Joe Trivia: The 5th Golden Boy Blogathon

I have lots of favorite noir films and lots of favorite performances, but right up there near the top is William Holden’s portrayal of Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard (1950). The plot of this celebrated film centers on Joe, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter, who gets more than he bargains for when he meets has-been silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and is pulled into the dusty web of her existence. The film co-stars Erich von Stroheim, as Norma’s first husband, former director, and devoted butler; and Nancy Olson as a would-be writer who captures Joe’s heart.

The face I fell for.

When I wrote my second book, Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, I included a chapter on William Holden and I must confess that I developed quite a crush on him. By the time his chapter was complete, I had a full-on obsession and set about getting every Holden film, photograph, and book I could get my hands on. My passion has long since cooled, but he will always hold a very fond place in my heart, so I’m delighted to honor Mr. Holden as part of the 5th Golden Boy Blogathon. And because one of my favorite things to do is learn and share trivia about classic film, I’m celebrating by imparting some trivial tidbits related to William Holden and Sunset Boulevard. I hope you enjoy them . . .

Holden said in a 1971 interview that his favorite role was Joe Gillis.

In her autobiography, Gloria Swanson wrote that Holden was “brilliant in our picture, and I adored him.”

Billy Wilder, the film’s director, once called Holden “the ideal motion picture actor.”

“The perfect person . . . at the perfect moment in life.”

Nancy Olson, who co-starred with Holden in three other films in addition to Sunset Boulevard (including another noir that year, Union Station), said that Holden was “the perfect person for Joe Gillis at the perfect moment in life. His career was beginning to slide. He was playing roles like the husband in Apartment for Peggy where the picture was about Peggy and not about him. Low-budget, churned-out films. He was already drinking too much, and he was just a little frayed around the edges.”

Holden was not the first choice to play Joe. Initially, Montgomery Clift was cast in the part, but he quit two weeks before production started. Fred MacMurray, Gene Kelly, and Marlon Brando were all considered before the role was given to Holden.

When filming on Sunset Boulevard began, William Holden was 31 years old. His character was supposed to be 25, so make-up was applied so that he would look younger.

Keep your eyes peeled for the goof in this scene.

Watch for this goof: in the scene where Norma is reclining beside the swimming pool in her leopard-skin garb, Joe emerges from the pool and dries off his face, neck and chest. Norma tells him to turn around so that she can dry his back, but when he does, we see that his face, neck and chest are wet again. (That must’ve been some pool!)

A well-circulated story involves the kiss between Holden and Nancy Olson near the end of the picture. As the story goes, Billy Wilder yelled “Cut!” but the kiss continued until Holden’s jealous wife Brenda Marshall, who happened to stop by the set, screamed for them to stop. According to Nancy Olson, however, Wilder never called “Cut,” and the whole thing was a practical joke that everyone was in on – including Brenda Marshall – except Olson. “It was a prank, of course it was!” Olson told author Sam Staggs for his 2002 book Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard.

Holden’s performance was critically acclaimed.

Holden received unanimously rave reviews for his performance. In a typical review, the critic for the New York Times wrote that Holden “is doing the finest acting of his career. His range and control of emotions never falter, and he engenders a full measure of compassion for a character who is somewhat less than admirable.”

Holden, along with Swanson, reprised his role as Joe Gillis in a September 1951 radio adaptation of the film on Lux Radio Theater.

Holden earned $30,000 for his role in Sunset Boulevard. (By comparison, he received $750,000 almost 25 years later for a supporting part in the 1974 disaster film, The Towering Inferno.)

And finally, while some of the lines uttered by Gloria Swanson are now legendary, Holden delivered a number of memorable quotes as well. Here are just a few:

“It was a great big white elephant of a place.”

“Finally, I located that agent of mine – the big faker. Was he out digging up a job for poor Joe Gillis? Huh. He was hard at work at Bel-Air making with the golf sticks.”

“It was a great big white elephant of a place. The kind crazy movie people built in the crazy 20s. A neglected house gets an unhappy look. This one had it in spades. It was like that old woman in “Great Expectations.” That Miss Havisham in her rotting wedding dress and her torn veil, taking it out on the world, because she’d been given the go-by.”

“The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis – out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion.”

