“You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”
“I am big. It's the pictures that got small”
Everyone has heard of Sunset Boulevard (who doesn’t know “Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup”?). Sunset is one of the greatest films ever made. It is brutally honest and pitiful. One of the most important aspects a screenwriter has to keep in mind is the need for the audience to feel for their characters. In Sunset we do feel for the characters, we feel sad and sorry for them. I feel bad not only for these fictional characters but for real actors and actresses out there who are real life Norma Desmonds who have seen their careers come and go and they can only live in the past.
For those of you who have not heard of Sunset Boulevard and why the film is culturally significant, the story is about a writer named Joe Gillis (William Holden) who is running out of money as well as luck. Joe is about to have his car repossessed when he drives his car into an old house to hide it from the repo men who are after him. The garage he has pulled into is part of a house owned by an old silent film star named Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). She has been living in the past ever since her film career faded many years ago. Her house is full of old photographs spanning the glory days of her career. Norma has been working on a script about the Biblical woman Salome. She hires Joe to clean up the script so she can give it to Cecil B. DeMille to make with her starring as the title character.
As time goes on, Norma falls in love with Joe and becomes very possessive of him. He has to sneak out at night to write a screenplay with a reader named Betty Schaefer. His life is no longer his own, Norma has completely taken possession of his life. She has moved all his things into her house and has bought him all new expensive clothing. Max, Norma’s butler as well as former husband and former director, has told her that Joe has been sneaking out at night to be with Betty. Norma calls Betty telling her things about Joe and that she (Betty) probably means nothing to him. Joe gets to the phone and tells Betty to come over. When she comes Joe is kind of cruel to her telling her this is what his life has come to and he cannot get out it.
Joe packs his things to head back to his hometown; he has truly had enough of Hollywood and certainly has had enough of Norma and her drama. Norma grabs a gun threatening to kill herself but Joe doesn’t care. As he is walking out Norma shoots him in back and he falls face first into the pool.
Before you get mad me for giving away the ending, the story is told through flashbacks and begins with Joe’s body floating in the pool. He’s the disembodied narrator throughout the film at certain points.
If you look at Psycho the reason why is was so scary and had such an impact was because it could really happen there are men out in the world like Norman Bates. Sunset Boulevard made an impact and still makes an impact because it is a real story there are actresses out there like Norma Desmond. Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett wrote an honest film of what Hollywood and celebrity can do to a person. Sunset Boulevard, the street, became well known in the 1920s when people were truly making a fortune in the movie business. Actors, directors, and producers built lavish mansions in excess along this stretch of road. Driving down this road Wilder often wondered what happened to the once glamorous and extravagant stars were doing now after their glamour and extravagance had faded.
Who better to play a once glamorous and popular silent screen actress than a real former silent screen actress than Gloria Swanson? Gloria Swanson was hugely popular in the 1920s staring in many silent films. Her life was splashed all over magazines with millions of adoring fans. By the time sound came her career ground to a slow halt. She made some sound movies in the 1930s such as Tonight or Never but she accepted the end of her major career. Apparently Norma Shearer, Mae West, Mary Pickford, Pola Negri, and Greta Garbo were considered and asked to play the part of Norma Desmond. Gloria Swanson is so perfectly eccentric and wonderful that to imagine someone like Norma Shearer (who would have been awful) or Mae West would not have made as much of an impact. Gloria Swanson just had what it took to play an old star who was stuck in the past.
Eric Von Stroheim was a famous director. The film that Norma shows Joe was a real movie Gloria Swanson made with Von Stroheim called Queen Kelly. Von Stroheim was notorious for making excruciatingly long films. Queen Kelly was taking too long to make so Gloria Swanson walked off the set and lost a lot of money.
Billy Wilder took away the illusion of Hollywood like adding old stars such as Buster Keaton and the other “Waxworks” who could not successfully make it in the talkies and pictures of Gloria Swanson from her heyday (many of them including stills and promotional pictures from one of her best film Sadie Thompson). These faded stars as well as Cecil B. DeMille blur the lines between relaity and fiction just like Norma cannot see what is real and what is not. Even Joe and his friends show the real side to being a writer or a reader or an assistant director; they make no money and just barely get by.
Whenever I watch Sunset Boulevard I can never find fault it in. This is American film making at its best. All of our emotions are touched upon as we watch these characters and how their lives just spiral out of control. We all have a secret wish to be famous movie stars living in the lap of luxury with millions of adoring followers but after watching this film reality hits us and our dreams quite possibly dashed.