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Film / Sunset Boulevard

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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. While the characters are deeply flawed, some of them beyond any redemption, the film still presents them each as complex, sympathetic, and even endearing. It is generally regarded as one of the best films of all time.

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 (Erich 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 Joe is a screenwriter, she offers him room, board and refuge from his exchange for his help in revising the truly hopeless screenplay she's been writing for twenty years to prepare for her comeback 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 musical returned to Broadway in 2017, still starring Glenn Close.

This film provides examples of:

  • All Take and No Give: Gillis takes because Norma gives and gives. He's actually fully aware he's in this kind of relationship, and lampshades it late in the film, but is too comfortable to bring himself to break out of it. Norma has the opposite relationship with Max, taking and taking from him endlessly.
  • As Himself: Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner and Hedda Hopper play themselves.
  • Beta Outfit: The outfit for when Norma traveled to the studio still included a white ermine hat, but it was like a head scarf. Swanson suggested a hat more fitting the style of The Roaring '20s.
  • Biting-the-Hand Humor/Reality Subtext: The Movie. Studios were very aware of all the Take Thats and In Jokes in the film. Most were not amused and many were wary of the subversiveness of the film.
  • 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."
  • Break His Heart to Save Him: Joe loves Betty, but pushes her away so she'll marry Artie, a genuinely good man who adores her, and not get hurt by Joe's own shortcomings.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall / The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You: Norma Desmond's final speech puts a jarring little crack - indicting both Hollywood and moviegoers for her fate - in that fourth wall. She then approaches and mugs at the camera. See Freak Out below.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Norma really is quite savvy with her money but her obsession with becoming a star again overrides everything else.
  • The Cameo: The "waxworks" former silent stars that appear as Norma's bridge partners are silent stars Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner (who actually had a successful career in sound films as a character actor, playing among other roles the part of Mr. Gower in It's a Wonderful Life), and none other than Buster Keaton.
  • Charlie Chaplin Shout-Out: Norma impersonates Chaplin in one scene.
  • Chekhov's Gun: In this case, Norma's gun.
    • Also the pool.
    • To a lesser extent, the ostentatious car.
  • The Chessmaster: Joe thinks he's this. Boy, is he wrong.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Norma — suffocatingly so — due in part to her melodramatic star persona.
  • Cloudcuckoolander's Minder: Max.
  • 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.
  • 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. Wilder would proceed with the B&W all the way to 1960.
    • Considering the movie's many stylistic nods to silent movies, 1930's style horror movies and Film Noir, black and white photography is very appropriate.
  • 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.
  • Dies Wide Open: Joe is shown dead with his eyes open in the pool at the beginning. However, when the homicide squad pulls him out of the pool, his eyes are closed.
  • Disco Dan: Norma is stuck in the 1920s.
  • Everything's Better with Monkeys: Inverted with Norma's dead pet chimp.
  • Exact Words: Technically Norma never says she'll give Joe any cash payment. She just says he shouldn't worry about money.
  • 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."
  • Famous Last Words: "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up." To clarify, Norma's not dying, but it marks her final descent into insanity.
    • "Goodbye, Norma" - Joe Gillis.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The plot of Norma's screenplay "Salome" mirrors Norma's "relationship" with Joe.
    • At one point Norma tells Joe, "I'll fill the pool for you."
    • Joe keeps feeding Norma's ego to make her feel better. Turns out Max has been doing the same thing for years.
  • 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:
    "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 close-up."
  • Gallows Humor
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar:
  • Glory Days: Norma Desmond's are well over.
  • 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 murdering Joe.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Norma is jealous of Joe's potential relationship with Betty.
  • Grey and Gray Morality: Norma is the antagonist but she's a depressed recluse who wants to make a comeback in movies. Joe is the protagonist but he's a broke writer feeding Norma's ego just to secure his own comfort.
  • 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...
  • 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.
  • Insecure Love Interest: Joe doesn't think he's good enough for Betty, since he's self-aware enough to realize he's sort of a jackass. In the end, he breaks her heart to spare her the pain of finding out on her own.
  • 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.
  • It's All About Me: Norma lives her entire life like this. Joe isn't much better, though.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Paramount producer Sheldrake turned down Gone with the Wind because he thought nobody would watch another Civil War picture.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy:
    • Joe 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.
  • Jerkass: DeMille's assistant, who is needlessly cruel in offering to give Norma the brush-off, which the director chastises him for. The same assistant also rather tactless about Norma's age, but backtracks when DeMille points out that he's old enough to be her father.
