“I am big! It’s the pictures that got small!”
Hollywood loves a self-referential movie, and they don’t come much more self-referencing than Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder’s 1950 film noir masterpiece that revived Gloria Swanson’s career. As Norma Desmond, a washed-up silent film star trying to reignite her success in an era of talkies, Swanson played a character that’s dangerously close to parody but was actually far-removed from her actual persona. Wilder, striving for authenticity offered the role to several ‘former’ stars (Mae West, Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo and Mary Pickford to name just four) but Swanson was the only one to accept.
It was a smart move. Norma Desmond is probably Swanson’s greatest role; a legacy that’s built on a comeback story – that’s the kind of paradox Hollywood loves to celebrate. The (albeit one-sided) love story that’s built into the narrative is believable, and humanises Norma’s eccentricities. Theatrical, flamboyant, and delusional, Desmond asks aspiring writer Joe Gilles (William Holden) to adapt her self-penned screenplay of Salome, her ‘return’. Joe, down on his luck and with creditors watching his every move, agrees – despite swiftly ascertaining that the script is unworkable. In order to speed up the process, Norma moves him into the bedroom above the garage, aided by her faithful butler Max (Erich von Stroheim), a creepy character who lurks in the shadows and – as the audience later discovers – was once married to Norma. After Joe moves in, romance is just a hop, skip and a jump away, and he swiftly gets used to life as a kept man. Although Norma pays for everything (from new clothes to a weekly allowance), Joe becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the set-up; even more so when he discovers that Max is actively sustaining the Desmond myth – even going as far as to send her the fan mail that convinces her of her continued stardom.
For every aspect of Norma’s character that seems too overblown, there’s a part that’s relatable. She wants to be relevant and important, despite her age. She deserves success and adoration, but she can’t see past the illusions she, and by extension Hollywood, has created. Of course, many of the illusions constructed within Sunset Boulevard are only believable because Wilder managed to persuade a host of has-beens to appear in the movie. Queen Kelly, the film Norma screens for Joe one evening, was actually directed by Erich von Stroheim and was instrumental in Swanson’s fall-from-grace, the waxworks (as Joe cynically refers to Norma’s bridge party companions) were played by other, out-of-favour stars including Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H.B. Warner. Cecil DeMille was also persuaded to appear, playing himself and shooting his 1949 film Samson and Delilah. Apparently he was only persuaded to appear after Wilder agreed to his $10,000 fee – and when Wilder needed a re-take, DeMille only consented after securing another $3,000 and a new car from Paramount. One suspects that Norma would have approved of such negotiations.
On the surface Sunset Boulevard is a discourse on aging and ambition, and the lengths individuals are willing to go to achieve them, but its broader theme is opportunism and its consequences; every character (perhaps with the exception of Betty Schafer, played by Nancy Olson) is willing to exploit and sell out in return for financial gain, success or self-worth. And in a damning verdict on Hollywood, Wilder made sure the characters sold out for any price, not just the highest. Although the film’s conclusion, which centres around death and delusion, is ultimately tragic, there’s the suggestion that failing in tragedy is better than not trying at all; that’s how much these characters crave adoration. The aging star, so desperate for success she’s willing buy a younger man’s company, must have been shocking to 1950s audiences, and there were many industry insiders who felt that Wilder had cut too close to the bone. MGM head Louis B. Meyer reportedly screamed at Wilder: “You bastard! You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!”
Part of the realism for which Sunset Boulevard is lauded derives from Swanson. She agreed to use items from her personal collection in Norma’s home (a run-down mansion on Sunset Boulevard) and performed the Charlie Chaplin routine she’d perfected in Manhandled. But in reality, Swanson was nothing like the delusional Norma. Taking a role that could so easily be associated with her qualities was a risk, but it paid off and during the promo tour, Swanson emphatically proved she was nothing like her character; all the two really shared was a ‘past’ in silent pictures. In fact, Swanson was only 53 years old and thanks to a lifetime of wholesome living, looked younger than her age. As Roger Ebert observes, it’s not solely about the physical – the point is that Norma has aged not in the flesh but in the mind, fixated on her moment of greatness she lives in the past.
Costume designer Edith Head (who worked in close collaboration with Swanson) created a series of outfits that recalled the glamour of an earlier age but were slightly out of step with contemporary fashion. In Swanson’s words they were ‘a trifle exotic, a trifle exaggerated, a trifle out of date’. Norma’s grand clothes were as misplaced as her comeback ideas; in Hollywood, where image is everything, she no longer looked the part. By mixing old and new – a 1920s brooch on a more recent dress – Swanson and Head emphasised Norma’s confusion and displacement. The most effective example of this is the dress she wears when she first visits DeMille at the Paramount set. Norma, with her high-heeled court shoes, gloves, diamond-encrusted bracelets and elaborate headpiece, is (sartorially) incompatible with the bright young things that crowd the studio. They might be keen to greet her, but she doesn’t belong in their world. According to Swanson: “for my scene with Mr. DeMille, I designed a hat with a single white peacock feather, remembering the peacock-feather headdress everyone was so superstitious about when Mr DeMille and I made the scenes with the lions in Male and Female (1919)”.
In Dressed, Head describes the process of creating Norma Desmond:
In this picture, Gloria was to look like an actress who had passed her peak, a star in the discard, living on memories. I based the clothes on what she had worn in previous days. We made the tests; and what happened was utter consternation. Because of her bone structure and assurance, Miss Swanson projected on screen just about as she had twenty years before. She walked on in a pair of tight jersey hostess pyjamas with an overskirt of leopard skin – and there she was, not in the least a ‘has-been.’
In many ways, Norma is a typical femme fatale. She has control over Joe, and it’s her manipulation of events that lead to her downfall. From the moment Joe appears as the narrator, it’s apparent that events simply ‘happen’ to him; that they are often outside his control. Norma, like a grotesque puppet master, holds the strings but she cannot see that her actions are controlled by something greater. The shots of Norma desperately trying to recapture her lost youth through wraps and facials are particularly revealing; even in her delusional state of mind, she knows that she will be judged on her appearance (her close-up). Her obsession with youthfulness directly result in a lack of emotional growth, she’s sent over the edge by the realisation that Joe might leave her for a younger woman, not by her inability to get a part. The complete confidence she has in her acting talents does not extend to her looks.
The film’s conclusion – during which Norma plays to DeMille’s close-up with a manic glee – is testament to just how much Hollywood worships youth and beauty. Norma’s happiness doesn’t just stem from the fact that she’s acting again, but from the (deluded) realisation that she’s relevant again. Lucy Fisher reads Norma as a vampire, a cinematic ‘undead’, whose decay and aging are designed to incite revulsion. On the surface there is a great deal of Nosferatu in Norma’s posturing, but she’s less the haunter and more the haunted: she’s attempting to recreate her own image, it’s her own faded star she wishes to raise from the dead. She defines herself by the cinematic myth she came to represent and is unable to evolve or improve, to shape it into a new ideal that resonates with a modern audience. She is trapped by the system that constructed her and now keeps her in her place. Sunset Boulevard is simultaneously a lament of lost era, a satire of an industry that’s built on illusion and opportunism and an examination of gender roles. If those sound like big themes it’s because they are – only Wilder could have woven them into such an everyday melodrama that – like Norma’s magnified mirrors – reflected (then amplified) them back on the beast that created them.
Further reading: Scandals of Classic Hollywood: the Gloria Swanson saga, part one / Scandals of Classic Hollywood: the Gloria Swanson saga, part two / The Conversations: Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve