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Film / Sunset Boulevard

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"We didn't need dialogue. We had faces."

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.

A classic 1950 Film Noir directed by Billy Wilder, Sunset Boulevard is a dark meditation on the film industry and the fleeting nature of fame, and to this day one of Hollywood's most scorching (yet wistful) depictions of itself. While the characters are deeply flawed, in some cases beyond any redemption, the film still manages to present them all as complex, sympathetic, and even endearing. It is generally regarded as one of the best films of all time.

As the film opens, an as-yet-unidentified man has been found dead, floating face-down 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" rendered her and every other silent-film star on the block obsolete. 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 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 Schaefer (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. In 2019, it was announced that a film version of the musical — with Close once again reprising her role from the stage production — had entered development. However, its production was delayed several times due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Close still intends on making the film someday.

This film provides examples of:

  • The '40s: The first half of both the film and the musical adaptation takes place toward the end of 1949, ending on New Year's Eve.
  • The '50s: The second half of the film (in its current state at the time of filming) and the musical adaptation takes place at the start of 1950, and you may know how this is going for Joe and Norma...
  • 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 plays himself. Norma Desmond first approaches him on the set of Samson and Delilah (1949), on which shooting had just wrapped. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper appears at the end. Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner and Buster Keaton appear in one scene as the "Waxworks", but aren't named.
  • Beauty Inversion: Gloria Swanson had to look more aged as Norma Desmond than she did in Real Life.
  • 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.
  • Betty and Veronica: Betty is, well, the Betty, Norma is the Veronica, and Joe is the Archie.
  • Biting-the-Hand Humor: 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."
  • Boy Meets Girl: Subverted. The film is ostensibly a Film Noir, but a boy does meet a girl in the beginning. Except the girl is a fading film star. Then he meets another girl in the middle of the film, which might actually do the trope straight, except we know that he dies in the end. Interesting in that the first girl does love him, but he hates her.
  • Break His Heart to Save Him: Joe does this to Betty. Though they've fallen in love, Joe realizes that he can't provide Betty with the kind of life she deserves. There's also the fact that Joe's in a complicated relationship with the mentally unstable Norma Desmond, who's obsessed with him and could potentially become violent (and she later does, killing him). Joe acts like a Jerkass to Betty so she'll leave him and follow through with her original plan to marry her fiancé Artie.
    • He tries doing this as he walks out on Norma, hoping she'll wake up to the reality of her faded career. It didn't end well.
  • 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. 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.
  • Casting Gag:
    • Gloria Swanson, who was an over the hill, forgotten silent movie actress, plays an over the hill silent movie actress.
    • She employs a butler who was once a famous, now forgotten, silent film director. This part is played by the once famous, then forgotten, silent film director Erich von Stroheim.
    • When Swanson's character is seen watching one of her old movies, it is ACTUALLY an old Gloria Swanson movie (Queen Kelly) - directed by Erich von Stroheim.
    • And then there are her card-playing buddies from the Old Days ("the Waxworks"), including Buster Keaton.
  • Charlie Chaplin Shout-Out: Norma impersonates Chaplin in one scene.
  • Chekhov's Gun: In this case, Norma's gun.
    • The swimming pool. The audience knows from the start that the victim is found dead in the swimming pool, and attention is drawn to the swimming pool throughout the film - the victim even goes so far as to obligingly turn on the pool lights, really to make his own death scene play better for the cameras! - and STILL it is a surprise ending...
    • To a lesser extent, the ostentatious car.
  • The Chessmaster: Joe thinks he's this. Boy, is he wrong.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Norma. As Joe is walking out on her, she comments desperately, "No one leaves a star. That's what makes one a star." Then she shoots him.
  • Cloudcuckoolander's Minder: Subverted by Norma Desmond's butler Max who enables her delusions of grandeur.
  • 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.
