Thursday, March 01, 2007


Norma knew what she was doing

By Odienator
“No one ever leaves a star. That's what makes one a star.”

In Norma Desmond’s heyday, the films were silent but the roar of scandal was deafening. Surrounding her in Tinseltown were enough victims and perpetrators to fill more than one edition of "Hollywood Babylon," people who, for better or worse, made the papers and stayed in the public consciousness. Nothing could revive a career, or at least get people talking about you again, better than scandal — the more salacious the better. For all her delusions of grandeur, Norma Desmond had to know this. If it had somehow become lost in her clouded memory during the many years she languished in the big house on Sunset Blvd., her moment of remembrance came when she picked up that gun. Yes, Norma knew exactly what she was doing when she plugged Joe Gillis in the back. She shot him like the dog that he was. No one leaves a star, at least not alive.

“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

When I saw Sunset Blvd. on the big screen for the first time this year, I was awestruck at how much larger than life Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond was. I had seen the film numerous times before, on television in my youth and on DVD in my adulthood. It is my second favorite movie of all time, and Billy Wilder is my favorite director, yet seeing it projected the way Wilder intended presented me with not only a new appreciation of the feature, but a new take on it as well.

On the big screen, Sunset Blvd. is gorgeous, bathed in the silvery metallic coldness black and white cinematography afforded noir. Television did it no justice. Wilder was never properly given credit for having a directorial style, and he once mused that when someone said a shot was well directed, that was “proof that it was not,” but Sunset Blvd. contains some of the best shots Wilder ever committed to celluloid. One shot of Swanson’s face against a dark backdrop, illuminated only by the light of the projector beaming the film she and William Holden’s Joe Gillis are watching, plays on TV merely as a “well-directed shot.” On the big screen, surrounded by a darkness maintainable only in a theater, it appears that Norma Desmond is the moon in a pitch black sky, a disembodied silent film goddess allowing us the awe of her visage; it really felt like “just us, the cameras and those wonderful people out there in the dark.”

Ever since I first saw Sunset Blvd., I was plagued by one simple question: Is Norma Desmond really crazy? It was during the aforementioned shot that everything clicked, when the big Sylvania bulb popped up over my similarly shaped bald head. I had my answer: This is all a performance. Norma Desmond was pulling a Chicago.

“Life, which can be strangely merciful, had taken pity on Norma Desmond”

I used to consider Sunset Blvd’s famous ending to be a Pyrrhic victory for Norma Desmond. She had gotten what she wanted — the tongues were wagging for her again, but her delusions had overtaken her. I thought that Cecil B. DeMille was there only in her mind. Shooting Joe Gillis, the man who, like her former public, was turning his back on her, had seemingly driven her off the cliff of sanity. What nagged me was the death knell of Norma Desmond’s grasp on reality — it seemed too calculated. Until my theater experience, I could never put my finger on exactly why I felt that way.

There are several holes in Sunset Blvd’s plot, and I believe they are all intentional. Like any good lie, if one stares long enough at it, it will start to unravel. A liar can keep his story straight only so long, and if it’s a long story, it has to be compelling enough not to warrant closer inspection. Sunset Blvd. is saddled with an unreliable narrator, a screenwriter who has crafted his story in the vein of the films of his time. He is the victim, of course, and casts the instrument of his demise as a crazy old loon ruined for other lovers by his touch and his attention. In these woeful tales of male virility, the woman so loves the man that she commits suicide because she can’t live without him.

There are as many holes in Joe Gillis’ story as there are in Joe Gillis, but there are some givens we can take with us: Norma Desmond once was famous, and Joe Gillis never was. Joe Gillis is dead, and Norma Desmond shot him. These are the things our narrator can’t alter. He reminds us that we read about the murder in the paper, so we’d know if he tried to alter this part of the story. We know that Norma Desmond was once a famous silent film star for Paramount, and in the meta world of Sunset Blvd., we know that Gloria Swanson was as well. Concrete facts even an unreliable narrator can’t remove from the stone in which they were etched. Every other detail is fair game, and Gillis’ last minute pitch of pity for Norma sounds hollow and bitter, the words of just a gigolo who got bested at his own game.

“We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!”

Joe Gillis stumbles upon Norma’s estate while running from creditors. It is he who recognizes Norma, who was making films before Gillis was born. Gillis must have been a fan who sought out her work, because in 1950, he tells us that she has long since faded into obscurity. How would he know that she used to be big? Norma implies that the advent of the talkies killed her career, but not before it made her a very rich chick. Gillis sees her as his meal ticket, and his narration doesn’t hide that detail.

