I’ve always been fascinated by Sunset Boulevard. I mean, if you think about it, it’s a timeless story, and it’s based on more fact than fiction. Sure, the characters are fictional, but we’ve all read about actors and musicians who were on top of the world, only to disappear into mediocrity, only appearing when something awfully tragic happens. That’s when we love and care about them again. Until then, they fade away, presumably to wonder what the hell happened to make them fall off the top of the world.
For us regular old proles, so long as most things in our life go well, then we’re okay. If we don’t lose our jobs or health insurance, or even fail at our relationships, then we’re pretty good. We’re good. But when you’ve had the whole world adore you and exalt you, I can imagine one would feel like an old, castaway ghost; a spirit bound by past glory and a prior life unable to move on, living in an alternate reality as life goes on, and the memory of you fades. That is what is so horrific about Sunset Boulevard.
That’s what happened to Norma Desmond (played by the brilliant Gloria Swanson), a silent film star from the early 1900s and 1920s who lost favor when the “Talkies” became ubiquitous and the de facto way to make movies. When struggling, sardonic screenwriter Joe Gillis (played by the ruggedly handsome William Holden) hides his car from the repo guys chasing him at high speeds in one of the many decrepit garages at Desmond’s massive mansion, she mistakes him for an undertaker she believes is there to bury her dead pet chimp. Desmond shows Gillis the chimp lying in state in front of the fireplace in her massive, yet antiquated bedroom, all made up yet looking like the discarded, decayed husk of a living thing that has long left it behind, and after the initial disappointment and rage upon finding out that he was just hiding his car from the repo men, she ameliorates her attitude towards him when she discovers that he’s a screenwriter. It just so happens that she needs someone to make her ambitious and poorly written script for a project in which she stars in the lead role presentable for Cecile B. DeMille, her former champion and director of 12 of her past films. She makes Gillis an offer he can’t refuse, partly because he needs money terribly, and partly because he’s reluctantly enchanted by this svengali of a woman. As these things go, he becomes a kept man, and I’m quite sure they become intimate, although they don’t show it on camera. His reluctance turns into acquiescence, however, and he comes to appreciate the gifts and privilege he has by virtue of being “sponsored” by Desmond.
The problem is Desmond is reclusive and smothering. She’s also out of touch with delusions of grandeur, and to make matters worse, she’s possessive. She is overly expressive with her face, much like in a silent film, which makes her appear inhuman and robotic. It’s like Desmond’s body was taken over, and only runs on delusions and whimsy. Her looks are intense as if she’s scanning your soul for every sin and wayward thought. She is terrifyingly disconnected which leads Gillis and her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) to help keep up her illusions because should she snap, they will all suffer for it. The only time she shows any sort of human emotion or recognition is when she undergoes days of beauty treatments that look more like torture.
When Gillis starts working on a script with Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a young, fresh-faced, and vibrant script reader at Paramount Studios, he becomes attracted, falling for her. Gillis’ attraction to Schaefer is akin to a ghost’s attraction to the living. Gillis is dead until he rises at night to go work with Betty. He is like a shade whenever he’s with Norma, residing in the crypt that is Norma’s decrepit mansion; living in the sarcophagus that is her affection and affinity for him. It’s not a surprise that his outings to write the script are a way for him to be closer to Betty.
Norma learns of their budding relationship and when Joe decides that he’s had enough of her and wants to regain his dignity, he hits Norma–figuratively–with a dose of reality about her star fading, effectively popping her little bubble. This causes a psychotic break, and well, Gillis ends up dead in the pool. I only tell you this because the movie is narrated by Gillis himself…. From the grave. He even narrates what happens as the police fish his body out of the pool and roll him away on a stretcher. And it becomes clear from the first few minutes in the film which begins with a shot of Gillis floating face down and very much dead.
Like a bitter wraith, Desmond can’t comprehend why she’s dead to the world, only living in the peripheral of the world’s memory. This makes her lash out at anyone who doesn’t recognize that she lives–professionally and personally. When Gillis first realizes who she is he tells her that she “used to be big.” Desmond bristles at this, retorting, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small,” like an offended spirit at a seance who is told that there is no hope but to go to the light. Everything about Desmond’s life pays homage to a past long dead and gone. Her mansion is haunted with the memories of her best times, but it is decaying as if it had once lived, breathed, and eventually died. I could almost smell the rot and mildew through the screen. The Isotta Fraschini 8A that she is ferried around in is like a hearse, with its gilded furnishings and its oozing lugubriousness.
Despite the dark humor courtesy of Gillis’ biting wit, I came to the conclusion that most of the main characters in Sunset Boulevard are the living dead. Joe is unfulfilled enough in life that he’s willing to throw his freedom away for a life of comfort. Something in Desmond died years ago, and the only thing keeping her alive is hope that she’ll be worthy enough to be brought to life in front of the cameras again. Her butler is alive but for his love for her, and Nancy eventually falls into the trap because she realizes she is in an unfulfilling job and relationship. In the end, Norma gets in front of the cameras again, but for all the wrong reasons, and it is her iconic descent down the stairs and into madness and infamy that leaves you truly disconcerted because there is not a soul remaining that hasn’t been crushed or ruined.
Knowing that this really does happen in real life; that former stars can entomb themselves in the past, only seeing themselves the way they used to be seen by a once adoring public, is what makes Sunset Boulevard even scarier. Sometimes they come back, but they return a shadow of their former selves (think Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan), but for those that can’t assimilate into a life of average highs and lows, being forgotten is a fate worse than death. It was for Norma Desmond.