Sunset Boulevard star Nancy Olson will never forget her love scene with William Holden. “We kiss and it goes on and on,” Nancy, 92, tells the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now. “Finally, this voice yells, ‘Cut, goddamn it, cut!’ It was Bill Holden’s wife!” That was one of many moments when art collided with real life in writer-director Billy Wilder’s classic 1950 film noir about faded silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who hires scribe-turned-gigolo Joe Gillis (Holden) to write her comeback.
Wilder further blurred the line between fact and fiction with cameos by actor Buster Keaton, director Cecil B. DeMille and more. “Everyone played themselves,” says Nancy, referring not just to the cameos but to the leads as well. “Swanson was a star who was thrown away; Bill Holden’s career was fading and he was drinking too much,” she says. However, going into the project, they all realized it could be something special. “[Bill] knew working with Wilder could change his life — and it did.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone but wide-eyed Gloria delivering iconic lines like “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” yet Wilder first courted Greta Garbo for the lead. “She never gave him an answer. They also toyed with the idea of Mae West,” but she was too comic, says Sam Staggs, author of Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard.
Montgomery Clift accepted the role of Joe, but bowed out because it hit a little too close to home. The actor was having an affair with Libby Holman, a singer who had been suspected of shooting her husband in 1932. Monty feared people would think he was “the lover she killed her husband for,” says Staggs.
When Sunset premiered, many in Hollywood hated it. MGM head Louis B. Mayer “walked up to Billy after a screening and said ‘How dare you do this to us!’” says Nancy. But the movie earned 11 Oscar nominations and was loved, as Norma said, by “all those wonderful people out there in the dark.”
For this story and more, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now!
Reporting by Katie Bruno and Lexi Ciccone