Joe Gillis: You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma Desmond: I am big. It's the pictures that got small!
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. 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 Hollywoodmansion on Sunset Boulevard. Ournarrator, 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.
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/Downer 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. Joe says in the narration: "So they were turning after all, those cameras. Life, which can be strangely merciful, had taken pity on Norma Desmond. The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her."
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.
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."
Forged Message: The fan letters that Norma had been getting over the years were actually written by her butler Max to spare her from the fact that the public had forgotten her.
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:
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.
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 spit 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.
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 thinks 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.
Pretty in Mink: Several furs Norma wears, although in the style of 1920s clothes, like most of her wardrobe.
Red Herring: Max, being Norma's "discoverer," principal 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.
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.
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; 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 signís general use in fiction, it probably explains a lot about her.
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:
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.
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.
Fan Disservice: Depending on who plays Norma and how she plays it, the "dance of the seven veils" interlude in "Salome" is this about half the time.