Study Guide

Sunset Boulevard Screenwriter


Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman Jr.

Billy Wilder wasn't always the Billy Wilder.

Way back before he became one of the most influential screenwriters in Hollywood history, he was just a Jewish kid named Samuel in Berlin, working as a journalist. When the Nazis rose to power, he headed west to America, spurred on by his love of Hollywood movies.

Soon, he and Charles Brackett started writing together, producing hits like the 1939 comedy Ninotchka, the World War II movie Five Graves to Cairo (1943), and the alcoholism drama The Lost Weekend (1945), along with many others. The Wilder-Brackett partnership was long and fruitful—and the last movie it created, Sunset Boulevard (1950), might've been its very best.

Dynamic Duo's Final Dance

Wilder and Brackett had already written lots of different kinds of movies, but with Sunset, they decided to turn the camera on their own world. While they skewered Hollywood, they focused particularly on the wreckage of the earlier silent-screen era, aiming to show how those stars got left behind by the Great Big Fame Machine.

In 1948, they began drafting a script. When they ran into trouble and didn't seem to be getting the right vibe, they sought help from D.M. Marshman Jr., a writer for Life magazine. Marshman's help evidently worked, and Paramount agreed to produce the film. Their script went on to win the Best Screenplay Award at the 1951 Oscars. Job well done, gents.

Interestingly enough, the main character in the movie, Joe Gillis, is himself a screenwriter. That means he's a cynical mouthpiece for some of Wilder and Brackett's own views on the movie business. Gillis, for example consciously churns out hackwork—like his script for a baseball gambling drama called Bases Loaded—and complains about how the studio ruins his ideas (for instance, he claims the studio turned a script about farmers during the Dust Bowl into a war drama on a submarine, though that one was probably just a joke). Wilder and Brackett—through their surrogate, Gillis—are able to dive into the darker side of Hollywood, calling out the shenanigans of those in power, all while having fun writing about their own world with only a tiny amount of misdirection.

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