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Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture . . . they think the actors make it up as they go along.
Billy Wilder's classic Film Noir from 1950, Sunset Boulevard is a dark take on the film industry and the fleeting nature of fame, to this day one of Hollywood's most scorching (and yet wistful) depictions of itself, and indeed one of the greatest films of all time. (In 1998, the American Film Institute ranked it as the twelfth best American film of the twentieth century.) While the characters are deeply flawed, some of them beyond any redemption, the film still presents them each as complex, sympathetic, and even endearing.
As the film opens, a man (not yet identified) has been found dead floating in a pool in the backyard of an enormous Hollywood mansion on Sunset Boulevard. Our narrator, a jaded and struggling screenwriter named Joe Gillis (William Holden), takes us back and tells us How We Got Here.
Some months earlier, Joe, blindly fleeing his creditors, winds up in what appears to be an abandoned mansion, only to find that silent movie great Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) still lives there with her Austrian manservant, Max von Mayerling (Eric Von Stroheim). The delusional Norma believes that her adoring fans still desperately want her to return to the screen, more than two decades after the advent of "talkies" have obsoleted her and every other silent-film star on the block. Once Norma learns that he's a screenwriter, she offers him room, board and refuge from his creditors -- in exchange for his help in revising the truly hopeless screenplay she's been writing for twenty years to prepare for her comeback--sorry, return.
At first, Joe sees her as a sap he can use to bide time and make some easy cash, but it becomes increasingly blurred just who's playing whom. More and more, he's trapped in his gilded cage: Norma buys him expensive things but never actually pays him, leaving him more and more dependent on her every fickle whim. Convinced her script (which is juvenile, trashy, and hours too long) will restore her to her rightful place as the greatest star of her day, she puts herself through a strict and at times absurd regimen to prepare herself for her return. She chooses to forget that she's now fifty rather than twenty-five, and for a Hollywood beauty queen, fifty might as well be one hundred.
Meanwhile, in secret, Joe has been working with Betty (Nancy Olson), an attractive young female screenwriter, on another script -- a script Joe sees as his redemption in more ways than one. Max, who has a few secrets of his own, appears increasingly annoyed at the attention Norma lavishes on Joe, and at Joe's dismissive attitude toward it. After a failed suicide attempt by Norma on finding out about the Other Woman, things come to a head, leading to a shocking conclusion which is also the film's opening.
In 1993, it was adapted into a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The Broadway premiere starred Glenn Close, and The 1996 Australian premiere in Melbourne showcased a relative unknown named Hugh Jackman, who played Joe Gillis opposite Debra Byrne as Norma Desmond, who, at the time, was ironically Australia's own White Dwarf Starlet. It won the 1995 Tony Award for Best Musical, in a year in which only one other show was even nominated.
The film contains examples of:
- All Take and No Give: Gillis takes because Norma gives and gives.
- As Himself: Cecil B. DeMille and Hedda Hopper play themselves. Norma's bridge partners, whom Joe dubs "The Waxworks," are also played by once-famous silent film stars (such as Buster Keaton) who are credited as themselves.
- Bittersweet Ending: Yes. Joe is dead and Norma shot him, but Norma's complete break with reality lets her think she's finally making her comeback.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: Norma Desmond's final speech puts a jarring little crack - indicting both Hollywood and moviegoers for her fate - in that fourth wall. See Freak-Out below.
- The Chessmaster: Joe thinks he's this. Boy, is he wrong.
- Chekhov's Gun: In this case, Norma's gun.
- Also the pool.
- To a lesser extent, the ostentatious car.
- Clingy Jealous Girl: Norma -- suffocatingly so -- due in part to her melodramatic star persona.
- Cool Car: Norma's customized 1929 Isotta-Fraschini 8A landaulet. One of Gloria Swanson's own cars.
- Crapsack World: For much of the picture, Joe sees the world this way.
- Deadpan Snarker: Joe Gillis.
- Dead All Along: One of the more famous examples of the trope and pretty much spoiled ever since due to how frequently it's referenced or parodied.
- Defrosting Ice Queen: Norma is an especially unsettling one.
- Deliberately Monochrome: The film is in black and white, which wasn't by any means unusual in 1950 but wasn't strictly necessary either.
- Destructive Romance: And OH, how dysfunctional, with Norma's outbursts and Joe's passive aggressive BS. Close to the end, it turns out that her relationship with her butler is even worse.
- Disco Dan: Norma is stuck in the 1920s.
- Everything's Better with Monkeys: Inverted with Norma's dead pet chimp.
- Executive Meddling: In-universe example, when Joe talks about his screenplays: "The last one I wrote was about Okies in the Dust Bowl. You'd never know because, when it reached the screen, the whole thing played on a torpedo boat."