“You don’t yell at a sleepwalker.”

“It was all very queer. But queerer things were yet to come.”

“You don’t yell at a sleepwalker – he may fall and break his neck. That’s it: she was still sleepwalking along the giddy heights of a lost career.”

“So they were turning after all, those cameras. Life, which can be strangely merciful, had taken pity on Norma Desmond. The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her.”

If you’ve never seen William Holden’s performance in Sunset Boulevard, I envy you having that experience ahead of you. And if you have, it may be time to pull it out and give the film a rewatch. It – and Holden – only get better with time.


This post is part of the 5th Golden Boy Blogathon, hosted by Virginie Provonost at The Wonderful World of Cinema, Michaela at Love Letters to Hollywood, and Emily at The Flapper Dame. Visit their blogs to read all of the great tributes to this unforgettable actor!

You’ll be glad you did.

~ by shadowsandsatin on April 15, 2022.

27 Responses to “Joe Trivia: The 5th Golden Boy Blogathon”

  1. […] Satin and Shadows shows up to discuss Bill in Sunset Boulevard (1950) and why she fell for him! […]

  2. I’m a former Californian. When I am in Angeles, I’ve had occasion to drive on Sunset and Ivar streets , and I get shivers thinking about the movie. Wilder’s masterpiece says so much about Classic Hollywood, the script-writing business, and the aging of superstars. Bill Holden is absolutely perfect for the role, and you can see his desperation and self-disgust mirrored in his face in many scenes. Swanson was so brave taking on this macabre role , and she is perfect too.

  3. I didn’t realize Joe Gillis was Holden’s fave role, but I can see why. Holden is superb in this performance, and even though Gloria Swanson tries to steal the whole film, it would not be the same at all without Holden. I can’t imagine anyone else in this role.

    • I’m a former Californian. When I am in Angeles, I’ve had occasion to drive on Sunset and Ivar streets , and I get shivers thinking about the movie. Wilder’s masterpiece says so much about Classic Hollywood, the script-writing business, and the aging of superstars. Bill Holden is absolutely perfect for the role, and you can see his desperation and self-disgust mirrored in his face in many scenes. Swanson was so brave taking on this macabre role , and she is perfect too.

      • I can well imagine what it must be like to driving down Sunset and Ivar! I totally agree that Holden and Swanson were absolutely perfect for their roles. They BECAME those characters!

    • He was absolutely perfect. I can’t imagine anyone else in the part, either — even Montgomery Clift, who I dearly love.

  4. “Life, which can be strangely merciful, had taken pity on Norma Desmond.” One of the saddest lines ever.

  5. In my opinion, Sunset Boulevard is the perfect film and I never had the “courage” to write on it. I love the unconventional way you decided to approach it, revealing fun and informative infos about it, rather than just writing a regular film review. Also, you wrote a book??? :O Thanks so much for taking part in our blogathon, Karen!

  6. In an odd coincidence, the novel I started today described the main character’s home as a building with the air of Miss Havisham. I didn’t remember that it was a reference to Sunset Blvd.

    I always wished that Billy Wilder had found Holden two years earlier because he would have been brilliant as Captain Pringle in A Foreign Affair. John Lund was fine, but he was no William Holden. The role has the cynical edge that Holden did better than anyone.

    One bit of trivia I recall is from a Cliff Robertson interview. According to him, when he and Holden were shaving their chests for Picnic, he asked Holden how one becomes a major movie star. Holden said, “You have to have ‘it.'” Robertson asked, “What is ‘it’?” Holden replied, “Sunset Blvd.

  7. Actually saw this on a big screen last night – my husband’s first time seeing the whole movie, apart from a few scenes. He loved it! Once we were out of the theater, I could fill in information, such as who were the other people playing bridge. This was in a college town, so there were some young people who seemed to be seeing it for the same time. They also liked it.

    • How cool is that! I love that (1) you got the chance to see it on the big screen (nothing like it!), (2) your husband loved it, and (3) the younger crowd appreciated it as well!

  8. A perfect movie, really. And Holden is fantastic. Wilder was allegedly angry that Monty Clift changed his mind at the last minute, but I just don’t see him in that role. I don’t think he could have surpassed Holden’s brilliant work.

