“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small!” These words are spoken by Norma Desmond, a former American screen queen who longs to be back in the Silent film era. Norma thinks longingly back to a time when actors used their faces and emotions to convey the plot. She also longs to be back in the era when dialogue and effects were not needed or relied upon on in films.
Norma Desmond is desperate to be back on screen. Screenshot by me.
Sunset Blvd is one of my favourite classic era films. It was one of the first classics that I ever saw and it really did make quite an impression on me. I love Sunset Blvd’s blend of drama and Noir. I love the stunning photography by John F. Seitz. I love the performances and the sad and tragic tale that the film depicts.
This film also opened my eyes to the darker side of the film industry, especially about how the people working in this industry can be used and then discarded.
This is also the film that made me aware of Silent films. I was in my mid teens when I first saw this film. Before I watched this film, I didn’t even know that there had once been Silent films. I’m well aware that may sound pretty dumb to some reading this, but before this film, I had had no reason to ever imagine that there had even been a time when films were Silent. I also love this film because it brought to my attention people like Cecil B. De Mille, Gloria Swanson, Billy Wilder and Buster Keaton. This film encouraged me to give Silent films a go, and I am forever thankful that I did, because I now love them to pieces. 🙂
Superbly directed by Billy Wilder, Sunset Blvd is a warts and all portrait of Hollywood. Wilder wrote the screenplay, along with Charles Brackett(who was the regular collaborator on so many of Wilder’s films), and D.M Marshman Jr. Billy Wilder’s depiction of the darker side to the glamourous perceived image of the American film industry, wasn’t very well received by Hollywood upon its release. I guess some people didn’t like, or simply flat out refused to acknowledge and accept the truth that Billy Wilder so boldly served up to them with this film.
Wilder’s film showed the Hollywood community the unpleasant truth about itself. The film shows us the sad truth that once great stars get tossed aside like rubbish, that people think only of themselves at the expense of others, and that people use others in order to further their careers and get to the top. The film also reminds us that fame and stardom rarely lasts all that long (no matter how much you believe otherwise when you are enjoying it). Wilder’s film is difficult to watch at times because it is so sad and dark. His film is spot on though and that is what makes it so worth watching. The film deals with ruined lives, damaged people and also looks at mental illness.
Gloria Swanson steals the show as the damaged and deranged Norma. She cannot accept that her fame has gone, that she is all but forgotten about, and that everything she once held so dear has now vanished. Swanson was one of the biggest and most talented stars of the Silent era, she also had one of the most expressive faces and she uses that face to its full effect in this film.
Gloria Swanson as Norma. Image source IMDb.
The irony of her playing this role can not have been lost on Gloria. This lady had once been one of the biggest stars in American Silent films. Unlike Norma though, Gloria Swanson (thankfully)was able to work in films and on Television throughout the sound era. Gloria was also able to very successfully bring a blend of Silent and sound era acting techniques to her performance in this film. Gloria is phenomenal in this role and I consider it to be the best performance she ever gave. Her performance is all in the eyes. Watch those eyes of hers, because they really do speak volumes when you look at them.
William Holden is both likeable and not so likeable, as the down on his luck scriptwriter, Joe Gillis. Joe is a man who seizes on an opportunity with Norma and uses her to ensure he gets some money. Joe starts out eager, outgoing, and also with some degree of control over his own life. As the film goes on, William shows us Joe is becoming desperate, on edge and depressed. Joe becomes a man with no control and no power. He is being used by Norma to bring her soul back to life (watch how she brightens up once he comes into her life)and even if he is unhappy he now can’t be allowed to leave this woman. We sympathise with him for much of the film, but my sympathies start to wane when he uses Norma and can’t see how he much he is hurting her.
It should also be noted that as much as we may pity Norma, we should never forget that she is using Joe just as much as he is using her. Norma uses his script expertise to her own advantage, and she uses her position of power over Joe (as his employer) to call the shots and keep him near her. She sees him as as opportunity to get back into the film industry, and she also sees him as a source of emotional (and it is strongly hinted)physical pleasure for her. In this film everyone is using someone else for something.
The body in the pool. Screenshot by me.
The film begins with a dead man floating in a swimming pool. The Police are gathered round the body trying to figure out what has happened.
