In Gloria Swanson’s most engaging autobiography Swanson on Swanson (1980), she describes—in typically grand Swanson style—the industry response to the first big screening of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. In this case, judging by the quality and enduring power of the film, one imagines her recollections may actually have been more factual than hyperbolic. Indeed, in the pantheon of Hollywood films about Hollywood, there are very few as trenchantly observed and emotionally lacerating as Sunset Blvd. There is no question that taking the now-iconic role of Norma Desmond was a brave move for the silent screen star who hadn’t had much cultural presence since the beginning of the sound era twenty years before. Here is what the star had to say about that screening, probably the moment she realized that the personal and professional risks she’d taken were about to pay exceedingly high dividends:
The evening of the first big screening in Hollywood, Louis B. Mayer had a dinner party for about twenty people. From there we went to the Paramount screening room, where the audience of three hundred people seemed to include everyone in motion pictures. I caught a glimpse of Mickey Neilan as we walked to our seats, and someone told me Mary Pickford was there. These affairs are known for being morbidly restrained, devoid of the slightest overt reaction, but that night the whole audience stood up an cheered. People clustered around me, and I had trouble moving up the aisle. Barbara Stanwyck fell on her knees and kissed the hem of my skirt. I could read in all their eyes a single message of elation: If she can do it, why should we be terrified? She’s shown us that it can be done!
“Where’s Mary?” I asked.
“She can’t show herself, Gloria,” someone said. “She’s overcome. We all are.”