  • Deconstructed Character Archetype: Norma Desmond takes a lot of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl symptoms to their logical conclusion, with the twist that the protagonist isn't interested. From the start it's clear that she doesn't have both oars in the water as she's living in a decayed Big Fancy House, deluding herself that she'll make a comeback with a terrible, Glurge-filled screenplay of Salome. She quickly bonds with the narrator, agrees to commission him (to her disadvantage) and quickly throws his life into chaos, leading him to Character Development. But not in a good way.
  • 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: Norma and Joe's relationship and oh, what a dysfunctional one it is, with Norma's outbursts and Joe's passive aggressive BS. Close to the end, it turns out that Norma's 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.
  • Double-Meaning Title: Most of the movie takes place at Sunset Boulevard, the location of Norma's home. Sunset Boulevard is also a notable Hollywood street, which emphasizes the protagonists' movie backgrounds and the film's criticism of Hollywood. Not only that but Norma, an actress who is no longer in her prime, is metaphorically in the sunset of her years.
  • 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."
  • Fan Disservice: Joe's expression suggests this is his reaction to Norma's Chaplin routine.
  • Fatal Flaw: Norma is obsessed with being a movie star again despite her talent in finance. Made worse by her Butler Max who indulges her fantasy because he loves her.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The film starts with a shot of the main character and narrator lying dead in a swimming pool. Being a movie about a screenwriter and an old movie starlet, it sure as hell makes you wonder the whole length of the movie.
  • 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.
    • It's relatively subtle but Max is constantly directing both Norma and Joe and their entire relationship from the sidelines. It seems odd that he should be putting in so much effort given how much he clearly dislikes Joe from the start but then of course a once-successful movie director would know how a standard Boy Meets Girl love story should play out and, as the final scene shows, he's just as desperate to return to his former profession as Norma is to return to hers.
  • 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.
  • The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You: Norma Desmond, after going insane from killing Joe, is tricked into believing she will shoot a scene of her long-desired Salome movie. She then delivers a speech in which she states: "You see, this is my life. There's nothing else: just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark", while looking straight at the audience, then says she's "ready for her close-up" and proceeds to her finale, in which she walks right towards the camera as the image blurs.
  • 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
  • Germanic Depressives: Erich von Stroheim uses his natural Austrian accent when playing Max, and boy, does Max have a lot to be depressed about.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: It's strongly implied, and among the production crew outright stated, that Norma has been using her pet monkey as a surrogate lover. We're pretty sure this violates Sections II and IV, and possibly III, of the Hays Code
  • Glory Days: Norma Desmond is convinced that she is still as big a star as she was in the silent film era, even though she hasn't made any films since then.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Upon reviewing Norma's script, Joe figures he can earn a temporarily comfortable living editing it. He did, but it was a little too comfortable and at the cost of being her lover.
  • Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: Norma Desmond stands out because she smokes her cigarettes in a weird finger-mounted holder. One of her least weird tendencies.
  • 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.
  • Happier Home Movie: Variant: Norma constantly watches the old movies that she starred in.
  • 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.
  • The Hero Dies: The film opens with Joe's corpse lying in Norma's pool. The rest of the movie follows the events that led to his murder.
  • Horrible Hollywood: One of the most famous examples in film. Norma is a narcissist who is full of herself, no thanks to her former glory as a famous Silent Movie actress, while Joe is a hack writer who takes advantage of her. In addition, Hollywood press writers seeking monetary gain played a part in ruining Norma's career. That said, the film acknowledges that there are decent people working in the film industry, such as DeMille, who defends Norma in front of his contemptuous employees and explains to them that her downfall wasn't entirely her fault.
  • How We Got Here: The film starts with Joe explaining why he's floating face down in a pool.
  • Idle Rich: Norma is an oil millionaire but cares little for the business.
  • If I Can't Have You…: Implied as the cause of Joe's death.
