Many movies have attempted to explore the inner workings of Hollywood and the motion picture business, but “Sunset Boulevard,” winner of the Golden Globe for the Best Motion Picture Drama of 1950, was and continues to be one of the more daring, unconventional and poignant of them all. To begin with the movie opened with a corpse narrating the story while floating in a swimming pool.
With an original script written by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr., and directed by Wilder, the film will always be remembered by the excellent performances of the stars who played the two main psychologically damaged characters: Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, the neurotic star of silent movies living in the past, and William Holden as Joe Gillis, the writer in debt who becomes her gigolo and exploits her.
However, neither Swanson nor Holden were the first choices for the production. Reportedly the part of Desmond was initially offered to Pola Negri (who was insulted), Mary Pickford (who wanted complete control), and Mae West (who wanted to rewrite it.) And even though the role of Gillis was written specifically for Montgomery Clift, the actor rejected it because he thought it would be bad for his image. Ironically, the following year, in “A Place in the Sun,” the actor played a man convicted of murder who dies in the electric chair.
Adding authenticity to the project were Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner and Ray Evans, playing themselves. And this story of murder and madness continues to fascinate. In 1993 Andrew Lloyd Webber (“Jesus Christ, Superstar”, “Evita”, “Phantom of the Opera”, “Cats”) presented a very successful musical adaptation, giving such diverse stars as Patty LuPone, Glenn Close and Betty Buckley the opportunity to sing Norma Desmond’s famous words: “We had faces then.”
The film version of the musical is currently in development, and Close, Madonna, Liza Minnelli, Michelle Pfeiffer, Meryl Streep and Barbra Streisand have each been mentioned as possibilities to play the lead if and when the project ever comes to fruition. Who would be your choice to reprise the iconic role of Norma Desmond?