Hoo boy. There’s really no question why this is one of the greatest Hollywood films of all time — Gloria Swanson is completely magnetic as aging film-star Norma Desmond. The entire story shows us the process of her uncoupling from reality, and it’s at once fascinating and harrowing. Just when you think you have a handle on just how crazy Norma is, she surprises you with something else that gives her insanity a richer texture. She inspires revulsion, pity, bemusement and a sort of distant admiration by the film’s final image. She’s kind of a siren of insanity, pulling unwary men into the babbling brook of it so that they drown.
The latest (and final?) victim of Norma Desmond is a struggling writer named Joe Gillis (Holden, who was also in The Bridge on the River Kwai). He hasn’t written anything worthwhile in quite some time, and his situation has gotten desperate enough that repo men are coming for his car, and anyone who’s even seen LA knows what a nightmare it would be to have your car taken from you. He hides in the driveway of one Norma Desmond during the chase, and after some initial mistrust of each other they eventually strike up a business relationship (she wants him to work with her on her comeback screenplay) and then…something a bit more entangled.
Norma is a silent film star who started to fade as soon as talkies became popular. Her monstrous mansion is a testament to excess, a monument to herself that is far too large now that her stature has diminished. She lives a life of seclusion, relying on her butler Max (von Stroheim) for just about everything and playing bridge once a week with other old silent film stars. Fun fact: the “waxworks” she has over for bridge are all silent-film stars, including Buster Keaton. They say only one line a piece.
As Gillis becomes more involved with Desmond, he learns just how her downfall has ruined her. Her clinging to this increasingly inaccurate self-image of the young ingenue has created an elaborate self-deception that her butler is all too happy to encourage. Torn between participation in the charade and the hope of a normal life with a production assistant (Nancy Olson), Gillis straddles the line as much as he can. But of course, when you’re dealing with someone teetering on the edge of sanity you’re going to have to fall sooner or later.
Everything works in this film: Wilder directs with a supremely exact manner, striking every note and beat perfectly. He draws indelible performances from Swanson, who apparently didn’t have to do that much acting to play the role; Holden, who plays Gillis like a noir detective with no mystery to solve; and von Stroheim, whose stoic nature belies an unshakable passion for the woman he’s given his life to. The writing is crisp and pitch-perfect, and Wilder inhabits the film with so many touches of Hollywood history it’s easy to think this is a story that might have actually played out somewhere.
Desmond is a fascinating creation; she’s receded into the character of a starlet so deeply that there’s very little else left of her, and the “real” Norma bubbles up at the most disarming moments. You can hear her in the crack of her voice when she makes a quip, or the subtext of her manipulations of Gillis and Max. There’s a bewildered desperation that tints everything she does; somewhere under the glamor, the carefully maintained ice-queen demeanor, there’s a girl who can’t understand how she could be so revered and so thoroughly ignored in so short a time. It’s infuriating, how callously she treats people, but it’s also pitiful.
Her fall into madness is inevitable, I suppose, but it’s also perfectly horrific. The last line of the film (“Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”) points to a permanently shattered woman in much the same way the end of A Streetcar Named Desire does. All of the delusions and misdirections have been brought down, and rather than face the cold light of the truth Norma and Blanche both retreat permanently into their own fictions.
It’s tragic, but the horror comes from the recognition of that possibility within ourselves. We all deceive ourselves to some degree or another; could we ever go so far that when faced with the ultimate refutation of a deeply-held belief, we’d simply snap and go on living a life completely divorced from the reality staring us in our faces?
I think that’s one of the things that makes Swanson’s performance so impossible to look away from. She takes this very specific experience and somehow invites us to make it universal, to imagine ourselves in Desmond’s shoes by filling the cracks in her persona with a very human desperation. Swanson invites empathy for Desmond even while we’re recoiling in delighted horror as she pays the price for her clinging, her excesses. She takes someone who could easily be cartoonish and incomprehensible and brings her down to earth. It’s simply an amazing performance.
Billy Wilder also deserves a lot of credit here, as co-writer and director. His previous film on the AFI list (the excellent The Apartment) also showed a lot of surprising depth and wit while tackling a subject I’ve never seen handled in a 1950s movie. He displays a timeless understanding of the fragility of our emotions, which is all the more impressive coming from a society that urged the repression of many messy, complicated things. He engages with mental states so artfully; it’s really something else.
I can’t stop quite gushing about this film. The more I think of it, the more deeply I love it. If you’ve only heard a couple of quotes from it, or have a vague recollection of the story’s outline, I highly recommend that you discover Sunset Boulevard for yourself. It’s a wonderful surprise, and one of those films for the ages.