    • I totally agree. I’m a huge Montgomery Clift fan, and I think he was all wrong for Joe Gillis. I can’t think of anyone who was more ideal than William Holden.

  9. Terrific post! I love the trivia you included here especially Gloria Swanson’s lovely quote on Holden.

  10. Since we both belong to Gill’s Facebook group, I thought it was high time I pay you a visit. 🙂

    Would you believe I’ve never seen Sunset Boulevard? In fact, I’ve got an even bigger shock for you…Are you ready?: The only William Holden film I’ve seen (so far) is Sabrina. 😮 I know, I know. It’s a wrong I must rectify ASAP. This blogathon has shown me that. 🙂

    But while I’ve never seen Sunset Boulevard the film, I have listened to (and love) Sunset Boulevard, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Are you familiar with it? I highly recommend the Original LA Cast album (which might be available on YouTube), with Glenn Close as Norma Desmond and Alan Campbell as Joe (the Joe I fell for). ❤ But the London album (with Patti Lupone as Norma and the nice guy from that Julia Roberts movie Sleeping with the Enemy as Joe) is good, too. (It’s on Apple Music, so I assume that means it’s also available on Spotify and similar platforms, too.) Since it’s sung through, you get to hear the whole show! 🙂

    Back to Bill, I TOTALLY see why you fell for his face. ❤ (WOW.) But Nancy’s description of him at that time in life is rather sad. 😦 You’d never know his personal problems by looking at him. I guess there’s only so much you can tell by a person’s face.

    I really enjoyed this post (I love trivia, too!), and I completely related to your progression from discovery, to crush, to (healthy) obsession. 🙂 I call those “deep dives”. My latest discovery/crush/obsession cycle was courtesy of Dean Martin – although my passion has not yet cooled 😉 – and I wrote a chapter-length post about the resulting deep dive on my blog (The Classic Film Connection) called, “Dean Martin: A Man of Hidden Depth”. I’d love for you to check it out, along with any other posts that strike your fancy. 🙂 I hope you can visit soon!

    • Oh, Jillian, I absolutely cannot believe that you’ve never seen Sunset Boulevard! But I so envy you having it ahead of you to discover! I have never heard the musical — I will definitely see what I can find out there. Thank you for the recommendation.

      I agree with you about Nancy Olson’s description of William Holden — I was really surprised to read it, and didn’t realize (even after having read his biography) that he going through anything at that time.

      I share your obsession with Dean Martin — I watched his excellent documentary on TCM, listened to the series about him and Sammy Davis, Jr., on the You Must Remember This podcast, and then started watching episodes of his Dean Martin Roasts (which are SUCH a trip!). I look forward to reading your post about him, as well as doing more exploring of your blog. I’m heading over there now!

      • Oooo…That podcast series sounds interesting! 😀 I will look it up. 🙂 Also, I really enjoyed the King of Cool documentary. (I plan to make it the topic of my next post, as a matter of fact.) What did you think?

        • I loved The King of Cool — I wish I could have a copy of it. I’d like to see it again. It was great. Speaking of great, I love your blog and your outstanding writing. I’m still working my way through your Top 10 leading man list and I look forward to discovering more goodies. Thank you for telling me about it!

  11. PS – I forgot to give a shoutout to “pulled into her dusty web of existence”. 😀 PERFECT description! I love that. ❤

    • Thank you, Jillian! 🙂

      • I’ve meant to tell you for the longest time: I finally watched Sunset Boulevard! 😀 The overall plot wasn’t a surprise, since I love the musical (although I imagine I would’ve been floored by it if this was my first exposure to this incredible story!). But it was the little details that got me – particularly the priceless one-liners the musical doesn’t include (when the ones you highlighted came around, I’d think of you 🙂) and the little visual touches unique to the film. (The way William Holden walks away from the house that final time is both breathtaking and statement-making. The first shot or two doesn’t even phase him. 😮 THAT’S resolve! He was going to be a better man if it killed him.) I do wish it was all kept a little more mysterious prior to the flashbacks, so we could hold on to hope that it wasn’t him in the pool, but looking up at him from that angle was so cool, it was nice to see it twice! 🙂

  12. Every time I’ve seen this film it feels like the first time. Amazing stuff.

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