Sunset Boulevard (1950): Casting Gloria Swanson and William Holden (George Cukor, Movie Wonders, Happy Accidents)

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Casting: Movie Wonders, Happy Accidents

Wilder considered many actors for the lead roles, and at the ned he chose Swanson and Holden.

Wilder recalled first wanting Mae West and Brando for the leads. West rejected the offer out-right. West saw herself as sex symbol through her senior years, and was offended that she should be asked to play a Hollywood has-been.

The filmmakers approached Garbo, whom they had worked with previously on Ninotchka (1939), but she was not interested.

Wilder contacted Pola Negri by phone, but had a difficult time understanding her heavy Polish accent.

He then reached out to Clara Bow, the famed “IT Girl” of the 1920s, but she declined citing that she had no interest in engaging in the film industry again due to how hard it was for her during the transition of sound films and that. She preferred to remain in seclusion with husband and sons.

They also offered the part of Norma Desmond to Norma Shearer, but she rejected the role due to her retirement and distaste for the script.

They considered Fred MacMurray to play opposite her as Joe. Wilder and Brackett then visited Mary Pickford, but before even discussing the plot, Wilder realized she would consider a role involving affair with man half her age an insult, so they departed. 

According to Wilder, he asked colleague George Cukor for advice, and the latter suggested Swanson, one of the most fêted actresses of the silent-screen era, known for her talent and extravagant lifestyle.

In many ways, she resembled the Norma Desmond character, and like her, had been unable to make smooth transition into talkies.

Swanson made handful of talking pictures. She accepted the end of her film career, and in the early 1930s moved to NYC, where she worked in radio. In the 1940s, she worked in TV and on the New York stage and had last appeared in the 1941 Father Takes a Wife. Though Swanson was not seeking comeback, she became intrigued when Wilder discussed the role with her.

Swanson was glad for the opportunity to earn greater salary than she had been making in television and on stage. However, she resented the notion of submitting to screen test, saying she had “made 20 films for Paramount. Why do they want me to audition?” Her reaction was echoed in the screenplay when Norma Desmond declares, “Without me there wouldn’t be any Paramount.” In her memoir, Swanson recalled asking Cukor if it was unreasonable to refuse the screen test. He replied that since Norma Desmond was the role for which she would be remembered, “If they ask you to do ten screen tests, do ten screen tests, or I will personally shoot you.”

His enthusiasm convinced Swanson to participate, and she signed contract for $50,000 (equivalent to $570,000 in 2022).

In a 1975 interview, Wilder recalled Swanson’s reaction with the observation, “There was a lot of Norma in her, you know.”

Wilder harks back to Swanson’s silent film career when Norma shows Joe Queen Kelly, an earlier Swanson film directed by Von Stroheim. Queen Kelly wasn’t released in the U.S. for over 50 years after Swanson walked off the set.

Montgomery Clift was signed to play Joe Gillis for $5,000 per week for a guaranteed 12 weeks.

However, just before the start of filming, he withdrew from the project, claiming his role of young man involved with older woman was too close to the one he had played in The Heiress (1949), in which he felt he had been unconvincing.

An infuriated Wilder responded, “If he’s any kind of actor, he could be convincing making love to any woman.” Clift himself was having an affair with a much older woman (singer Libby Holman) which was suggested as his real reason for withdrawing from the film.

Forced to consider the available Paramount contract players, Wilder and Brackett focused on William Holden, who had made impressive debut a decade earlier in Golden Boy (1939).

After an appearance in Our Town (1940), he served in the military in WWII, and his return to the screen afterward had been moderately successful.

Holden was enthusiastic about the script and eager to accept the role. He did not know at the time that his salary of $39,000 (equivalent to $440,000 in 2021) was much less than had been offered to Clift.

Erich von Stroheim, the great film director of the 1920s who had directed Swanson, was signed to play Max, Norma’s faithful servant, protector, and former husband.

For the role of Betty Schaefer, Wilder wanted a newcomer who could project a wholesome and ordinary image to contrast with Swanson’s flamboyant and obsessive Desmond.

He chose Nancy Olson, who had been considered for the role of Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah.

DeMille, often credited as the person most responsible for making Swanson a star, plays himself, and was filmed on the set of Samson and Delilah at Paramount Studios. He calls Norma “young fella” as he had called Swanson.

Norma’s friends who come to play bridge with her, described in the script as “the waxworks,” were Swanson’s contemporaries Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H. B. Warner, who like DeMille, played themselves.

Hedda Hopper also played herself, reporting on Norma Desmond’s downfall in the film’s final scenes.

William Holden as Joe Gillis
Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond
Erich von Stroheim as Max von Mayerling
Nancy Olson as Betty Schaefer
Fred Clark as Sheldrake, film producer
Lloyd Gough as Morino, Joe’s agent
Jack Webb as Artie Green
Franklyn Farnum as undertaker
Larry J. Blake as finance man #1
Charles Dayton as finance man #2
Cecil B. DeMille as himself
Hedda Hopper as herself
Sidney Skolsky as himself
Buster Keaton as himself (bridge player)
Anna Q. Nilsson as herself (bridge player)
H. B. Warner as himself (bridge player)
Ray Evans (pianist at Artie’s party)
Jay Livingston (pianist at Artie’s party)
Robert Emmett O’Connor as Jonesy (older guard at Paramount gate)
Henry Wilcoxon as actor on DeMille’s Samson and Delilah set (uncredited)