The thing about Sunset Boulevard that doesn’t quite play in today’s terms is Joe Gillis‘s refusal to confide to Betty Schaefer what he’s up to — that he’s become a kind of screenwriting gigolo, living high on the hog with a 50 year-old silent movie star. Gillis cares for Schaefer and vice versa — audiences can tell they’d be a good match — but he’s too consumed with self-loathing to let her know what’s up. That doesn’t figure. He was broke and ready to skip town when he met Norma Desmond. Now he’s hustling a rich meal-ticket while he plots his next move. What’s so shameful about that?
The first 30 minutes of Sunset Boulevard are sharp and catchy, and the last 15 are grand-slammy. But the middle 65 of this 110-minute film are a little slow and frustrating.
And why hasn’t Gillis insisted to Desmond that he has to be paid an actual weekly salary? If he got one he could save up enough to buy a new car and move back into his apartment and get his career going again, especially with Schaefer as his new writing partner.
Cameron Crowe: “There is a famous story from the first Hollywood screening of Sunset Boulevard [in 1950]. Louis B. Mayer [head of MGM] was standing on a stairway, railing about ‘How dare this young man, Wilder, bite the hand that feeds him?’ What did you say to him when you overheard all this?”
Billy Wilder: “I am Mr. Wilder, and go fuck yourself.”
Crowe: “What did he say to that?
Wilder: “He was astonished. He was standing with the great MGM bosses who were below him, there at the studio, Mr. [Eddie] Mannix and Mr. [Joe] Cohen. And that so astonished them, that somebody had the guts to say, “Why don’t you go and fuck yourself?” [And that’s when] I knew that I had a good picture there. — from October 1999 Vanity Fair piece, “Conversations With Billy.”