“I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. deMille” and “I am big. It's the pictures that got small!” are just a couple of famous one-liners pronounced with neurotic grandeur by Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. These and many more would go on to become legendary quips. The script, written by director Billy Wilder with his trusted partner Charles Brackett and D.M Marshman Jr., is witty from the get-go: the voice-over narration in the first person is done by a dead man floating in the pool (William Holden), a narrative device (the dead telling his or her life in flashbacks) that from then on would be endlessly used, if not copied, in movies or TV series.
The HFPA immediately embraced Wilder's brilliant story about a screenwriter, Joe Gillis (Holden) hired to rework a script for a faded silent film star, the matchless Norma Desmond (Swanson) - only to find himself in a very a dangerous relationship. The film won four Golden Globes (Best Motion Picture, Best Director for Wilder, Best Actress for Swanson, and Best Original Score for Franz Waxman, plus three more nominations, including Erich Von Stronheim as best supporting actor for his role as Norma's butler Max Von Mayerling: he is in the projection room when Norma and Joe are watching one of Norma's old films. The film is actually Queen Kelly (1929), which von Stronheim directed and which starred Gloria Swanson. Hard-core Austrian as Wilder, Von Stronheim, Wilder and Swanson made the shoot very lively and intense.
The film had not been immediately embraced: at a star-studded screening at Paramount, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer screamed at director Billy Wilder that “he should be tarred, feathered and horse-whipped for bringing his profession into such disrepute”. Wilder reply was a very terse: “F**k you!”
The HFPA's journalists enjoyed seeing another writer's vicissitudes glorified on the big screen, a hired gun in a changing Hollywood portrayed as a sort of romantic hero, and perhaps enjoying his own surprising, tragic demise. They still remember the vivacious Wilder celebrating the Golden Globe victory with his friend Stronheim and all the actors, with Swanson making crazy eyes in Norma Desmond's style for the audience’s amusement. For Swanson, then 50, Sunset Boulevard was the last great success at the movies. She never stopped working, tough, making a last bow with a cameo in the thriller Airport 1975.