Sunset Boulevard is a tremendous film noir, crisply directed by Billy Wilder, with memorable dialogue and a stellar performance from star William Holden. Yet all of these impressive aspects must be content to sit comfortably in the back seat, because Sunset Boulevard will forever be known as the movie that introduced Norma Desmond to the world.
A big Hollywood star during the days of silent films, Norma (played by Gloria Swanson) has since faded into obscurity. Deep within the walls of her once-mighty Sunset Boulevard mansion, sheltered from a world that has forgotten her, Norma still considers herself a big star, and cannot, or perhaps I should say will not, accept that life outside goes on without her. When he first meets Norma, Holden's Joe is certain he’s heard her name before. “You used to be big”, Joe says. “I am big”, Norma replies, “It’s the pictures that got small”
Swanson, who had not appeared in a feature film for nearly two decades prior to Sunset Boulevard, is absolutely perfect as Norma. With her over-the-top mentality and delusions of grandeur, Norma Desmond could have easily descended to the level of a simple caricature, but Swanson allows a bit of personality to seep through the artifice, bringing life and depth to a very difficult character. In what may be the film’s most poignant scene, Norma finds herself back at Paramount studios for the first time in years, paying a visit to her old friend and director, Cecil B. DeMille. As Norma sits waiting for DeMille, who's hard at work shooting his next film, a few of the set workers begin to recognize her, and word quickly spreads that Norma Desmond has finally come home. Dozens of admirers gather around to greet her, and at this sudden outburst of unexpected affection, Norma begins to cry. Now, we’ve seen Norma cry before, usually when she’s trying to emotionally manipulate Joe, but this time the tears are genuine. It had been years since Norma truly felt the admiration of her fans, and to experience it once again has moved her deeply. Despite the fact that Norma Desmond was tyrannical, manipulative, and downright mean, I couldn’t help but smile for her during this scene. For the first time, we're clued in on just how popular Norma really was.
Of course, we know this moment won’t last forever. The true tragedy of Sunset Boulevard is that, in Norma's world, moments like this never end; she is now, and always has been, a shining star, and it's high time the rest of the world figured that out.
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