- Freak-Out: Norma has one by the end, where she believes that the news cameras come to report on the murder are film cameras for the filming of her next movie, and addresses the camera with a speech, which ends famously:
"You see, this is my life. It always will be. There's nothing else - just us and the cameras and those wonderful people out there in the dark... All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup."
- Gallows Humor
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: It's strongly implied, and among the production crew outright stated, that Norma has been using her pet monkey as a surrogate lover.
- Which means that the unfortunate Joe caught her on the rebound.
- The nature of the relationship between Joe and Norma was also unmentionable in the Hays Code era.
- Though Joe does everything but spell it out for the audience: "Very simple set-up. Older woman who's well to do. A younger man who's not doing too well. Can you figure it out for yourself?"
- Glory Days: Norma Desmond's are well over.
Joe: You're Norma Desmond! You used to be in silent pictures; you used to be big!
Norma: I am big. It's the pictures that got small.
- Grand Staircase Entrance: Norma invokes this trope when she meets what she thinks is a Media Scrum covering her big comeback. She's actually getting arrested for Joe's murder.
- Green-Eyed Monster
- Grey and Gray Morality
- Happiness in Slavery: Though he's technically a servant, Max slavishly dotes on Norma, doing everything she asks and more, including running her old films over and over and even writing all the "fan mail" that she gets every day. He turns out to be her discoverer, career-long director -- and first husband. He's still in love with her.
- Happy Place: By the end of the movie, Norma's gone there, and she's not coming back.
- Hello, Nurse!: Norma, at least in her own head. She's a movie star, after all.
- Hey, It's That Guy!: Alongside all the silent movies stars "as themselves", Joe's friend Artie is played by Jack Webb, who had just begun to hit it big on the Police Procedural Dragnet. It's so weird to see that guy smile.
- Horrible Hollywood: Subverted, surprisingly enough. We do see decent people working in the film industry, and even DeMille As Himself defends Norma and what happened to her career. It's just all that fame and celebrity creating a "world of illusion", and that Hollywood is still a place of business where people get chewed up and spat out...
- Certain producers - notably Louis Mayer of MGM - weren't thrilled when the movie was made, worrying it would belittle Hollywood and insult film-makers.
- How We Got Here: With an epilogue as well.
- If I Can't Have You: Implied as the cause of Joe's death.
- I Never Got Any Letters: Inverted.
- The Ingenue: Betty exemplifies the trope (without being cloying). Norma used to and, tragically, still thinks she does.
- Insistent Terminology: Everything with Norma has to be her way, including the words. She's not making a comeback, she's making a return.
- Ironic Echo: Max was Norma's first director. When it's revealed Norma will come down for her arrest if she think they're filming her movie, Max rushes to the news cameras and begins lining them up like an old pro, getting ready to direct Norma one last time...
- It Got Worse
- It's All About Me: Norma lives her entire life like this.
- I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Cruelly subverted with Joe and Betty.
- He realizes that he can't provide the kind of life that Betty deserves so he pretends to be a major Jerkass so she will leave him to marry Artie.
- Also, this is Max towards Norma.
- Large Ham: Gloria Swanson as Norma, because that's how Norma behaves.
- Left the Background Music On: The organ as Joe enters Norma's parlor for the first time.
- Lemony Narrator: Joe's a particularly cynical example. Probably because he's dead.
- Love Makes You Crazy
- Love Makes You Dumb
- Love Makes You Evil
- Love Triangle: Except that Joe doesn't love Norma, he just has to appear to in order to keep her happy.
- Possibly a Love Dodecahedron once you factor in Betty's fiance.
- And then there's Max...
- Possibly a Love Dodecahedron once you factor in Betty's fiance.
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Betty, although she's not especially manic.
- Norma supplies manic to spare. Heck, she's kooky, shakes up our boring protagonists' life, and is by all means not all there -- Norma is a totally straight Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
- Manipulative Bastard: Joe sees himself as this, but he's an amateur compared with Norma and Max.
- Meet Cute: Joe and Betty (although for them, at the time, it's more "mortifying" than "cute"). Then it's subverted in a dozen different ways.
- Norma may see her first meeting with Joe this way, but he mostly views her as an annoying meal-ticket.
- Naive Everygirl: Betty, at least in the estimation of a jealous Norma. Betty, for her part, insists she isn't.
- Nice Guy: Betty's fiance, Artie. Also, Betty thinks Joe is this. Joe knows better.
- Joe sees Betty as a Nice Girl. And he's probably right, even if she is borderline-cheating on her fiance Artie.
- Oblivious Mockery: Joe Gillis complains to the producer Sheldrake that Betty Shaefer, a script reader, would have turned down Gone with the Wind; only for Sheldrake to reply "No. That was me".
- Out-Gambitted: Joe.
- Posthumous Narration: One of the most famous examples.
