What Writers Can Learn From Sunset Boulevard

by James Scott Bell

I had a tough decision to make for this installment of JSB at the Movies. It came down to a choice between How to Stuff a Wild Bikini and Sunset Boulevard. After a night of tossing and turning, I chose the latter. I had to give the nod to Gloria Swanson over Annette Funicello.

Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1951) is an undisputed classic of the film noir era. It stars William Holden as a struggling screenwriter, and Gloria Swanson as what she actually was—an aging star from silent films. Her performance is one of the most iconic in movie history. Indeed, she was the favorite to take home the Oscar, and she should have.

But in a quirk of fate, she was up against another all-time performance—Bette Davis as Margot Channing in All About Eve. In a further quirk, those two probably split the vote, giving the prize to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. Holliday is quite good, and in any other year would have deserved the gold statuette. But not over Davis, and especially not Swanson’s Norma Desmond!

Wilder originally wanted Mae West for Norma and Montgomery Clift for the screenwriter Joe Gillis. But Miss West, a true diva, wanted to change a lot of the dialogue. Billy Wilder would not stand for that, and a good thing, too.

Wilder also considered Greta Garbo (who was not interested in returning to the screen), Pola Negri, a great silent film actress (but whose Polish accent was troublesome), and the “It Girl” Clara Bow. But Bow turned it down, having considered her unsuccessful transition to sound and ill-treatment by the industry reasons to stay retired.

The director George Cukor suggested Swanson to Wilder, and how perfect she was. She had been one of the great “faces” of silents, and was the right age—50—for Norma. That’s when Wilder got the brilliant idea of using Cecil B. DeMille as himself, for he had famously worked with Swanson in the silent era and was still directing movies. Swanson would essentially be playing a version of herself.

Clift withdrew for one reason or another (there are a few theories) and William Holden was offered the role, which he gladly accepted. Another brilliant move. It’s hard now to think of the cynical, hardboiled voiceover narration in any voice but Holden’s.

Two other bits of casting brilliance. One is Erich von Stroheim as Max, Norma’s butler. He had been one of the most famous—or infamous, from the studio heads’ perspective—silent film directors and, like Swanson, had fallen into obscurity. The film Norma privately screens is Queen Kelly, which Stroheim directed in 1928.

Then there are Norma’s bridge partners, each a faded star from the silent era. Joe calls them her “waxworks”—Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H. B. Warner (who played Jesus in DeMille’s silent version of King of Kings, and Mr. Gower, the druggist, in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life).

Frame Story

This is a frame story. We begin in the present, then the movie unfolds in the past; the last scene returns us to the present. It’s a fine technique, used numerous times in various genres. Stephen King’s The Green Mile is an example.

Only this opening frame was unique: it is narrated by a dead man! Joe Gillis is floating face down in a pool. The cops are on the scene. What happened? Joe will tell us from beyond…

Lesson: Using a frame is a solid choice, but only if you make it compelling in and of itself. Don’t just toss one in! Take the time to make it fresh and even bold.

Death Stakes

Joe is an out of work screenwriter desperately in need of a job. He’s behind in his rent and his car is about to be repossessed. He makes the rounds of his studio contacts, but can’t find anything—not even a quick rewrite assignment. When he confronts his agent on a golf course, he gets a kiss off. The stakes here are professional. If he doesn’t get work he’ll have to head back to Dayton, Ohio with his tail between his legs.

Driving back to his dismal apartment, he spots the repo men. The chase is on. Joe pulls into a driveway on Sunset Boulevard to escape.

Turns out the house is a decrepit mansion from the crazy 1920s. Inside he meets the faded silent screen star, Norma Desmond. Seems she’s been holed up inside for twenty years, living off past dreams with the help of her somewhat creepy servant, Max. Norma has been working on a screenplay for her comeback, a turgid scenario about Salome, a part she is clearly too old for. Joe hatches a plan. He’ll work on her screenplay to make some quick dough.

Lesson: If the death stakes are professional, make sure the reader understands how important it is to the character. Most of Act 1 is showing Joe Gillis in various stages of desperation for dough.

Doorway of No Return

But Norma has a plan of her own—while Joe spends the night in a little room over the garage, Max moves Joe’s things out of his apartment and into the room. Joe is furious. Then the repo men show up and take away Joe’s car, making him a virtual prisoner.

Lesson: Act 2 doesn’t start until the Lead is forced into the confrontation…and can’t go back to the way things were in Act 1.

Pet the Dog

When the Lead takes time from his death stakes struggle to help someone else, we become more invested in him. Joe helps a young studio reader, Betty (Nancy Olson) with a script idea. This relationship becomes more complicated as Joe and Betty fall in love, though she is engaged to Joe’s friend Artie (Jack Webb. Yes, that Jack Webb, whose personality in this film is the exact opposite of cop Joe Friday from Dragnet).

