Sunset Boulevard (also known as Sunset Blvd.) is a 1950 American film noir directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, and produced and co-written by Charles Brackett. It was named after the boulevard that runs through Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, California. The film stars William Holden as an unsuccessful screenwriter and Gloria Swanson as a faded silent movie star who draws him into her fantasy world, in which she dreams of making a triumphant return to the screen. Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough and Jack Webb play supporting roles. Director Cecil B. DeMille and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper play themselves, and the film includes cameo appearances by leading silent film actors Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson. Praised by many critics when first released, Sunset Boulevard was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won three. It is widely accepted as a classic, often cited as one of the most noteworthy films of American cinema. Deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the U.S. Library of Congress in 1989, Sunset Boulevard was included in the first group of films selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. In 1998, it was ranked number twelve on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 best American films of the 20th century, and in 2007 it was 16th on their 10th Anniversary list.
The story follows the life of struggling young Hollywood screenwriter Joseph C. Gillis (Holden) as he is ensnared by long-forgotten silent-film star Norma Desmond (Swanson) into being her kept man. The film begins with a scene of Joe's dead body floating in the swimming pool of Norma's palatial mansion on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood before flashing back to the beginning of the story's events. Joe narrates the film even though he is no longer alive. The first few scenes describe Joe's unsuccessful efforts to borrow money from his friends after failing to convince Paramount Pictures producer Sheldrake (Clark) to buy his most recent script, which Sheldrake's assistant Betty Shaefer (Olson) dislikes. Joe's meeting with Norma and her stoic German butler Max (von Stroheim) is occasioned by a car chase in which he flees from repossession men, having fallen behind on his loan payments. When one of his car's tires blows out in front of Norma's mansion, he hides the car in her garage, and when he tells her he is a writer, she asks him to help her write a script for a film that she hopes will revive her faded acting career. With no other options except a low-paying newspaper job in Ohio, Joe agrees to help Norma. He objects when she has Max move his belongings from his apartment to her mansion, but she has paid his overdue rent, so he accepts the situation and begins living at the mansion, first in a room over the garage, then in the mansion itself. As he works on Norma's script, he becomes financially dependent upon her. She lavishes attention on him and buys him expensive clothing, including a tailcoat for a private New Year's Eve party attended only by the two of them. Horrified to learn that she has fallen in love with him, he escapes to a party at a friend's house, where he meets Betty Schaefer again. While still unimpressed with most of his work, she believes one scene in one of his scripts has potential. Feeling guilty for leaving Norma after learning that she has attempted suicide because he does not love her, Joe returns to the mansion and agrees to stay. They kiss passionately as midnight strikes. When Norma considers her script to be complete, she sends it to Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount and waits for his answer, but only a minor underling calls her, and she refuses to speak to him. Eventually, she has Max drive her and Joe to the studio in her vintage luxury car. While DeMille entertains Norma, Joe and Max learn that the studio wants to rent her car and has no interest in her script. Max insists that they hide these facts from her, as he hides the fact that he has faked most of her recent fan mail. Meanwhile, Joe has secretly begun to work with Betty on a screenplay, and she falls in love with him. When Norma discovers this, she phones Betty and insinuates what sort of man Joe really is, and Joe invites Betty to the mansion to see for herself. After Betty leaves the mansion, Joe begins packing, having decided to return to Ohio. He ignores Norma's threats to shoot herself, and she shoots him as he leaves, leaving him dead in the pool as in the first scene. By the time the police arrive, she has become lost in fantasy. When she reacts positively to the presence of news cameras, Max convinces her that she is on the set of her new film. Norma dramatically descends her grand staircase, makes a short speech, and delivers the film's most famous line: "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."