  • If It's You, It's Okay: A nonsexual example: Norma doesn't care for talkies or actresses from the post-silent era, but grudgingly accepts Greta Garbo.
  • 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.
  • Jade-Colored Glasses: Joe notes that Betty reminds him of himself, when he was younger, before Hollywood ground down his ambitions.
  • 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 is 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: As Joe Gillis enters Norma Desmond's parlor, which is tragic and more like a tomb, haunting pipe organ music plays... at which point Norma turns to the pipe organ and comments about the wind getting into the cracked pipes.
  • Lemony Narrator: Joe's a particularly cynical example, probably because he's dead. As an early example, his voiceover when the homicide squad find his corpse floating in a pool goes like so:
    The poor dope - he always wanted a pool. Well, in the end, he got himself a pool.
  • 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.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: An extremely dark, but straight use. Norma is an eccentric, aging beauty queen, whose grip on reality is shaky, takes over Joe's life, using money and her luxurious life to tighten her hold on him.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Joe sees himself as this, but he's an amateur compared with Norma and Max.
  • Meaningful Name: Norma is fading into obscurity and old age, so of course she lives on Sunset Boulevard.
  • 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.
  • Meta Casting: Norma Desmond, a forgotten silent film star, was played by Gloria Swanson, a forgotten silent film star. Her butler Max von Mayerling, who used to be a leading silent film director, is played by Erich von Stroheim, who used to be a leading silent film director. (Needless to say, Swanson took her fall from stardom with much more grace and sanity than Norma.)
    • Also, Cecil B. DeMille plays himself, Hedda Hopper (a gossip columnist) plays herself, and the "Waxworks" (Norma's friends who are other forgotten silent film stars) are all played by...other forgotten silent film stars. (And Buster Keaton.) In general, this film is regarded to be one of the biggest cases of Meta Casting in Hollywood.
  • 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.
  • Mirror Character: It's subtle, but Joe and Norma are both equally obsessed with drama. Norma's failings are numerous and obvious, but pay attention, and Joe is not much better. He had every opportunity to escape 10086 Sunset Boulevard, with or without Betty, with or without leaving Hollywood altogether, with or without as much loot as he felt he could get away with, nothing physical was trapping him in the house, but he chose not to. And when Norma and Betty finally catch wind of each other, he invites the latter to the house (thus dragging her into danger) to Break Her Heart to Save Her... then decides to break up with the former anyway right there and then, to her face, despite knowing more than anybody how unstable she could be. He probably didn't expect to get shot, but everything he did was, consciously or not, designed to maximize the drama. Even earlier it's evident, as he tends to make jokes even where it's inappropriate, and at the New Year's party, where not an hour after having escaped from one bad situation, he's macking on the fiance of the guy who he just asked to board him for the next few weeks(!), not ten minutes after learning of their engagement(!!!). If Norma is delusional and stuck playing a dramatized version of herself from twenty-five years ago, Joe seems all-too-happy to play her victim.
  • Misidentified Weapons: Norma claims to have a revolver but when we see said gun in question it's actually a semi-automatic pistol.
  • Mistress and Servant Boy: Variant tragic version: the down-and-out writer Joe Gillis working for aging star Norma Desmond.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Joe Gillis is a screenwriter, and this proves important — he catches Norma Desmond's interest as she believes he can help her complete the script of her great comeback film. To complete the triangle, Joe's girlfriend Betty is another aspiring screenwriter.
  • The Name Is Bond, James Bond: After Mr. Sheldrake calls her "Miss Kramer": "The name's Schaefer. Betty Schaefer. Right now I wish I could crawl in a hole and pull it in after me."
  • Naïve Everygirl: Betty, at least in the estimation of a jealous Norma. Betty, for her part, insists she isn't.
  • Narcissist: Norma Desmond is a raging narcissist. She didn't take her descent from superstardom well. She hired a former director as a butler and reads fake fan mail. Eventually she goes completely delusional when she can't accept that the world doesn't revolve around her.
