I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: The Fascination of ‘Sunset Boulevard”s Norma Desmond


Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  With each column I try to better understand the art of filmmaking.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

[Author’s Note: Again like last week, I have to apologize for a short post.  In what may need to be the new normal for this column (I go to a nerd school that requires perhaps too much of my time), this is another class-related essay about Billy Wilder’s 1950 noir-Hollywood takedown classic, Sunset Boulevard.  While William Holden’s Joe is an interesting guy in his own right, he is not the draw of the film.  To find that, one need not look further than his co-star.]

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) would seemingly like to believe she gave it all up for the movie business.  Whether she had other career prospects is left to our imaginations, but one might assume she had never given second thought about what she wanted in life.  She got what she wanted, then it was gone; she was shuffled to her trophy house as the talkies ushered in a new era.  While she probably realizes deep down that her career is dead, the steady stream of “fan” letters penned by her butler/former husband, Max (Erich von Stroheim) are enough to keep her delusion working.  She’s unbalanced enough — her chimpanzee pet and frequent suicide attempts enhance this notion — to believe her own lies, as it were.  Until Joe Gillis (William Holden) enters her life, she is at least content with the status quo.  His detached, sardonic wit keeps her at arm’s length, but she thinks she’s found everlasting happiness.  Joe’s editing work on her “return” (she hates the word “comeback”) script gives her inflated sense of self the extra push into insanity.  Her deluded reasoning tells her that Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself) wants to make her picture, and her preparations for the role take her from dignified beauty — she’s aged quite gracefully for a 50-year-old woman — into a bug-eyed grotesquerie.  Her beauty treatments leave her with unsightly things stuck on her face at all times, and they seem to undermine their own central idea: To return her to her peak years.  Norma does not see this. In fact, she clings desperately to the idea that she has something (or rather two somethings, with Joe and her rebounding career) to lose.  She’s not about to let them go without a fight; hence the treatments, domineering neediness, and ultimately, murder weapon.

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