Cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough
Oscar Wins: Best Writing, Story and Screenplay (Charles Brackett, D. M. Marshman, Jr., Billy Wilder), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White (Hans Dreier, John Meehan, Sam Comer, Ray Moyer), Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Franz Waxman)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (William Holden), Best Actress (Gloria Swanson), Best Supporting Actor (Erich von Stroheim), Best Supporting Actress (Nancy Olson), Best Director (Billy Wilder), Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (John F. Seitz), Best Film Editing (Arthur P. Schmidt, Doane Harrison)
SUMMARY: At a run-down mansion on Sunset Boulevard, the body of a man is found floating face down in a swimming pool. The man is Joe Gillis (William Holden), who then narrates a flashback explaining how he came to be dead in the pool. Half a year earlier, Joe was an unsuccessful screenwriter who owed three months’ worth of rent and car payments. He tries to call in a favor with a Paramount Pictures producer, but his script pitch is turned down after a reader named Betty Schaefer pans it. After leaving the studio, Joe is followed by men who have come to repossess his car. When he blows a tire on Sunset Boulevard, he pulls into what he believes is an abandoned mansion. However, he soon realizes that the house is not empty: it is inhabited by silent-film legend Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim). When Norma learns that Joe is a screenwriter, she persuades him to read a script that she has written, and that she plans to use as a comeback vehicle for her acting career. Joe realizes that the script is terrible, but since he needs the money, agrees to work on it for a fee. So that he will always be available for collaboration, Norma insists that Joe move into the mansion. Joe soon learns that Norma is obsessed with her stardom, and refuses to believe that she has been forgotten. She is proud of the fact that she still receives hundreds of fan letters every day – she is completely unaware that the letters are all written by Max, who does it in an attempt to keep Norma from falling into depression (she has already made several suicide attempts). Joe lives the plush life at Norma’s mansion, allowing her to buy him expensive clothes and jewelry (he is at first uncomfortable with this, but eventually relents). At a New Year’s Eve party thrown by Norma, Joe realizes that Norma has fallen in love with him. He tries to dissuade her of affections, but she slaps him and storms off. Joe then leaves the house, intending to stay with a friend, film extra Artie Green. When he arrives at Artie’s apartment, Joe learns that Artie’s girlfriend is Betty Schaefer, the woman who panned his script at Paramount. Feeling bad about this, Betty tells Joe that she believes a part of one of his other scripts has potential, but Joe dismisses this. He calls Max to tell him to pack his things, but learns that Norma has cut her wrists in a suicide attempt. Joe rushes back to Norma’s house, where he allows himself to become involved with her. He abandons all plans to leave.
When Norma believes the script is ready, she sends Max to deliver it to Cecil B. DeMille. Not long after, a man from the studio begins calling the house, but Norma refuses to speak to anyone by DeMille himself. When he doesn’t call, she, Max and Joe go to the studio. Norma sees DeMille, who treats her as the star she once was, while only vaguely referring to the script (which the studio dismissed as horribly). Outside, Max and Joe learn that the reason the studio had been calling was because they wanted to rent Norma’s fancy old car, not because they were interested in the script. Led by DeMille to believe that her movie is a go, Norma begins all sorts of beauty regimens, including going to bed very early. While she is sleeping, Joe begins sneaking out to meet with Betty Schaefer and work on the script she had suggested. Even though she is engaged to Artie, Betty and Joe eventually fall in love (though they do spend all their time together working on the script). Joe’s secret is discovered by Max, who warns him not to hurt Norma. Max then reveals that he was once a great Hollywood director, and was also the one who discovered Norma as a teenager. He made her a great star, and eventually became her first (of three) husband. When she left him, Max decided that he could not live without her, and gave up his directing career to work as her servant. One night after Joe returns to the house, Norma finds the script, which has Joe and Betty’s names on it. She calls Betty repeatedly, and hints that Joe is a kept man. During one of these calls, Joe walks into the room: he grabs the phone from Norma, and tells Betty to come over to the house. When she arrives, Joe disdainfully gives her a tour of the house, and explains how he lives. His cold-heartedness drives Betty away in tears. Norma believes that Joe has done this for her, but finds that he is packing his things and preparing to leave California entirely. She threatens to kill herself with a gun she just bought, but Joe is unmoved. He even tells her that she is living an illusion: there is no movie deal, the fan letters are fake, and she has been forgotten by the public. Joe walks out of the house, followed by a pleading Norma. Just as he gets outside, Norma shoots him three times; the last shot drives him into the pool, where he is found at the beginning of the movie. After shooting Joe, Norma completely snaps, and believes that she is at the studio, preparing to shoot her movie (she believes all the news cameras are the set cameras). She refuses to talk to the police or reporters, and eventually the police realize that to even get her out of the room, they will have to play along with her fantasy. Max pretends to be DeMille, outlining the scene for Norma and pretending to direct. Norma dramatically walks down the stairs, then pauses and tells the reporters (whom she believes to be the film crew) how glad she is to be back at work, and how much she has missed all of them. She then looks at Max and says, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
MY TAKE: This is an original story, but it sure resembles reality in a lot of ways, which I think makes it more interesting. To start with, Gloria Swanson really was a silent-film star whose movie career had dwindled with the invention of talkies. Actually, she made the transition pretty well, but her career did peter out in the 1930s; she began working in television and theater instead. Unlike Norma, Swanson wasn’t obsessed with regaining her movie-star status (though she did after playing this role). In the movie, Norma regularly plays bridge with other former film stars, including Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H. B. Warner, who all play themselves. The character of Max, who was once a famous director, is played by Erich von Stroheim, who really was once a famed director, and really did direct Gloria Swanson on at least one occasion. Furthermore, Cecil B. DeMille, who played himself in the movie, did direct Gloria Swanson often; most of her fame came from the movies she made with him. If Gloria Swanson had been crazier, it would have been just like art imitating life. Make no mistake, Norma is nuts in the movie, in much the same way that Bette Davis’ character in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is nuts. Joe figures this out from the beginning, but stays with her, and helps further the illusions that keep her happy. It’s really kind of sad, because Norma has all the money she could possible want, but is extremely lonely and unhappy (proof that stardom is fickle and fleeting). However, it must be admitted that she hasn’t really tried to make the transition to modernity: she insist that things were perfect as they were twenty years ago, that movies don’t need sound, and that modern styles of dress and habits (like chewing gum) are ridiculous. The casting of Gloria Swanson was brilliant, since she really was a silent film star: Norma insists that she doesn’t need to speak, because she can say everything with her eyes, which she actually does pretty well. Sometimes it’s a little creepy, because her eyes open so wide you think they’re going to pop out, but she does an excellent job of demonstrating how acting techniques were different during the silent era.
RATING: Fascinating, terrific.