by Laurent Kelly
Sunset Boulevard (1950) – Director: Billy Wilder Original Screenplay: Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshamann Jr. Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swonsen, Eric Von Stronheim, Nancy Olson OSCAR COUNT (3) – Original Screenplay, Music, Art Direction
“Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.”
– John Updike
The birth of sound spelt the end for a golden generation of actors who had flourished within the theatre of silence. They could let their bodies tell the story with their demonstrative movements capturing a wide range of emotions and their heavy handed mannerisms suiting the larger than life appeal of the big screen.
When The Jazz Singer emerged as the first talking picture however in the late twenties it ushered in the start of a groundbreaking new era that would leave behind far more stars than it carried through. Suddenly vocal talent was essential and movement was required to become more subtle and underplayed. Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo were two actresses who famously managed to continue their success within this new regime but most were not so lucky.
Gloria Swonson was one of the unfortunate cases who had achieved mega-stardom in the silent era but subsequently saw her star fade through the progression of sound. In a rather ironic turn of events though she would fulfill her most iconic role in the film Sunset Boulevard, as the character Norma Desmond,a former silent movie champion who is still unable to come to terms with her fall from stardom many years after it has transpired.
It is the rich blend of tragedy and comedy surrounding the Norma Desmond character that helps to make Sunset Boulevard an enduring classic. At first we are defintiely invited to laugh as our down on his luck screenwriting protagonist Joe Gills stumbles upon Norma in her desolate mansion. He recognises her:
“Norma Desmond you used to be big.”
Without a hint of self-knowing lunacy she utters the following response which has since become immortal within the pantheons of great dialogue.”
“I am big”, she says. “It’s the pictures that got small!”
The fun continues from there as Norma hires Joe to write a ludicrous comeback script with herself in the principal role. Despite being out of the limelight for years she is adamant that audiences still crave her apperance mostly due to the fact that her former husband and now butler (played by legendary director/actor Eric Von Stronheim) spends his time penning fake fan letters.
This is really where the film starts to take a more tragic turn as we realise just how vulnerable Norma Desmond really is. When Joe threatens to leave she goes through a dramatic suicide attempt and when she visits the Paramount studio she becomes possesed by the big dramatic lights. Once used to such pampering and attention she can now no longer function in the real world and instead lives her life inside a fantastical bubble.
Norma is also alluring however. Her former husband caters to her every whim and Joe finds himself returning to her house even when other work opportunies appeared to have presented themselves. Although she is no longer in the limelight there is something magical about her dream-like state that makes her presence somewhat magnetic and captivating. Unfortunately by the time Joe realises that he has to escape it is too late however and Norma makes sure that he stays forever. Joe is still young, vibrant and has the chance to return to the Hollywood system. Norma knows this and thus kills him because she can’t stand the idea of fame turning its back on her in a physical form.
This builds to the most impressive sequence in the film. With Joe’s body lying in the pool, the police and journalists arrive on scene. Rather than acting horrified Norma is suddenly the centre of attention again and rejoices in vaingloriously hamming up to the cameras and questions. Not even the very serious nature of a murder can deter her from enjoying her final moment in the sun and as she descends the stairs to greet the various beady eyed spectators, she declares that she is ready for her close up as if this was all just some scene in one of her films.