  • 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: Norma's mental state deteriorates as she falls for Joe.
  • Love Makes You Dumb
  • Love Makes You Evil: Norma turns into a Yandere over her obsession with Joe.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Joe loves Betty but has to pretend he loves Norma, who loves him. Betty also has a fiancee. And then there's Max.
  • 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.
  • Milking the Giant Cow: Norma does this a lot. Most blatantly when she leaps up from her seat when she and Joe are watching the movie.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Joe's a screenwriter.
  • Misidentified Weapons: Norma claims to have a revolver but when we see said gun in question its actually a semi-automatic pistol. There is actually a lot of Fridge Brilliance to this. Someone of Norma's generation would have gown up in a world where revolvers where synonymous with any form of handgun. Someone working in the silent film era where no one needed to worry about semantics like "pistol" and "revolver" would also not need to know the difference. By the time the film takes place you could expect a gun owner to know the difference, but Norma likely bought her pistol years ago on a whim. In other words shes behind on her gun knowledge as she is everything else.
  • Naïve Everygirl: Betty, at least in the estimation of a jealous Norma. Betty, for her part, insists she isn't.
  • New Year Has Come: Norma invites Joe to a New Year's Eve "party" at which he turns out to be the only guest.
  • 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".
  • Old Retainer: Max.
  • 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.
  • Private Eye Monologue: Joe's narration is all done in this style, utilizing a lot of hard-boiled descriptions and unemotional language, which feels genuinely in-character for a cynical, bottomed-out hack screenwriter with very little self-respect.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: De Mille still sees Norma as that 17 year old starlet who never grew up.
  • 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.
  • Rich Idiot with No Day Job: Norma is an oil millionaire but cares little for the business.
  • Rule of Pool
  • Sanity Slippage: Contrary to cultural memory, Norma actually starts out comparatively sane. Her inflated ego is enabled by Max, who takes great care never to allow anyone or anything into her sheltered world that might threaten her self image. Even her deluded belief in the fans clamoring for her return is justified by the countless fan letters she gets every week, which are all written by Max. When Joe enters the picture, her hidden loneliness spurs her to obsession that, combined with factors such as the phone calls from Paramount wanting to rent her car and De Mille's inability to tell her what's really going on, take a serious toll on her mental stability.
  • Scenery Porn:
    • The whole film is exquisitely shot, often on vast and intricate sets.
    • The stage production is also extremely elaborate.
    • We also get behind-the-scenes glimpses, especially the scene where Joe and Betty walk through the backlots at night, that were quite special in 1950.
  • Shirtless Scene: An uncomfortable one for Joe when he's swimming in Norma's pool.
  • Shrine to Self: Played horrifyingly straight.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: Betty and Joe's relationship is this. They argue and snark at each other like no one's business, but their grins make it clear they enjoy it, and do genuinely like each other.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: It's Billy Wilder, so, cynicism.
  • Sugar-and-Ice Personality: Max is a rather bizarre (and creepy) example.
  • 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; 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.
    • The silent footage of a young Norma acting in a film directed by Max is taken from Queen Kelly, a never-finished film starring Gloria Swanson, directed by Erich von Stroheim.
  • White-Dwarf Starlet: Norma Desmond is probably the ultimate example. She also supplies the page image.
    Joe: Her career? She got enough out of it. She's not forgotten. She still gets those fan letters.
    Max: I wouldn't look too closely at the postmarks.
  • 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: In the musical— 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.
  • Arc Words: Plenty.
    • "The greatest star of all..."
    • "Surrender."
    • "We gave the world new ways to dream."
  • Chekhov's Gun: Literally. Norma never uses that revolver... on herself. Joe wasn't so lucky.
  • Composite Character: Sheldrake is the one who tries to rent Norma's car for the next Bing Crosby picture, eliminating the character of Gordon Cole, who is the one that inquires about the car in the original film.
  • Darker and Edgier: Norma's descent into madness is far more disturbing onstage. Made very prevalent in the ending.
  • 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.
  • Determinator: "Salome" is all about her (and Norma's) obsession to get whatever she sets her mind to.
  • 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.
  • Fanservice: Audiences have delivered wolf whistles at the sight of the bathing suit-clad Joe climbing out of the pool in some productions that ditch the white leisure suit he wears in the original staging. Occasionally, this leads to a little Breaking the Fourth Wall as the actor will fully acknowledge this with a little preening and strutting.
  • Final Love Duet: Subverted, as it occurs right before the finale and its Twist Ending (which, of course, the male lead does not survive).
  • Foreshadowing: Note how many times the word 'pool' comes up in the songs.
  • Grief Song: "Surrender"
  • "I Am" Song: "With One Look"
  • Irony: A musical where the female lead constantly sings about how the movies were better when no one spoke.
  • "I Want" Song: "As If We Never Said Goodbye", "This Time Next Year"
  • 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.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Norma isn't evil — just terrifyingly insane. By the ending, it's almost impossible not to pity her.

"Alright, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup."