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As Glenn Close returns to Broadway to reprise her starring role in the revival of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Sunset Boulevard, which won her critical acclaim and a Tony Award more than 20 years ago, LIFE takes a look back at the making of the film on which the play is based.
These images, shot by Allan Grant on the set of Sunset Boulevard in 1949, were never published in the pages of LIFE—but, given the film’s plot, their subject matter is strikingly apt. They are pictures that show the making of a movie about the making of movies.
The film’s star, Gloria Swanson, 51 at the time of the movie’s release, had gained her fame during the silent-film era. She had not made a movie in nearly a decade when she took a role that summoned echoes of her own life: Norma Desmond, “a selfish, middle-aged woman living in a dream world of her past glory as a movie star,” as LIFE summed it up in a June 1950 story about the star’s comeback.
The Billy Wilder-directed Sunset was a funhouse version of Swanson’s life, to be fair—her fading career had not brought with it the madness that doomed Desmond, and her wrinkles were the work of makeup artists—but the comparison was inescapable. To underscore the point, real Hollywood figures like Cecil B. DeMille and Hedda Hopper, shown above, appeared as themselves.
“Sunset Boulevard takes place in a shadow world, people largely by the ghosts of an older day in Hollywood,” LIFE noted. “The heroine is one of the ghosts.”