Tip: A love interest subplot should intersect with the main plot in a way that causes more trouble for the Lead. Boy, is that ever true here, as it leads, ultimately, to Joe’s death.

Mirror Moment

In the dead center of the film we get Joe Gillis’s life-altering look at himself. Norma has attempted suicide because Joe has rejected her. Now, in her bedroom, we see on his face the choice: should he finally make a break, or stay on as her lover? The former choice would lead to his redemption, the latter to the loss of his individuality.

He stays. The rest of the movie will be about the price of that decision.

Lesson: The Mirror Moment sees all, knows all.

Sharp Dialogue

The dialogue in this movie is priceless. William Holden has the perfect voice and delivery for some of the best lines in all of noir. My favorite is when Norma is describing a scene from her mammoth and atrocious screenplay about Salome.

Lesson: Dialogue is the fastest way to improve any manuscript. Show an agent, editor or browser, on your first pages, that yours has zing and you are halfway home to getting the whole book read. May I modestly suggest a book to help you in that regard?

If you’ve never seen Sunset Boulevard, I urge you to settle in with a bowl of popcorn and watch it. The adage “They don’t make ’em like they used to” certainly applies to this classic. (And don’t look at the clip below. Watch it in the movie!)

What better way to end this post than with one of the most famous closing images in cinema history:


28 thoughts on “What Writers Can Learn From Sunset Boulevard

  1. The one thing I would add to your review of Sunset Strip is that overall it’s a hell of a good story. I saw it again in the last year and it is still engaging.

    Thanks for the reminder of this great movie, although Wild Bikini did have Harvey Lembeck as Eric Von Zipper the head of the Rats and Mice. Hard to overlook.

  2. Thanks, Jim. An excellent summary of the structure that makes the story and movie great. Your emphasis on the details showed how those elements can enhance a narrative. I’m digging out my copy of the script and marking it with your spot-on comments.

  3. I just finished a read through on a first draft manuscript yesterday and your post reminds me of one of the other notes I wanted to make to myself to improve it during revision–raising the professional death stakes. I don’t think, in the first draft, that it is that obvious to the reader.

  4. I never saw “Sunset Boulevard” until I screened it for a cinema class about 10 years ago. It’s all by itself; there’s not much it can be compared to. If, by some stroke of Pen or Fate, I ever have more money than I know what to do with, no Mercedes Benzes for me, no Ferraris, no Jaguars. All I want to drive is a simple, yellow ’46 Plymouth convertible with yellow-on-black custom plates saying: SUNSET.

  5. I wholeheartedly agree that the casting was perfect. But it’s intriguing to speculate how Clara Bow could’ve channeled her anger against Hollywood had she played Desmond.

    • Yes, Clara Bow would have brought an interesting vibe. Indeed, it’s fascinating to consider what other silent stars would’ve made of the part of Norma. Garbo, Louise Brooks, Theda Bara…

  6. Terrific rundown, Jim. I have yet to see “Sunset Boulevard,” despite meaning to for a long while. Thanks to this post, I’m going to finally rectify that omission. Thank you!

    Hope you have a fine Sunday.

  7. Thanks, Jim, for all the background and notes on story structure. I haven’t seen Sunset Boulevard. I’m putting it on our list of movies to watch.

  8. Lesson: The Mirror Moment sees all, knows all.

    Really like that, Jim!

    Thanks for a peek at a real movie. There sure aren’t many made today that could compare. It reminds me of cups of tea while watching some of the greats with my mom as a teenager.

  9. Great analysis, Jim.

    Sunset Boulevard is a classic. You can watch it again and again and, each time, still pick up new bits you never noticed before. Even though you know how it ends, the story remains compelling.

    Billy Wilder was incredibly versatile. The same director ran the gamut from the intense drama of SB to the equally classic farcical comedy Some Like It Hot.

  10. I saw Sunset Boulevard many years ago, but I was too young to appreciate the depth of the movie. Looking forward to watching it again with your insights into story, structure, and characters in mind.

  11. Never seen the film, but I enjoyed the deconstruction. As soon as I have a second to breathe, I need to look for Sunset Blvd. Happy Sunday, Jim!

  12. Enjoyed the analysis of a movie I know oh so well and love to death. Not all movies lend themselves to such a good breakdown that helps novelists but some are just perfect for the lesson and this is one of them. Bravo.

    Now am going to watch The Third Man. Have you analyzed this one? It’s my all-time favorite. It’s perfect.

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