Meet Cute #4: Gloria Swanson and Billy Wilder

*Note: In 1949, legendary film director Billy Wilder cast actress Gloria Swanson, then 49, as the star of his classic Sunset Boulevard. The events below are based on the actual events leading up to their meeting, though of course I’ve taken liberty with dialogue and details!


GLORIA SWANSON, late 40s, lies in a hospital bed. She is recuperating from an emergency appendectomy but still looks chic in a patterned headwrap and collared top.

A TELEVISION on a WHEELED CART plays in front of her bed, tuned to her own show, The Gloria Swanson Hour. SOUNDS of audience laughter and applause.

CLEO, late 20s, Gloria’s friend and secretary, sits next to her, hands folded in her lap. She wears a conservative business suit and is clearly distressed.

GLORIA: But Cleo! Why didn’t you ever tell me how appalling this is!

CLEO: But it’s not, Miss Swanson! The audiences love you —

GLORIA: They have no taste, then! What trash! Why, everything looks so cheap and thrown together! And small!

CLEO: But you can’t expect it to look like a motion picture, Miss Swanson. It’s television.

GLORIA: (darkly) Yes.

THEY WATCH for a few moments. MINDLESS NATTERING about the wonders of Pine-Sol.

GLORIA: Good God. What an imbecile I sound! Chattering on about floor cleaners!

She PROPS HERSELF UP and WAVES a hand at Cleo.

GLORIA: Cleo — take some dictation, would you, dear?

CLEO searches in her PURSE.

CLEO: Well, I’ll have to see if I have my notebook —

GLORIA: Damn your notebook, Cleo. Use a piece of bath tissue if you have to.

CLEO: Yes, Miss Swanson. [beat] All right.

GLORIA: Dear Mr. Lombardi — I regret to inform you that after careful consideration, I’ve decided to resign my role as host of The Gloria Swanson Hour, effective immediately.

CLEO: [talking over Gloria] But Miss Swanson!

GLORIA: It’s been a fruitful collaboration thus far and one I’m most grateful for. However, pressing matters have arisen which conflict with the shooting schedule and force me to take indefinite leave. I can only hope you understand how difficult this decision has been…



GLORIA HUMS to herself as she prunes a HOUSEPLANT with a large pair of KITCHEN SHEARS.

CLEO walks in with a TEA SERVICE.

GLORIA: Oh, thank you, dear. Just put it on the table there.

CLEO puts it down with a CLATTER. She rearranges the mussed dishes.

CLEO: (softly) Will there be anything else, Miss Swanson?

GLORIA: (disappointed) Oh, Cleo. Are you sorry for me? The lonely old lady with her tea?

CLEO: It’s just — you were so popular on that program, Miss Swanson. And now —

GLORIA: Trust me, dear, you don’t know popular. Television and movies these days — why, they’re nothing, really. Just a pale imitation —

GLORIA returns to PRUNING with renewed vigor.

GLORIA: — of an imitation [PRUNE] of a copy [PRUNE] of the way pictures used to be.

GLORIA takes a break, a little breathless.

GLORIA: So don’t feel sad for me, darling! It’s a relief to have a clear schedule, especially after that ridiculous surgery they put me through. The very notion that someone on a macrobiotic diet should need an appendectomy —

CLEO: Isn’t that an entirely different organ, Miss Swanson?

Suddenly, the PHONE RINGS.

CLEO picks up.

CLEO: Miss Swanson’s residence. [pause] Yes. [pause, growing excited] Yes? Oh — well, of course, Mr. Johnson —

CLEO covers the receiver with her hand.

CLEO: (whispering) It’s a Mr. Johnson. The casting director for Paramount Pictures. [Giggles] Mr. Johnson for Miss Swanson —

CLEO holds the phone out to GLORIA. GLORIA has returned to PRUNING. She PAUSES for a moment, then resumes.

GLORIA: What do they want?

CLEO: It’s about a picture!


CLEO: Miss Swanson —

GLORIA: All right. Here.

GLORIA takes the phone from CLEO.

GLORIA: This is Miss Swanson. [pause] Who’s Billy Wilder? [pause] Double Indemnity? Oh, that dirty little picture about the wife killing her husband? [pause, indignant] A screen test? I’ve made 20 pictures for Paramount, and this stripling wants a screen test?


GLORIA is standing against a PLAIN BACKDROP, CAMERA filming. CAMERAMAN and an unnamed ACTOR stand behind the camera. GLORIA is performing a screen test of a scene from Sunset Boulevard.

ACTOR: (wooden) I didn’t know you were planning a comeback.

GLORIA: (exaggerated diction, as Norma Desmond) I hate that word! It’s a return! A return to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen!

CAMERAMAN: [beat] Cut! All right, print that.

GLORIA: (beat; as herself) My goodness but this is Guignol, isn’t it? Well done Guignol, but still —

SOUNDSTAGE DOOR OPENS. BILLY WILDER and CHARLES BRACKETT hustle in, both harried and dressed in SUITS.

BILLY: (heavy German accent) Miss Swanson! Billy Wilder.

GLORIA and BILLY shake hands.

BILLY: It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Swanson. I apologize I’m late, I had to —

GLORIA: Oh, don’t bother with that, Mr. Wilder. It’ll only embarrass both of us.

BILLY: [beat] Er — yes.

GLORIA takes his arm as she guides him off the set.

GLORIA: You’re a busy man, let’s leave it at that. (to cameraman and actor) Gentlemen? You don’t mind if we pause for a few moments while I borrow Mr. Wilder?

GLORIA and BILLY meander off.

BILLY: Thank you, Miss Swanson, for agreeing to a screen test. It’s just so important to find the right look, you see —

GLORIA: Nonsense. I’m happy to do it for the golden boy of Hollywood. That’s what they tell me you are. (mock-flirtatious) Are they right?

BILLY stops walking.

BILLY: Miss Swanson, I get the impression you’re teasing me.

GLORIA guides him forward again.

GLORIA: Of course I am, dear. I want to be sure that if you’re going to dish it out, you can take it.

BILLY: I’m not sure I understand.

GLORIA: Why, this picture. It’s a gag at my expense, isn’t it? The aging movie queen, alone with her dead monkeys and delusions of grandeur —

BILLY: Well, that’s not exactly how I —

GLORIA: And I don’t care, dear, because the writing is brilliant. If I’m going to look a fool, I might as well be a well-written fool. [beat] I just want to make sure you’ve got a sense of humor about yourself, too.

This time, BILLY stops their walking, looks directly at her.

BILLY: Miss Swanson. You called me the golden boy of Hollywood. I can assure you I’m no such thing.


BILLY: I’m a flea-bitten newspaper hack who ended up making movies because I had to run away from a murderous little shit named Adolph Hitler.

GLORIA: (a bit flustered) You were smart to run, I’d say.

BILLY: You’re right — I am smart. And I am serious. But only about my pictures, and my stars. Never about myself.

GLORIA: Well, I’m glad to hear that.

BILLY: So I can take it, as you say.

GLORIA: Yes, I see. [beat] Mr. Wilder? Did you ever hear of — my television show?

BILLY: Your television show? Miss Swanson, I’ve barely heard of television.

GLORIA: [laughs] Well! We will get along then, won’t we?


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