What Gillis doesn’t say, but what Wilder lets bubble just under the surface, is that Gillis is enamored of the celebrity Norma once had, and of silent film stars in general — he knows her work but doesn’t let us know how well he does. He also knows how big she once was, and perhaps that can rub off on him if he sticks around long enough. One can imagine how lucky he felt turning into Desmond’s driveway on that fateful day. Gillis is trying to get famous, and he knows before Norma can tell him that she still has connections at the studio, however weak they may be. Getting into her orbit is a way for him to meet some stars whose careers didn’t end once sound came to Hollywood.

Desmond pays his bills, but he only protests so much when she moves him into her house. After Desmond “slits her wrists,” Gillis uses that as an excuse to let us know why he became sexually involved with her. He’s crafted her as such an undesirable, yet he needs to clarify that she made him do it, that it isn’t sex in exchange for money. (Several times he tells Norma he doesn’t want her money, but takes it anyway.) That would make him less sympathetic in his story. Norma’s act is depicted in quotation marks above because Wilder never makes Norma’s wrist slitting feel realistic. Just hours after the act, her slit wrist is helping her hand become some kind of terror claw — a jazz hand from Hell — grabbing Joe Gillis’ head during their pre-coital New Year’s Eve escapade. Later in the film, Desmond’s wrists don’t look as if they’d ever been slit, not even once.

Gillis becomes Norma’s kept man, but when he realizes that he doesn’t need her, that he has an insider in the studio with fresher ties than Norma, he has to break it off. He’ll look like a heel if he did it solely for that reason, so he has to make Norma an intolerable egotist and damn near crazy to justify his actions. Since the story is told in flashback, this gives our narrator the ability to backload his story with characterizations that make him the victim. You’d try to escape from the Norma that Gillis describes, but not even his sarcasm can hide the sympathy the film gives her when Gillis isn’t talking.

“Madame is the greatest star of them all.”

What about Max? Why would he come back? To Gillis, he seems like far too devoted a weirdo, writing fan letters for Norma every week and watching their every move. There are no doorknobs in the doors not because they protect Norma from committing suicide (taking that gun away from her would work better than taking away doorknobs), but so that Max can observe what’s going on in every room of the house. Max being Norma’s former director — another meta fact that Gillis’ narration can’t dispute — makes one question what his role really is. He comes off as Norma’s enabler, but is he really still in love with her? “I asked to come back,’ he tells Gillis. It is Max who tells Joe Gillis that “madame has slit her wrists,” on New Year’s Eve, providing him with an excuse to come back to Norma’s place. It is also Mayerling who does Norma’s “dirty work,” moving Gillis in and hiding his car at Norma’s request to protect him from the guys who are chasing him. He seems like a big deus ex machina in Joe’s story.

“Tell her there isn't going to be any picture.”

So where am I going with all this? How is Norma Desmond pulling a Chicago, that is, faking her insanity in exchange for newfound infamy and a return to the public eye? I think Wilder is crafting Sunset Blvd. as a story whose narration doesn’t always match what the director is showing you. I think the “real” story of Gillis’ demise is that he latched on to Norma, a recluse who was eccentric enough in her heyday for Hollywood to imagine her doing weird things in her crumbing mansion on Sunset Blvd., she fell for him, he took her money, and she shot him. Before doing so, she went to visit Cecil B. DeMille with a horrible script Joe Gillis wrote for her comeback, and when nobody was interested, Gillis realized his meal ticket wasn’t going to get him anywhere. When he realized that he could get further with a script of his rewritten by a far more talented Nancy Olson, he dumps Norma. Norma, pissed off that Gillis is leaving her, shoots him, then realizes that, by acting even loonier than her expected eccentricities belie, she’ll get off AND get famous again.

For Gillis’ pleasure, Norma becomes her onscreen silent film persona, a persona he secretly got off on because he was into silent film stars. Swanson plays Norma like a silent film character who can talk — she uses gestures and facial expressions that would render dialogue useless yet she speaks it the way her grandiose movements would demand. This would seem very weird to anyone who didn’t have a thing for silent film stars, but was probably a way to keep Gillis sexually interested in her, at least until Nancy Olson shows up. This could be partly “true” and partly our unreliable narrator’s flight of fancy — he keeps using Norma’s behavior to justify wanting to leave her, behavior that would seem strange in a 1950 movie but not a 1925 movie.

I have just done what I’ve accused Joe Gillis of doing. I’ve revised the “real” story with my own interpretation, so I could feel better about Norma’s fate. I’m giving her a sweeter revenge than the picture does, but I hope I at least gave enough reasons to delude myself into believing my interpretation could be true. Like me, Sunset Blvd. sympathizes with Norma and thinks Joe Gillis is a heel who got what he deserved.