  • Never Sent Any Letters: Norma Desmond receives hundreds of fan letters a day — all written by her loving and dutiful butler, Max, to keep Norma in the sense of adoration that she's had since she was in the silent film system, and which has long since ended.
  • 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."
  • Oh, and X Dies: The film opens with a shot of a corpse floating in a swimming pool, while the narrator informs us that he is that corpse.
  • Old Retainer: Max.
  • Ominous Pipe Organ: Max plays the pipe organ rather ominously (if not very well) in the background in several scenes. This is commented on by Joe.
  • Out-Gambitted: Joe.
  • Posthumous Character: Joe Gillis enters the film as a body floating facedown in a swimming pool and proceeds to narrate the the events leading up to his death.
    • As originally filmed, Joe was speaking to other "dead" people in a morgue. Test audiences found the scene ludicrous and it had to be hastily revised prior to public release.
  • Posthumous Narration: The film actually starts with Joe's death; he tells us his story in Flashback.
  • Pretty in Mink: Several furs Norma wears, although in the style of 1920s clothes, like most of her wardrobe.
  • The Prima Donna: Norma Desmond clearly used to be this. Due to her sheltered life, she still believes millions of fans are desperately eager to see her next picture.
  • 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 seems to have motive and opportunity for the murder of Joe Gillis: he was Norma's discoverer and first husband, and is still slavishly loyal to her, trying to comfort her even as Joe wants to leave her, and he was outside with him. However, it turns out that Max is actually polite and docile, and Norma shoots Joe herself.
  • The Reveal: Two that turn much of the film on its head:
    • Max isn't just a creepily loyal butler, he's actually the director who discovered Norma and her first husband, who has been acting as manservant out of guilt for putting her in the state she's in.
    • Norma's "fan mail", which she keeps using to justify what she does, aren't real. They're just forgeries made by Max.
  • Rule of Pool: The film memorably opens with Joe floating face down in a pool.
  • Rule of Symbolism:
    • The film begins with our lead character Joe dead in Norma's in-ground pool. Said pool serves as a symbol of wealth and status and ends up being the site for Joe's death, after he failed to attain that wealth and status himself. Earlier in the film, when we first see the pool, it's empty and has rats crawling around in it. The huge pool, languishing in this state of decay, encapsulates the destroyed glamor of Norma Desmond's silent-era Hollywood. But, apparently, taking Joe as a lover brings Norma back to life, and in her excitement over the movie she thinks she's starring in, she has the pool cleaned and refilled. Joe sticks with Norma because it gives him a chance to enjoy fine things (like the pool) and be pampered with gifts.
    • Back in the day, when Norma built her mansion at the peak of her celebrity, it was quite the spectacle. But like the pool as mentioned above, it went through hard times. Joe makes a reference to Great Expectations where Miss Havisham gets angry at the world (and at men, in particular) after her fiancé leaves her at the wedding altar. Norma underwent a similar form of trauma when her fanbase and the movie producers and directors who formerly loved her finally got tired of her and shoved her aside. The house manifests the same deteriorating effects, provoked by this loss of love. It's a mirror for Norma's own mental state. Also, the inside of the mansion is filled with pictures of Norma — tons of reminders of her own lost glory and celebrity.
    • When Joe first arrives in Norma's driveway, trying to escape the repo men, Norma thinks that he's the undertaker for her pet monkey's funeral. And when she discovers Joe isn't in fact an undertaker for apes, she orders him out of the house. But he ends up staying when he convinces her to let him help her with her screenplay. Later on, at night, he witnesses the monkey funeral through the window. Joe thinks that Norma's life is empty because she's forced to seek companionship from an ape, but if you look into this more deeply, this subtlety symbolizes how Norma basically wants a dancing monkey to obey and amuse her. This also foreshadows what will happen to Joe himself: Norma probably doesn't really love him, but she needs him to love her or at least give her simulated affection and pay attention to her.
