Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard surely ranks as one of the greatest movies of all time, and perhaps the greatest movie about the movies themselves.
Sunset Boulevard was perfectly cast with Oscar-nominated performances by William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim and Nancy Olson, but the film nearly featured very different performers in the lead roles.
Montgomery Clift had already signed on to play struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis before backing out days before filming started. "It so happens Mr. Clift had had an affair with an older woman in New York," Wilder recalled years later. "And he did not want to make his first picture playing the lead, the story of a man being kept by a very rich woman twice his age. He did not want Hollywood talk."
Fred MacMurray turned down the part, and the studio vetoed Wilder's suggestion of Marlon Brando, who at that point had yet to make a movie. Only then did Wilder reluctantly cast Holden, who despite starring in Golden Boy in 1939 had yet to make his mark in Hollywood. The compromise proved to be fortuitous, providing a breakthrough role for Holden, and introducing Wilder to an actor who would go on to star in four of his films.
The female lead proved even harder to cast. Among the many actresses Wilder approached were Mae West, Norma Shearer, Pola Negri, Greta Garbo and—particularly intriguing to me—Mary Pickford. There are many different stories about what happened next.
In any event, fellow director George Cukor soon after suggested Swanson, an inspired choice, it turns out. The performance was so good that Barbara Stanwyck kissed the hem of Swanson's skirt at the premiere.
Would the film have been as good with Pickford (or West or Shearer or Negri or Garbo) in the lead? It would have been different, that's for sure. Swanson was something of a larger-than-life figure herself and if you know her silent work, particularly the six films she did with Cecil B. DeMille, you know Norma Desmond was right in her wheelhouse. As Wilder himself noted years later, "There was a lot of Norma in her, you know."