- Pretty in Mink: Several furs Norma wears, although in the style of 1920s clothes, like most of her wardrobe.
- Reality Subtext: Norma is played by Gloria Swanson, who was a silent film star, and worked with Cecil B. DeMille. Max is played by Erich von Stroheim, who was a silent film director.
- The movie that Norma and Joe watch together was comprised of footage of from Troubled Production Queen Kelly (1929) - directed by none other than Erich von Stroheim.
- And Cecil B Demille referred to Swanson as "young fella" when both were getting started in Hollywood.
- The Waxworks, of course, were real former Hollywood stars then considered has-beens, including Buster Keaton.
- Red Herring: Max, being Norma's "discoverer," principle director, and pathetically devoted first husband, would seem to have more than ample motivation to kill Joe. It turns out that Norma does it herself.
- Rule of Pool
- Scenery Porn: The whole film is exquisitely shot, often on vast and intricate sets.
- The stage production is also extremely elaborate.
- Shrine to Self: Played horrifyingly straight.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: It's Billy Wilder, so, cynicism.
- Sugar and Ice Personality: Max is a rather bizarre (and creepy) example.
- Those Two Actors: After the success of the film, this was attempted with William Holden and Nancy Olson; they appeared in three further films together, but none of them was really successful.
- Title Drop: The very first line: "Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California." Interestingly, there is no actual title card, and the first shot simply shows a street marker, so it's still debatable whether the title proper should be Sunset Boulevard or Sunset Blvd.
- True Companions: Evidently how Max tries to view things. Subverted first by Joe (who just wants to get paid and leave) and then brutally by Norma.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Norma Desmond's backstory is essentially the same as Gloria Swanson's, playing her. Her life after films turn to sound, not so much.
- Except Swanson's life never turned out like Norma's. When she was offered the role, she had already successfully put that part of her life behind her. However, she did know peers who were very much like the character, which was why she was reluctant to accept. She didn't want audiences to mistake the story for hers. Swanson thought she had made a comeback, only to learn she had been typecast.
- Western Zodiac: Norma mentions that she is a Scorpio. Given that sign’s general use in fiction, it probably explains a lot about her.
- What Could Have Been: Several other old-time stars were considered for the role of Norma Desmond including Pola Negri, Mary Pickford, and even Mae West. Montgomery Clift was originally cast as Joe Gillis, but pulled out - reputedly because he himself was dating a much older (and arguably washed up) singer at the time.
- White Dwarf Starlet: Norma Desmond is probably the ultimate example. She also supplies the page image.
- Wide-Eyed Idealist: Betty. Also her fiance.
- Writers Suck: Joe sells out his talent more or less for a quick buck and a place to stay, eventually leading to his death.
- This is highlighted in the musical, where he even gets a song about it.
- Yandere: Norma. Full stop.
Joe: What I'm trying to say is that I'm all wrong for you. You want a Valentino -- somebody with polo ponies -- a big shot --
Norma: What you're trying to say is that you don't want me to love you. Is that it?!
(She slaps him and runs upstairs.)
Then, later that evening, she slits her wrists with his razor in a half-hearted suicide attempt.
The musical also contains examples of:
- Actor Allusion: Glenn Close portrays a lonely troubled woman slowly driven to insanity due to her unhealthy obsession with a man, eventually she's pushed over the edge and goes on a murderous rampage... But enough about Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction.
- Adaptation Distillation: The musical, while staying extremely true to the film, gives more insight into Norma's character, making her a much more tragic and sympathetic well rounded figure, bordering almost on a Broken Bird.
- All Musicals Are Adaptations: Yep. The plot of the musical is basically identical to the movie, with possibly a few more details tossed in.
- Dark Reprise: At the end, after finally getting her audience, her cameras and the attention she so desperately craved, Norma belts out a powerful reprise of "With One Look," only the extremely dark and creepy orchestrations remind us what is really going on; she just killed a man, went insane and is being taken away by the police as the newsreel cameras record her final descent and humiliation.
- Final Love Duet: Subverted, as it occurs right before the finale and its Twist Ending (which, of course, the male lead does not survive).
- Grief Song: "Surrender"
- "I Am" Song: "With One Look"
- "I Want" Song: "As If We Never Said Goodbye"
- Mythology Gag: During Artie's New Year's Party, one of the girls present sings about her desire to work with Billy Wilder, who of course directed and co-wrote the original film.
- Race Lift: In the original Canadian production, Norma was played by Diahann Carroll, who is African American.
- Some regional productions have cast a black actor as Joe Gillis.
- Shout-Out: Andrew Lloyd Webber based Norma's "mad scene" on a similar scene at the end of Donizetti's opera Lucia di Lammermoor.
- Title Drop: "Sunset Boulevard," the Act 2 opener.