    • Norma's writing a screenplay based on the story of Salome, the Biblical princess who helps pull off a successful plot to behead John the Baptist. Naturally, Norma feels attracted to this role. She fancies herself a young, still-famous actress who could pull it off. The role also mirrors Norma's own destructive tendencies. Joe Gillis may not be a John-the-Baptist-type, but he's seer-like enough to gaze past Norma's illusions and into the abyss of loneliness and sadness lying behind them. And, like John the Baptist, he gets murdered. Plus, the story of Salomé is similar to the kind of Biblical epic that Cecil B. DeMille would direct (he would later do The Ten Commandments starting Charlton Heston as Moses). And since DeMille is the director Norma wants for the project it seems like a match.
    • While it's natural for an ex-movie star to constantly watch their own films, Norma takes it too far. She likes to watch her own movies because she's in love with her own celebrity. Obviously, this shows that Norma is self-obsessed, but it also makes it clear that she lives primarily in the past. Her craving for her own self-image is extreme. This quote from Joe sums it all up:
    Joe: Sometimes as we watched, she'd clutch my arm or my hand, forgetting she was my employer, becoming just a fan, excited about that actress up there she saw on the screen… I guess I don't have to tell you who the star was. They were always her pictures—that's all she wanted to see.
    • Due to her past suicide attempts, Norma's doctors have recommended that none of the doors in her house have locks—so she can't lock herself in a room and kill herself. Basically, while Norma believes that she's still a great star she secretly realizes that she's become significantly diminished in the eyes of the world. It's one of few times she's ever self-aware of this.
    • Betty loves all the unreal film sets and movie magic of Hollywood, since she grew up in a movie business family, she feels completely at home. But since showbusiness comes with a dark side, Betty's forced to try to change her appearance in order to find acting work. This teaches Betty to shoot for something other than stardom, so she goes into screenwriting — since screenwriters, while they might attain some real recognition and a lot of cash, never really become major celebrities. It also reminds her to keep it real. So, while she has idealism about movies, she also wants them to say something, to have a greater point. She seems to be helping Joe shake off his own cynicism in the process... even if it sadly doesn't work out.
  • 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.
  • Sarcasm Failure: Joe Gillis is exceptionally snarky, but suffers from this more than once as the situation around him takes yet another turn he doesn't want to make into a joke.
  • 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.
  • Sherlock Scan: Joseph Gillis says that Rudy can tell the state of a person's financial problems by the quality of their shoes.
  • Shirtless Scene: An uncomfortable one for Joe when he's swimming in Norma's pool.
  • Shout-Out: The scene in which Norma fatally shoots Joe in her swimming pool is kinda reminiscent of when George B. Wilson does the same to the titular character at his swimming pool in The Great Gatsby.
  • Shrine to Self: Norma's entire house is a shrine to herself and her former movie career.
  • Sinister Tango Music: Tango music plays as Norma forces Joe to dance with her.
  • 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 Versus Cynicism: It's Billy Wilder, so, cynicism.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: The unnamed duo of car finance/repo men play an extremely minor role in the film, yet it's thanks to them that conflict of the movie with Joe and Norma is allowed to happen. First, they pester Joe about the whereabouts of his car — he claims it's in the garage, but it isn't. After failing to get the money he needs to pay off the car, Joe ends up in a car chase with the repo men. He pulls into Norma Desmond's driveway, and the movie gets into its main conflict from there. Then later in the film, they do repossess Joe's car, which has the effect of making him even more dependent on Norma.
  • Smoking Is Cool: Norma Desmond smokes expensive cigarettes with a holder that is a strange piece of twisted wire that wraps around her index finger.
  • The Snark Knight: Joe has a comeback for everything.
  • Spurned into Suicide: Downplayed. When Joe ditches Norma to go to a New Year’s Eve party with his friends from the studio, she slits her wrists. He hurries back to her in alarm, and this results in her going full Yandere for him- he is the only person except for her faithful butler Max to have come back for her in any way, shape, or form.
