Cover image for Close-up on Sunset Boulevard : Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond, and the dark Hollywood dream
Close-up on Sunset Boulevard : Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond, and the dark Hollywood dream
Staggs, Sam.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 2002.
Physical Description:
x, 420 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 22 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PN1997.S845 S73 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
PN1997.S845 S73 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard , a classic film noir and also a damning dissection of the Hollywood dream factory, evokes the glamour and ruin of the stars who subsist on that dream. It's also one long in-joke about the movie industry and those who made it great-and who were, in turn, destroyed by it. One of the most critically admired films of the twentieth century, Sunset Boulevard is also famous as silent star Gloria Swanson's comeback picture.

Close-Up On Sunset Boulevard tells the story of this extravagant work, from the writing, casting and filming to the disastrous previews that made Paramount consider shelving it. It's about the writing team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett-sardonically called "the happiest couple in Hollywood"-and their raucous professional relationship. It's about the art direction and the sets, the costumes, the props, the lights and the cameras, and the personalities who used those tools to create a cinematic work of art.

Staggs goes behind the scenes to reveal: William Holden, endlessly attacked by his bitter wife and already drinking too much; Nancy Olson, the cheerful ingenue who had never heard of the great Gloria Swanson; the dark genius Erich von Stroheim; the once famous but long-forgotten "Waxworks"; and of course Swanson herself, who-just like Norma Desmond-had once been "the greatest star of them all."

But the story of Sunset Boulevard doesn't end with the movie's success and acclaim at its release in l950. There's much more, and Staggs layers this stylish book with fascinating detail, following the actors and Wilder into their post- Sunset careers and revealing Gloria Swanson's never-ending struggle to free herself from the clutches of Norma Desmond.

Close-Up On Sunset Boulevard also chronicles the making of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical production of Sunset Boulevard and the explosive diva controversies that dogged it. The book ends with a shocking example of Hollywood life imitating Hollywood art. By the last page of this rich narrative, readers will conclude: We are those "wonderful people out there in the dark."

Author Notes

Sam Staggs is the author of the acclaimed All About All About Eve and a novel, MMII: The Return of Marilyn Monroe . He lives in Dallas, Texas.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Billy Wilder is a particularly good subject for University Press of Mississippi's filmmaker interviews series, thanks to his reputation, based largely on interviews, as a wit and raconteur. This volume's 19 pieces, which date back as far as a 1944 Life profile, are replete with acerbic quips and bon mots, as well as intermittent insights into his creative process. Wilder was also considered an acerbic cynic and misanthropist, but relatively little here seems to warrant that. Only in bland Hollywood could Wilder's clear-headed insight be mistaken for misanthropy. In later interviews, however, his tone darkens as he rails against coarsening trends in the industry, which by then had turned its back on him. Cameron Crowe's book-length Conversations with Wilder (1999) is the definitive interview with the filmmaker, yet the variety and scope of this collection make it a valuable supplement. Staggs turns from telling All about `All about Eve' (2000) to Wilder's classic about the seamy side of Hollywood. Unfortunately, he gives short shrift to the actual production, the account of which is based largely on the reminiscences of sole surviving principal cast member Nancy Olson, in favor of background about the film's genesis and casting (Mae West was the original choice to play silent-film has-been Norma Desmond) and gossip about its stars. Space that might have been devoted to the film is largely squandered on its cinematic descendents, including A Star Is Born and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane; its life on stage (the 1993 musical and a later drag musical); and such spinoffs as the gay porn film Sunsex Boulevard. Staggs' catty approach, which suited a piece of elevated trash like Eve beautifully, is less appropriate here, for Sunset Boulevard is a genuine work of art. Still, if the off-camera lowdown is what you want, here it is. --Gordon Flagg

Publisher's Weekly Review

Staggs serves up another round of popcorn in this highly enjoyable follow-up to All About "All About Eve," plumbing the depths of the noir homage to the silent era, Sunset Boulevard. The book traces the film's history from the studio pairing of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett as screenwriters to the Academy Award disappointments to the film's rebirth as an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in the 1990s. Staggs's research is impressive: in addition to traditional print sources, he tapped unexpected sources, such as the film's previously uninterviewed supporting actress Nancy Olson, and explored nifty locales, like Norma Desmond's would-be neighborhood. The intrepid reporting results in little-known film facts: how co-art director John Meehan conceived and set up the face-down water shot of the dead Joe Gillis (William Holden) and why then-megastar Montgomery Clift did not want to play opposite older female character Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Also entertaining are Staggs's descriptions of the many behind-the-scenes cat fights. Some of Staggs's film analysis such as his take on the "crowd-pleasing kitsch" sound movies of Cecil B. DeMille is standard, but his opinions on the Wilder-Brackett and Wilder-I.A.L. Diamond pairings are sharp and original. There are also plenty of edifying sidebars on topics such as the history of Norma Desmond's exotic car (the Isotta-Fraschini), changes made to the script and "Smiling Franklyn Farnum," the silent western star who plays Norma Desmond's pet undertaker. Staggs has succeeded in presenting another remarkable film study. Photos not seen by PW. Agent, Jim Donovan. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

From the author of All About All About Eve comes another intense look at a film classic. Written in a campy, opinionated style, this is everything you ever wanted to know about Sunset Boulevard and some things you might not. It includes a history of the Billy Wilder-Charles Brackett screenwriting partnership, actual Hollywood locations where the film was shot, intimate details about the stars, and even a history of Gloria Swanson's Isotta Fraschini, the ultimate star car. Nothing about this film seems to have escaped the author. He even can't resist pitting the actresses who played Norma Desmond in the musical version against each other to determine who was the ultimate "Singing Norma." This is no doubt a fun read, and Staggs knows his material; it is just difficult to believe that many patrons out there have the same passion for this film that he does. For comprehensive film collections. Rosellen Brewer, Monterey Cty. Free Libs., Salinas, CA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.