Mr. Holden is back, and he’s going to a familiar place…
Sunset Boulevard is well-trod territory for film buffs, film students, and film lovers in general. It’s quoted, imitated, and referenced constantly. Who hasn’t heard, “I’m ready for my closeup.” at least once? The 1950 film is not only important to movie aficionados, but for William Holden’s career as well. Holden’s character, Joe Gillis served as a lightning rod for both Holden and his co-star, Gloria Swanson’s character, forcing them to look inside themselves.
For those who haven’t seen it, the main character of the film is Joe Gillis, played by William Holden. He’s a down-on-his-luck writer who’s trying to make it in Hollywood. Joe’s days consist of writing stories and pitching them to studio executives while parking his car across from his apartment to avoid the repo man. He has no phone so he uses the one at Schwab’s Drugstore. His prospects are so dismal that his agent fires him. Joe, who’s had enough, is seriously considering going back to his hometown of Dayton, Ohio and working at his old newspaper job again.
After yet another fruitless attempt to sell a story at Paramount, Joe sees the dreaded repo guys on his tail again, so he pulls into the garage of what he thinks is an abandoned mansion on Sunset Boulevard. Any port in a storm, and Joe has a flat tire anyway.
Only the mansion isn’t abandoned. Joe notices a Renault up on blocks in the garage, and it’s obviously been cared for. It’s also got leopard-print seats. Joe’s about to leave when an imperious female voice from upstairs intones, “You there! Why are you so late? Why have you kept me waiting so long?”
Joe stands there bewildered, only to become more so when he sees Max, the butler (Eric von Stroheim) beckoning to him from the front door. Max, who looks more like a mortician than a butler, points Joe upstairs with a “Madame is waiting.”
The situation isn’t any less weird at the top of the stairs. “Madame” is Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) whose deceased pet chimp is laid out before a roaring fire because in life he liked to poke them with a stick. Norma’s waiting for an undertaker to deliver a coffin so she can bury him.
Right off the bat, Joe knows who Norma is. “You used to be in silent pictures,” he says. “You used to be big.”
“I am big,” she retorts. “It’s the pictures that got small.”
Norma recovers pretty quickly from her disappointment at Joe not being an undertaker when she finds out he’s a writer. She’s got a screenplay, Salome, that she wants as her next movie, preferably directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Joe looks at the mountains of pages she’s written and pegs them as trash. He offers to revise the script for her, and Norma agrees, although she’s very precious about every line.
Joe spends the night in a room over the garage, and what really creeps him out is when he wakes up the next day to find his meager belongings have been brought over from his apartment. It’s only a matter of time before he’s ensconced in the mansion, though, as the garage roof leaks.
Thus begins Joe’s odyssey into the twisted, delusional world of Norma Desmond. He is a kept man, a pet, a lame attempt by a sad, lonely woman to recapture the youth and stardom she doesn’t want to admit she’s lost. Norma is like a spider; once she has Joe in her clutches, she will do whatever it takes to hold him, and she won’t give up easily.
William Holden wasn’t the first choice to play Joe Gillis. The part was originally for Montgomery Clift, a huge star and what seemed to be the natural choice.
Actually, Clift was a little too natural for the role. Two weeks before shooting was to begin, Clift called Billy Wilder and backed out because, in his words, “I don’t think I could be convincing making love to a woman twice my age.”
Wilder called his excuse nonsense, because he knew Clift better than that. He also suspected Clift’s longtime mentor and lover, Libby Holman pushed him to back out. Holman was an older, faded Jazz Age has-been singer who thought Wilder had written Norma Desmond about her. She liked younger guys and resented being pushed off her pedestal by a public who had grown tired of her antics.
Holman shouldn’t have flattered herself, as Norma Desmond was closer to Mae West, Mary Pickford or other screen luminaries, of which stage performer Holman wasn’t one. Either way, Clift was out and Holden was in.
William Holden came to the role carrying a major load of emotional baggage. His wife, Ardis, was very possessive and nitpicky of Holden’s every move, and his career had begun to flatline. According to Holden’s biographer, Michelangelo Capua, Wilder wasn’t too jazzed at first to have Holden on board–he initially thought Holden looked dopey in front of the camera–but changed his tune as time went on. Holden’s co-star, Nancy Olsen, said that Holden was drinking heavily at the time, and “seemed a little frayed around the edges.”
For his part, Holden resented Wilder because he thought Wilder treated him like a puppet. However, as film historian and Wilder biographer Ed Sikov noted, Holden had to admit that he always benefited from working with Wilder.
Always a fan of realism, Wilder wanted to highlight how much younger Holden was than Swanson–his hair was cut very short, and he wore little makeup. Holden was fine with that, as he didn’t like makeup.
Shooting commenced on April 18, 1949, and Holden didn’t know what to do with Joe Gillis. The script was incomplete, and he didn’t have much to go on. When he complained to Wilder that he needed to know Joe Gillis better, Wilder replied that he needed to know William Holden better.
Problem was, Holden didn’t like what he saw. He famously referred to actors as whores, “selling their bodies to the highest bidder,” whether to studios, other actors, or in various iterations of the casting couch. He didn’t feel his wife loved him. Holden dealt with this by showing up drunk on the Sunset Boulevard set. It might have seemed to be a poor decision at first, but worked in the character’s favor as it made Joe Gillis appear out of control, which he was.
After the film was completed, Wilder arranged for it to be shown around Hollywood, and the response was tremendous. Barbara Stanwyck kissed the hem of Gloria Swanson’s gown after one preview.
L.B. Mayer, however, was jumping mad. Heaven forbid someone see right through Hollywood’s carefully crafted portrayal of a kind, gentle industry to the public, the one that treated its stars with kid gloves once they were past their prime. According to Capua, Louis B. Mayer roared: “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!”
Wilder’s response was a simple F-bomb.
The film opened to rave reviews, and William Holden was suddenly in demand, earning a Best Actor nomination. Holden and Wilder also became good friends. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
Joe Gillis is a largely passive character in Sunset Boulevard, but he troubled a lot of people. He troubles Norma Desmond because he reminds her of what she isn’t anymore, and he made William Holden uncomfortable for his role in the Hollywood machine. However, he also got both Desmond and Holden out of their comfort zones, pushing them into what they were afraid to face on their own. Desmond’s response was to become even more insane. Holden was an alcoholic for the rest of his life. One might wonder what might have happened if either of them had allowed Joe’s presence to be a reality check.
For more William Holden, please see Michaela, Virginie, and Emily. Thanks for giving all of us bloggers a chance to visit with the Golden Boy again, ladies–it was fun! Thanks for reading, all, and I hope you’ll check back on Friday. Another post is on the horizon…
Sunset Boulevard is available on Blu-ray from Amazon.
Capua, Michelangelo. William Holden: A Biography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Publishing, 2016.
Sikov, Ed. On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2017.
Staggs, Sam. Closeup On Sunset Boulevard: Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond, and the Dark Hollywood Dream. London: Macmillan Publishers, 2002.