Norma Desmond at 70

 (Above: Norma is ready for her close-up. Source: Wikimedia)

 “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.” – Norma Desmond

Seventy years ago today, August 10, Sunset Boulevard had its world premiere at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Director Billy Wilder’s classic still speaks to our fascination with the rise and fall of celebrity, made much more powerful by the true and brave performance of its star, Gloria Swanson.

Question is, was Swanson’s own silent film career the inspiration for co-writers Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett?

Movies about Hollywood actors flaming out did not begin with Sunset Boulevard. Consider the original A Star Is Born (1937), which first followed middle-aged Norman Maine (Fredric March), a former leading man who descends into alcoholism and, ultimately, self-destruction.

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In Sunset Boulevard, silent film actress Norma Desmond experiences her own kind of star-machine rejection. 

Norma has been the casualty of movie sound technology and the industry’s embrace of a more natural acting style. Worse, she is yesterday’s fan magazine news, a middle-aged female no longer thought of as a lead ingénue or seductress.

She now lives as a recluse in a stylish, if highly dated, Sunset Boulevard mansion.  

With only her faithful butler, Max (legendary silent film director Erich Von Stroheim) for company, Norma exists in a richly detailed, self-imposed and secluded alternate reality.

Ritually, Max privately screens for “Madame” one of her forgotten flickers, as Norma coos over her lovingly revisited close-ups. 

Fully expecting a call from legendary filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille (who appears in a cameo), Norma gleefully awaits her next epic, one that will enthrall audiences and elevate her back into Hollywood’s pantheon.  

And why not? She still receives daily fan mail, all dutifully – if unknowingly – written by Max.

Norma’s carefully controlled fantasy-life is then enriched and disrupted by Joe Gillis (William Holden), a real-world, down-and-out screen writer. 

Joe reluctantly plays the roles of Norma’s young confidant, lover and impatient admirer to shield himself from creditors. Joe’s voice also serves as Sunset Boulevard’s film-noir narrator.

“I am big! It’s the pictures that got small.” — Norma Desmond

Swanson (1899-1983) was a big box-office draw in the 1920s. When Max screens one Desmond picture, lines between fiction and fact blur. Indeed, it’s the real Swanson in Queen Kelly, a 1929 silent film directed by Von Stroheim that wasn’t released until 1932. Like Desmond, Swanson’s career was also undone by talkies.

How gutsy then for “has-been” Swanson to portray “has-been” Desmond? For that matter, how about Buster Keaton’s self-effacing appearance in the film?

Numerous Norma inspirations were available to Wilder and Brackett. Wilder considered Mae West for Desmond and actually offered the role to Greta Garbo and Mary Pickford.

Swanson was director George Cukor’s recommendation – and a wonderful choice it was. She won a Golden Globe and secured an Oscar nomination for her performance. Wilder was similarly recognized by the latter for his direction, as was the film itself in the Best Picture category. Wilder and Brackett also won the Academy Award for Best Story and Screenplay.

Not everyone thought Sunset Boulevard was a winner. MGM studio mogul Louis B. Mayer reportedly lambasted Wilder’s depiction of Tinseltown. “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!” 

You can read about Wilder’s pithy four-lettered reply to Mayer in a 1999 Vanity Fair article.

Where to Stream Sunset Boulevard and Queen Kelly

You can stream Sunset Boulevard for free, with ads, on Pluto TV and Crackle, or uncut with Amazon Prime and CBS All Access subscriptions. You can also rent it from various providers starting at $2.99.

You can watch Queen Kelly with a subscription to IndieFlix, which costs $4.99/month, or $39.99 for an annual subscription. It includes a seven-day free trial.

About Charlie Greenberg

Charlie Greenberg is a NY-based theater and instrumental composer.

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