This opening shot is one of the most impressive and memorable in film history. We see the body floating on the surface of the pool, then we cut to a shot seemingly from under the water looking up at it from underneath.
The dead man is Joe Gillis, and the film that we are about to watch will show us how he came to meet his watery death. Originally the film was to have opened in a morgue, with Gillis’s dead soul talking to the other dead people in the morgue, and explaining to them how he met his fate. This opening was scrapped in favour of the opening we see in the film.
Joe Gillis(William Holden) is a film scriptwriter who needs some money fast. By accident he meets former silent film star, Norma Desmond(Gloria Swanson). She has written the screenplay of a version of Salome, she wishes it to be directed by Cecil B. DeMille and to be her glorious return to the screen. Joe gets himself hired (to get some money)to work on her script for her. He works on it at Norma’s home(a fading luxury mansion, that I see as representing the luxury and excess of the 1920’s film star lifestyle.)
Norma and Joe enjoy their private New Year’s Eve party. Screenshot by me.
As he spends more time with Norma, Joe soon realises that she is falling in love with him and also that she is completely detached from reality.
Things get complicated when Joe falls in love with Betty(Nancy Olsen), who is an outgoing young studio writer. Betty offers Joe an escape from the possessive nature of Norma.
Betty offers Joe love, fun, friendship, and above all some happiness. Joe’s desperation for a career opportunity and for money, means that he leaves Betty and returns to the wealth, glamour and supposed opportunity that Norma can offer him.
Joe becomes Norma’s kept man. In many ways he becomes no different than the beloved monkey she once had as a pet. Norma dotes on Joe, splashes out money on him, and he can’t stand it.
As he spends more time with Norma, Joe soon realises that she is falling in love with him and that she is also completely detached from reality. Things get complicated when Joe falls in love with Betty(Nancy Olsen), a young and outgoing studio writer. Betty offers Joe an escape from the possessive nature of Norma. Betty offers Joe love, fun, friendship, and above all some happiness.
Joe and Betty fall for one another. Screenshot by me.
Joe’s desperation for a career opportunity and for money, means that he leaves Betty and returns to the wealth, glamour and supposed opportunity that Norma can offer him.
Norma becomes suspicious of Joe and Betty, and her anger and distress begins to steadily build up within her and will lead to one of the most tragic and unforgettable finales in film history.
The scenes between Norma and Joe play out like some sort of horror film. Norma appears almost vampire like in certain scenes, and many of her hand gestures appear claw like and grotesque.
Norma sucks Joe in with promises of fame and fortune, he gets caught up in her delusions, and he can’t escape her, no matter how much he might try to do so.Norma is also something of a grotesque character in as much as she is getting old, but she won’t accept it, and she still dresses and makes herself up to be young. Norma and her home(and it could also be said her acting style)are starting to fade away and crumble into non existence and irrelevance.
Joe’s relationship with Norma becomes all consuming and changes who he is as a person. He becomes bound to Norma and cannot escape her, he may try to do so, but when he does he cannot find any peace or happiness because her shadow looms large over any joy he may find.
I like how the film also shows us the two different acting styles of the silent era and the sound era. Holden and Swanson both deliver equally excellent performances showing us these opposite acting styles and techniques. Swanson and Holden get strong support from film director Eric Von Stroheim, who appears as Norma’s loyal butler Max.
Von Stroheim was one of the greatest Silent era directors and he famously made a film called Greed, which originally ran for nine or ten hours! His directorial career ended soon after he directed Gloria Swanson in Queen Kelly. That film is the film that Norma watches on her private cinema screen with Joe at her side.
Max. Screenshot by me.
Max was once married to Norma and he now works for her and cares for her. He fakes thousands of fan letters which he delivers to Norma, so that she actually feels like she is still remembered and valued by fans.
I think Max is a very interesting character because he still loves Norma very much, and he will do anything to keep himself near her.
Max doesn’t care about his low status, nor does he care that Norma views him as a servant only. He is happy to just be in her presence on a daily basis, even if she has no feelings for him anymore.