  • Start to Corpse: The corpse is the opening shot.
  • Starts with Their Funeral: The film starts with a corpse floating in a swimming pool, then flashes back - turns out it's the narrator.
  • Starving Artist: Joe Gillis as a starving Hollywood screenwriter.
  • Stock Footage: The silent movie footage of Norma Desmond in her prime is from Gloria Swanson's 1929 film Queen Kelly.
  • Subordinate Excuse: Max is a dark example. He's still so devoted to Norma that he helps encourage her warped fantasies, even about a relationship with another man.
  • Sugar-and-Ice Personality: Max is a rather bizarre (and creepy) example. He's cold, uptight and extremely professional, but he does his best to keep Norma's delusion intact and it's clear that he's still in love with her.
  • 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. Despite her advancing age and secluded existence, she still believes she's big enough to star in one more picture, with Cecil B. DeMille to direct her. Includes a double helping of Reality Subtext, as Desmond was played by Gloria Swanson, who had been one of silent film's biggest stars but who never made the transition to "talkies". In a Genius Bonus, Desmond watches one of her old films, which is the Gloria Swanson movie Queen Kelly. This was directed by Erich von Stroheim, a once-prominent director whose career behind the camera ended with the silent film era (though he maintained an acting career), who plays Max (who, it turns out, was also her first director...and her first husband). (Because Queen Kelly went grossly over budget, and was never completed, it effectively ended both Gloria Swanson's and Erich von Stroheim's careers in the silent movie business.) Interestingly, Swanson had to be made up as older than she looked to play a character who was younger than she was!
    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: 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.
  • Adaptational Heroism: The musical 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."
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall / The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You: Joe spends the musical narrating his situation directly to the audience - and, depending on the actor/production, occasionally responds to their reactions (see Fanservice below). Also (as in the movie) Norma's repeated appeals (especially in the final scene) to "all you wonderful people out there in the dark" are directed to the audience, implicating them in her spiral into insanity.
  • 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.
    • "Surrender" wasn't exactly a happy song to begin with, but each time it's reprised it gets progressively darker: in the first reprise, DeMille sings sadly about Norma's faded glory; the second reprise occurs just after Max has revealed to Joe that he and Norma were married and explains that he "will not allow [Norma] to surrender"; the third and final reprise is part of Norma's descent into insanity in which she conflates her situation with Salome's in terms of murdering the man they love.
  • 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"
  • Informal Eulogy: In "The Final Scene", Norma has one in the form of an a capella rendition of the "Surrender" reprise, conflating her situation with Salome's when she sings to the press and the authorities about how she killed Joe.
  • 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"
  • Madness Makeover: More so than in the film, Norma dons a grotesque parody of Salome’s costume for the final scene.
  • Massive Multiplayer Ensemble Number: "Let's Have Lunch", especially toward the end of the song.
  • Mood Whiplash: After Max's "Greatest Star Of All" and the sorrow of burying Norma's deceased pet chimp comes the loud and high-tempo "Every Movie's a Circus".
  • 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.
  • Playing the Heart Strings: During "Final Scene", a slow, somber, instrumental string version of "Sunset Boulevard" plays as a dirge to the fallen Joe Gillis.
  • Precision F-Strike: "Let's Have Lunch" has one use of the word "fuck", and about a few uses of the word "shit". Other songs have the words "bitch", "ass", and "hell" on some occasions.
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner: As Joe is attempting to leave Norma after telling her the truth about her "fantasies" of being a silent film star, she angrily sings out this line before fatally shooting him not once, not twice, but three times:
  • 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.
  • Uncommon Time: The title song, "Sunset Boulevard", is in 5/8, and "Let's Have Lunch" continuously changes between 4/4, 3/4, and 2/4.
  • 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 close-up."