movie was not popular with the Holly­wood moguls who felt it was disrespectful. The power of the studios remained until another new gener­a­tion of film-makers chal­lenged it in the 60’s and 70’s (see Easy Riders and Raging Bulls for an account of that battle).

In that sense, the film could also be seen as a warning and a salutory little morality tale about the way that Holly­wood feeds on new talent and energy but ulti­mately consumes and destroys those who possess it. Joe is corrupted by the industry he works in and, when he tries to rebel and reclaim his integ­rity, the same industry – in the person of the grand and delu­sional Norma – kills him.

The Script

A parallel two column format is employed in sections of the script to indicate how sound and images  synchronise with each other. This is non-standard format, and not always the easiest to read, but would obvi­ously be of great help to the editor and cameraman. (It’s also fairly  typical of the idio­syn­crasies of auteur film-makers who get to write and direct their own movies).

David Clough © 2011

 Read the photostory of Sunset Boulevard

Photost­ories tell the story of a film in strip-form, using stills. They were a feature of early film magazines. This one is taken from an eighties Orbis public­a­tion called The Movie.



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