Max’s reasons for being in Norma’s life are certainly selfish ones, but I don’t think that he would ever knowingly hurt or betray Norma. He is really the only one in her life who knows full well her former high status in life, and he shares her view that she deserves to be back in the spotlight again.
Von Stroheim is excellent as a proud man brought low. I think that Von Stroheim also cannot have missed the irony of his casting. He was once a man of power and influence and here he is now playing a former director, turned servant/carer working for one of his former stars.
Nancy Olsen is terrific as keen, pure, passionate and gentle Betty. She offers Joe an escape from Norma. Nancy’s character is a lifeline for Joe, and she lets us see that Betty is falling for Joe and that they would be good together. She isn’t on screen all that much, but when she is she sure makes a strong impression. Betty is an interesting character because she is seemingly the only truly decent character in the film.
Silent era legends H.B Warner, Buster Keaton and Anna Q. Nilsson all have terrific cameos in the film playing “the Waxworks”. This group are some of Norma’s Silent era colleagues who drop in to see her. The irony of their appearance in this film cannot have been lost on any of these three actors.
I also like how real people and films are mentioned and shown throughout this film. Greta Garbo is mentioned by Norma as being a current actress (Garbo had been retired for about a decade by this time, so this shows how out of touch Norma is with current events)who had the same face and acting style of the Silent era.
Interestingly Greta Garbo was one of the few Silent stars who successfully made the transition to the sound era, and she also retained the same level of fame from the Silent era to the sound era. Director Cecil B. DeMille (who appears as himself) is another Silent era individual who successfully transitioned and retained his fame and influence.
Norma and DeMille reunite. Screenshot by me.
The scene between Norma and Cecil B. DeMille (appearing as himself) is one that I’m not ashamed to admit always makes me tear up a bit.
Norma is warmly welcomed back by former colleagues, crew, and the studio staff. She sees that there are some who still hold her in affection and high regard.
This scene is also important because De Mille could easily have ignored Norma, or sent his assistants to deal with her when she comes to the studios, but instead he greets her with tenderness and affection. He respects Norma and he treats her as she deserves to be treated.
De Mille also utters a line of dialogue here that I think is quite interesting. When asked by an assistant if it was true that Norma was difficult to work with, he replies “only towards the end. A dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit”.
To me those words from De Mille indicate that something in Norma’s life had been seized on by the press and that stories were being run. Press intrusion is another dark aspect of Hollywood(both then and now), with careers and reputations being ruined and lost due to scandals, and mere rumours and accusations being splashed over front pages and being believed as fact. Maybe this intrusion is what began Norma’s descent into madness?
Thanks to this film, we hopefully now have an understanding of how brutal Hollywood can be to its own, and how awful it must be when a big star falls from their pedestal and becomes yesterday’s news.
The final shot is one that stays in the mind long after the film has finished. In this scene the now truly deranged Norma gets the fame and attention she has been so long starved of. The trouble is it is the wrong kind of attention. We know that she now only has an institution to look forward to (unless Max can pull some strings and keep her at home being looked after there)and that she will certainly never be able to act again.
Norma finally gets that close-up she’s been dreaming of. Screenshot by me.
For one brief moment though, Norma shines again, and the cameras roll to capture her emotions and her every move. Her name will never be forgotten once this story makes the headlines. Is that a blessing or a curse though?
Norma will certainly get her fame back when this story breaks, but her illness and despair will be milked to sell papers, and she will most likely be ridiculed too. A sad end, and one that really makes you think about just what you are witnessing. In the end this is a film all about victims, and about how they are used and how they suffer.
The film could almost be viewed as a warning about getting into the film industry. If you do get in you may well get fame and fortune, but at what cost will these be achieved? Can you stand what happens once your star starts to fade? I think this is one of Wilder’s best films. Sunset Blvd is certainly the best film about Hollywood that I’ve ever seen.
My favourite scenes are the following. Norma’s charades performance for Joe. The New Year’s Eve party with Joe and Norma being the only guests. Joe discovering what Norma has done to herself in her despair. The “I’m ready for my close up” scene. Joe at the crowded party in the apartment. Joe and Norma’s first meeting. Norma returning to the film studios and being warmly welcomed and getting to sit on the set of De Mille’s latest film.
What are your thoughts on Sunset Blvd?