“I am big,” proclaimed faded movie star Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.” “It’s the pictures that got small.”
But that never happened to director Billy Wilder’s grimly glamorous 1950 masterwork, one part film noir potboiler and one part scathing assessment of the toll the Hollywood machinery can take on a person’s soul.
Making its debut on Blu-Ray, “Sunset Boulevard” – which Wilder co-wrote with collaborator Charles Brackett – remains a cinematic giant, continuing to land near the top of various critical lists. And the tawdry story of the delusional Desmond, played with high-pitched hauteur by former silent screen siren Gloria Swanson (herself seeking a comeback, but from nowhere near the depths of her demented character) and opportunistic screenwriter Joe Gillis, played with equal dashes of cockiness and self-loathing by William Holden.
And then there was actress Nancy Olson, then a 21-year-old relative newcomer to the screen playing the talented and ambitious studio secretary Betty Schaefer, the lone bright spot in Gillis’ increasingly grim existence. Like her character, Olson – Oscar-nominated for her “Sunset Boulevard” role – ultimately escaped any collateral damage from her Hollywood career: After a few more pairings opposite Holden and stints in some still-beloved Disney films (“The Absent-Minded Professor,” “Son of Flubber” and “Pollyanna”), Olson married acclaimed songwriter Alan Jay Lerner (and later, Capital Records head Alan Livingston), opting out of the movie business for family and less fame-driven turns on Broadway and television.
Today, at age 84, her memories of “Sunset Boulevard” remain as crystalline as the film’s new high-definition incarnation.
Is it still a treat to be talking about ‘Sunset Boulevard’?
It's amazing to me that I, now in my early 80s, and my children and my grandchildren and my great‑grandchildren are going to be aware of this film. I don't know how long that these films resonate. I think that if they have a universal theme that is as powerful as this film creates, then perhaps it goes on forever. By the way, there are only a few films that really do that. They come along once every so many years, right? It's a phenomenon to be a part of it, and a great privilege – and I got to work with Billy Wilder, one of the extraordinary artists of the 20th century.
You’ve said you had a sense that you were making something extraordinary during production on the film.
First of all, there was such a momentum of interest on the lot because they showed the dailies every night of 15 films or so that were shown across the lot. The dailies would start at 6 o'clock and every group – the technical people, the director, the writer, whatever, but not the actors; they were never invited – the people that were working on it, they would go and they’d see their own dailies, and they'd leave. And about a quarter of the way through the filming, everybody stayed for those dailies. And they had to bring extra chairs because they wouldn't leave, so there was an underground feeling of excitement.
And also, Gloria Swanson, she of all of us had a sense of this film, in that she knew that she would never be forgotten, ever, ever again, and she knew that she was filming a film that was so unique and so powerful and so true because she had been in the business. She understood what the film was about, which has an even universal feeling: that if you hype and create a product, the person that is being hyped is part of the conspiracy. They're not only the victims, but they're the accessories. And when they're casually thrown away because it just isn't as powerful anymore, they are left with this distortion of what they've been created to be, which is larger than life.
The four of the lead actors were all at different points in your careers. William Holden was finally coming into his own; Gloria Swanson on the brink of an unlikely comeback; Erich von Stroheim was ready to really sparkle in a great character role; and you were the new face on the scene. What was that experience like for you?
I think that perhaps I had more of a sense of it in retrospect as I got a little bit older. I was still a student at UCLA, although at that point, I just simply had to quit when I started filming ‘Sunset Boulevard’ because I couldn't handle it all. But this film warned me and said, ‘Be careful about being made into a movie star.’
Already, I had a sense of isolation. My friends at school treated me differently. Even some of my family members treated me differently. And also, I was 19, 20 years old, and we worked six days a week. And I was on that dark set. I arrived at seven in the morning, and I left at six at night. There was no life for me except for on that set with a makeup man, a wardrobe lady, an assistant director, and many times a lecherous producer – not on ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ nobody was lecherous!
I realized that this was not how I wanted to spend the rest of my life, and I was quickly put into a film called ‘Mr. Music’ as the leading lady – Bing [Crosby] was much too old for me, and there I was. And then I was put into another film called ‘Union Station’ with Bill Holden, of course. They wanted to put us together all the time after 'Sunset [Boulevard]'. And before any of these pictures were released, including ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ I married Allen Jay Lerner of [the songwriting duo] Lerner and Loewe and moved to New York. And I said to Paramount, ‘I don't want to be under contract anymore.’
You get credit for recognizing early that path was not the one for you.
On the other hand, I loved acting. And once those films came out, I couldn't stop. So I did two more pictures with Bill [Holden], and then I did ‘Battle Cry’ at Warner Brothers, and then I stopped. And then I did three plays on Broadway. ‘My Fair Lady’ was dedicated to me. I was so involved with the creation of what Allen was doing, and then I had two girls.
And I lived in New York City at that time where theater was just the most exciting thing on the planet, especially the musical theater, which I adored. With Cole Porter, and Oscar [Hammerstein] and Dick [Rogers] and Frank Lesser and Irving Berlin – I mean, unbelievable at the time! And also at the time of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller and all the great playwrights. So I never looked back, honestly. With ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ I feel so fortunate that I was given that opportunity to be a part of something so magnificent.
Tell us your best anecdote about Billy Wilder and his legendary wit, just as he was entering the most celebrated phase of his career.
Do you know what he did to me? Remember the balcony scene where we embrace and kiss and carry on? That was shot at night on the balcony and down below there was a party because everybody was having supper. Which we didn't start shooting the scene until – I didn't get to the studio until 6 o'clock. And I had makeup and hair and all of that, and I arrived at the balcony. And I looked down, and there are long tables with benches. And there is Mrs. Holden, Bill's wife. There’s Audrey Wilder. There's the whole family of [co-screenwriter] Charlie Brackett.
I am playing this intimate love scene with Bill [Holden]. I was scared to death, but I knew how important the scene was. This is when the whole thing changed for Holden’s character: he had sold his soul to Norma Desmond, but now, look, he's got this. He fell in love. And anyway, I just grit my teeth and say, ‘We're going to do this, right?’ So Billy said, ‘We're going to shoot this in one shot. So you're going to be very close from the very beginning. Now Bill, at this point, you will take her into your arms, and you will kiss her and embrace. And I do not want you to break away from that embrace until I say cut because this is a fade-out moment for me, and I want it to fade, fade, fade, fade, into my next scene.’
And he's done this before with us, so we know that this is how he works. So even though it seems forever, just do not move. Keep kissing. Okay. So now we start, and he says, ‘Action.’ And we go through the lines, and Bill asks me, ‘What happened?’ And I answer, ‘You did.’ And he takes me into his arms and kisses me and holds me. We kiss and we kiss, and we are getting this embrace, let me tell you. And finally, nobody says, ‘cut,’ so there we are and suddenly there's this female voice from the bottom of the party saying, ‘Cut, Godammit! Cut!’ And it was Mrs. Holden. Now, this was a setup, obviously, by Mr. Wilder. Here we are shooting this really serious, pivotal scene, but he had something a little mischievous up his sleeve.