If you haven’t seen it:
Sunset Boulevard tells the story of Joe Gillis, a movie writer down on his luck, who becomes romantically involved with an older woman, the former silent movie star Norma Desmond. Norma manipulates Joe while fantasizing about her own comeback.
It is well paced with a decent story and some great cinematography. Gloria Swanson overacts magnificently as Norma, but it’s okay because that is really the point of the movie – she is a drama queen, both literally and figuratively – and she lives in a fantasy world where she is still a star.
Sunset Boulevard becomes even more powerful when you realize that before this movie, Gloria Swanson was herself a forgotten silent movie star. With Sunset Boulevard she achieved the comeback and critical acclaim that Norma Desmond wanted so badly.
If you have seen it:
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SPOILER ALERT: The plot summary and comments below contain details that might spoil your enjoyment of the movie if you have not already seen it.
Joe is a struggling movie writer who cannot pay his rent. One day, while avoiding the repo men who are trying to repossess his car, he stumbles across the mansion of Norma Desmond, a former movie star from the silent era, on Sunset Boulevard. When she finds out he is a writer, she offers him a job writing a comeback movie for her, and persuades him to move into the mansion.
Observed by the creepily seductive Norma, and the sombre butler Max, Joe finds himself becoming a kept man – a virtual prisoner of the actress and her strange past. Norma arranges a new year’s eve party at the mansion, and Joe feels very uncomfortable when he discovers that he is in fact the only guest. Sure enough, Norma declares her love for him at the party. He rejects her at first, and she takes it very badly. When Joe finds out that she has attempted suicide, he reluctantly becomes her lover.
Later, in the mistaken belief that Paramount are interested in making her movie (they actually just want to borrow her car for filming), Norma turns up at the studio and meets legendary director Cecil B. DeMille. Demille treats her with respect and is kind to her – he does not have the heart to shatter her illusions.
While Norma is preparing for her comeback, Joe is sneaking out at night to meet with a pretty young woman called Betty – the pair are working on a script together. When Norma finds out, she tries to sabotage their relationship. There is a confrontation, and Joe, shocked by Norma’s behaviour, and sickened by his own, decides that it is time to leave and move on with his life. Norma will not allow it though, and shoots him dead.
When the police and the press turn up at the mansion, Norma, by now completely deranged, seems to believe the cameras are there because she is on a movie set. She delivers the movie’s most famous line, “All right Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
Steve Sunday Says:
Sunset Boulevard was intended to be a satire of Hollywood – much like The Player and Get Shorty that came years later. Many Hollywood insiders at the time thought it disrespectful of their business, and this is probably the reason it did not win more Oscars than it did (three).
It has lots of in-jokes, most of which I probably missed to be honest, but I did spot one; when Norma is playing cards with her old movie friends, one of them is actually Buster Keaton, the great silent movie clown, one of the biggest stars in the world back in the day. The others are possibly famous too, but I did not recognize them. Oh, hang on though, I have just remembered that this is the internet – I will look it up – don’t go away … okay, I am back, they were Anna Nilsson and HB Warner. Nope, I have never heard of them either. Big silent movie stars though, apparently.
Regardless of whether or not you care for the satire and in-jokes, it’s a great melodrama. The idea of these forgotten superstars is pretty powerful. The writer, Billy Wilder, who lived in LA, was aware that former movie stars lived in the grand houses around him, and found himself imagining what their world would be like.
Times have changed of course. Today we no longer have to imagine what has become of all the old stars from our childhoods, as they crop up on reality TV shows all the time. I am sure that if Norma Desmond were around today her agent would be trying to get her on “Dancing with the Stars”. He would probably settle though, for “I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!”. I can just imagine her storming off the program in a wild fury after being condemned by the public vote to eat kangeroo testicles.
Trivia Trish Says:
The Norma Desmond character was almost certainly based on the little remembered silent movie queen Norma Talmadge. Talmadge (who was also the inspiration for Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain) struggled with the talkies before retiring from the movie industry, very wealthy, and becoming a recluse. Unlike Norma Desmond though, she did not yearn for a comeback, and although she suffered from arthritis in her later years and was addicted to painkillers, she was not really like Desmond.
Main Cast and Crew:
William Holden … Joe Gillis
Gloria Swanson … Norma Desmond
Written and directed by Billy Wilder