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This is a very interesting idea. I definitely agree with the idea that Joe is an unreliable narrator, but I'm not convinced that Norma hasn't really gone off the deep end (she was having a funeral for a monkey when Joe showed up after all). As for Max, who knows? Maybe he just never stopped loving her. If your thesis is true though, it's interesting that Wilder followed this with Ace in the Hole tackling media sensationalism.
Wow! Odie, if I was a juror, I'd have to be dismissed. I've just got too much emotion wrapped up in the story. I've seen the film dozens of times & each time I'm so engrossed that I don't catch any holes in Gillis's story - but then again, I forget he's going to get it in the end, everytime.
This is the Kabbala of Sunset Blvd. interpretations.
Norma's monkey funeral wouldn't seem odd to anyone who's seen Errol Morris' Gates of Heaven!!

Norma is eccentric to be sure. And I have always thought she was somewhat crazy. I just can't shake that some part of her is loving the spectacle of infamy, and that part of her is vibrantly sane. Look at all her contemporaries in the 20's. How many crazy scandals and debauched stories did they have?

When I saw Sunset on the big screen, and it was my 12th time seeing the film, Gloria Swanson scared the shit out of me. I feared that she would come off the screen and be 50 feet tall when she did. Lurching in noirish black and white, her claw-like hand reaching out to grab me as Fay Wray to her King Kong. In her famous last scene, I almost ducked. I recommend that experience for anybody who underestimated Billy Wilder's directorial style, including Wilder himself.
A fascinating thesis...I'm not sure I agree with your interpretation in total, but this certainly makes me want to take another look at the film. Somewhere (I can't remember where) David Thomson wrote an imagined biography of Norma Desmond, tracing her journey back to her humble beginnings in Wichita or some such place. It was a riot.
Interesting, turning Sunset Boulevard into an early Nabokovian exercise in an untrustworthy narrator - the major problem with the thesis is that I don't see much of a split between Gillis-as-narrator and Wilder-as-narrator for most of the body of the film. Actually, the bigger reason to avoid this interpretation is because it feels like it robs the film of some of its great ironic power: I prefer the idea of a crazy star and a shitheel writer to the story of _just_ a shitheel writer.
This is a brilliant piece, Odie -- one that makes me look differently at a movie I've probably seen a dozen times and thought I'd absorbed completely. For me, the most intriguing aspect is how it recontextualizes aspects of performance and narrative that never quite jibed for me -- chief among them Norma's seeming "performance" as a woman losing her mind, which reaches its nutty apotheosis in that "Ready for my closeup" moment. It's so stylized it's like a parody, and as such, it's hard to see a smart guy like Joe failing to see through it -- which is why I love your idea of the movie we're watching being a retrospective projection -- Joe's dishonest, self-deluding, self-serving version of what happened, a version designed to make him more sympathetic.

I love the idea of Norma as film noir's oldest femme fatale -- or an actress playing the role of a femme fatale, to get what she wants (attention and perhaps a rejuvenated career). The observations about Norma's slit wrists (or not-slit wrists) would definitely back this up; Wilder's attentive enough that I can't see this as a mere continuity error.

In context of film noir, the movie's de facto genre, this all points to SUNSET BLVD. being as radical a deployment of first-person narration as THE BLACK DAHLIA, a film with which SUNSET would make a great double-bill. Joe Gillis -- whose studly presentation, complete with beefcake poolside shots, makes him sort of an homme fatale -- is hoping to get ahead by shtupping Norma; he hooks up with her so that he can play her, but he gets played, of course. The narration you aptly characterize is then clarified as being unreliable -- Joe is omitting some truths and revising others in order to make himself a victim and Norma the victimizer. Norma only played the part of a sociopathic manipulator; Joe is (or was) the real deal.

Great stuff.
Jeffmcm: I prefer the idea of a crazy star and a shitheel writer to the story of _just_ a shitheel writer.

So would I, but in telling his manipulated story, Joe Gillis the shitheel writer is inadvertently turning Norma Desmond into one of the greatest female characters to ever grace a screen. Maybe the boy had talent after all.

Gillis' narration and dialogue are only "sympathetic" to Norma at the end, while Wilder's direction, and the way he frames Norma, indicate that we're supposed to sympathize with her no matter what we hear Gillis say.

MZS: Norma only played the part of a sociopathic manipulator; Joe is (or was) the real deal.

Someday we'll have to do that piece on William Holden, an actor who, no matter how victimized onscreen, never gave any opening for viewers to like him. I've seen him in plenty of movies, and I'm always tempted to punch him out.
As with everyone else here, I'm impressed with your fresh and articulate take on a film I have seen countless times; it's truly one of my favorities. I even had a play written for me called "The Norma Desmond Strategem" wherein I got to say all her best lines! That was fun.

That being said, however, I think you rob something from Norma Desmond if you attribute her behavior to "doing a CHICAGO"; for me it is how she has broken that emphasizes Hollywood's Boulevard of Broken Dreams. If she's just performing, it reduces the horrific punch.
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