Study Guide

Sunset Boulevard Director


Billy Wilder

If your resume looked anything like Billy Wilder's did, well, we can bet you'd never have any trouble getting a job. Or, frankly, you'd probably never need one.

We're not exaggerating when we say that Billy Wilder has a ton of great movies to his credit: Ninotchka, Double Indemnity, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment… just to name a few. And after his golden era, he made a bunch of movies no one ever talks about—a solid twenty years of forgotten work—but let's stick with the enormous amount of classics he both wrote (or co-wrote) and directed.

Many of a Million Genres

Wilder's got some mad versatility game. The genres of these movies are all over the place: Double Indemnity is a film noir; Some Like It Hot is a screwball comedy; Witness for the Prosecution is a courtroom drama; Stalag 17 is a prisoner of war movie. How's that for range?

Wilder wanted to try everything, and he ended up excelling at all of it. While he wasn't noted for the kind of innovative camerawork characteristic of other directors—like Hitchcock—he excelled at focusing on the writing and dialogue, working specifically to bring out and highlight the story more than anything. You can definitely notice this in Sunset, where images like Joe's corpse floating in Norma's pool, the lockless doors in Norma's house, and Norma's final insane close-up all compact a ton of startling information into single moments, single shots.

Arguably, Sunset Boulevard is Wilder's best and most original movie. The thing is a straight-up legend. The American Film Institute ranked it as the 16th greatest American movie of all time—though Some Like it Hot is close behind at number 22. Considering that Double Indemnity is at number 29, this means that Wilder has three movies in the top 30 on the list.

Now that's some serious street-cred.

Too Real?

In creating Sunset Boulevard, Wilder was actually writing about a world he knew first-hand. Presumably, he'd never been hunted by gangsters while impersonating a female musician at a Florida hotel (like in Some Like It Hot), or defended anyone charged with murder (like in Witness for the Prosecution), or been a POW in a Nazi camp (like in Stalag 17—though he did have to flee Nazi Germany when he was younger, and his mother and grandmother both died in the Holocaust). But he clearly was a man who deeply knew and understood Hollywood, which makes Sunset Boulevard his most personal movie in a lot of ways.

Obviously, Wilder was a fan of movies—he made timeless classics, but they weren't exactly art-house flicks. They were straight in the vein of the quintessential movie-going experience. Basically, dude wanted to entertain you. At the same time, Sunset Boulevard shows us that he was completely aware of the insane side of Hollywood. For every actor or actress whose dreams were being fulfilled, there were ten has-beens angling for a comeback or wannabe stars looking for their first big breaks. He understands the struggle and desperation underlying that frenetic pursuit of success and celebrity and fully exposes it in Sunset.

Whereas Wilder's Some Like It Hot is pure humor and fun, Sunset finds itself firmly on the darker side of his catalog, along with Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend. At the same time, it has a definite zaniness to it, a sense that this is partly a disturbing, satirical gag. The fact that Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Cecil B. DeMille, and the old silent stars with whom Norma plays bridge are portraying characters extremely close to or even identical with themselves helps heighten this disconcerting effect. The strangest part about the movie is that everyone seems in on the joke.

Wilder also played a crucial role in casting the movie. Looking for just the right fit, he investigated big-name silent-screen stars like Mary Pickford, Pola Negri, and Norma Shearer before going with Gloria Swanson, who now seems like the only obvious choice. She practically is Norma Desmond.

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