Sunset Boulevard: How Cukor Cast Swanson in Wilder’s Noir

Few people know that Gloria Swanson’s greatest screen performance was a direct result of George Cukor’s intervention. Billy Wilder could not find an actress to play the demented Norma Desmond in the now classic film, Sunset Boulevard.

Wilder’s idea was to use a star whose career was similar to Desmond’s, so that the audience would be shaken by the double masquerade. He first asked Pola Negri, but she was offended by the notion of a portraying a has-been. Wilder then considered Mae West, who also turned him down, and aging star Mary Pickford agreed to do it on the condition that the role be substantially enlarged.

One afternoon, Wilder was sitting in Cukor’s garden, sipping tea and pouring out his heart. After listening attentively to his younger colleague, Cukor suddenly said, “Billy, I have the ideal Norma Desmond for you, Gloria Swanson.” Wilder admitted that he had somehow forgotten the declining Swanson.

But when Wilder called Swanson, she absolutely refused to test for him. “I got a phone call from darling George,” Swanson recalled in her memoirs, “He is so persuasive, charm the birds out of the trees.” To make her do it, Cukor told Swanson it would be “the greatest part,” for which she would always be remembered, and that Wilder had become the number one director of Hollywood. Reassuring her that Wilder would “do justice” to her, Cukor talked the star into testing.

The rest is film history–Norma Desmond became Swanson’s best-known role, for which she won a well-deserved Oscar nomination. Interestingly, the winner that year was Judy Holliday, for Cukor’s Born Yesterday.