This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback series
– By Sam Hendrian –
“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small!” So go the famous words of Norma Desmond, the delusional and ultimately crazy silent movie star at the center of Billy Wilder’s classic 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. Controversial at the time among Hollywood circles for its biting depiction of what movie stardom can do to the soul, it has stood the test of time and is undoubtedly one of the greatest films ever made. Its themes of the corrupting nature of fame and the damaging effects of dishonesty in the name of love are quite skillfully explored and are still relevant today.
Joe Gillis (William Holden), a struggling Hollywood screenwriter, does not realize what is about to unfold when he hides from repo men in the garage of what seems to be an abandoned Sunset Boulevard mansion. Quite relieved at having escaped the repo men with his car in tact, he soon discovers that he has not parked on an abandoned property. A movie star from the silent era named Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) still lives in the mansion with her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim), and she mistakes Joe for the undertaker of her dead monkey pet.
Joe is slightly amused by this darkly comic misunderstanding and is even more amused at the realization at whose mansion he has stumbled upon. “You’re Norma Desmond! You used to be big!” he exclaims. Quite taken aback, Norma replies with the utmost seriousness, “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small!” While Norma has not acted in a movie for a while, she plans to make a comeback, and in the meantime she takes consolation in the constant fan mail she still receives. She has written the screenplay for a Biblical epic that she hopes to use for her comeback, and she plans on asking none other than Cecil B. DeMille to direct it.
Upon finding out that Joe is a screenwriter, Norma asks him to read her screenplay. He starts to read it and finds it absolutely terrible, but his desperation for a paying job compels him to ask Norma if he can doctor it for her. Norma agrees but insists that Joe live at her mansion while doing so. Joe is not entirely fond of this idea, but he cannot even afford his car, let alone the rent of his apartment, so he consents to live there for a little while.
As Joe lives at the mansion and does his best to improve Norma’s terrible screenplay, he gradually realizes how warped and delusional Norma’s faded fame has made her. She lives in a fantasy world where the only thing that matters in life is public recognition, which she would forfeit her own life and soul to achieve once more. In fact, she is depressed and often on the brink of suicide, and all that really keeps her going is the fan mail she still receives. Joe discovers that it is Max the Butler who really writes all of these fan letters in secret, and he expresses confusion as to why a mere house servant would go to such lengths to keep a delusional ex-movie star content. Max explains, “There were three young directors who showed promise in those [silent] days: D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and Max Von Mayerling… It was I who asked to come back, as humiliating as it may seem. I could have continued my career, only I found everything unendurable after she left me. You see, I was her first husband.”
Max is still quietly but madly in love with Norma, and he tries to express this love by writing her fake fan letters and keeping her contently trapped in her fantasy world. Is this really love, though? True love requires being willing to give up one’s life for another, and it seems that Max would do this. However, true love also requires working towards the happiness of another, and what Max is doing could never make Norma authentically happy. His lies are only making Norma all the more entranced by the Siren’s Song of fame, and this Song will lead her to drown in an ocean of madness before too long. Perhaps Max himself is delusional as well; he thinks he is making Norma happy when he is really driving her towards utter unhappiness and madness.
Joe Gillis tries to rescue Norma from the cage of delusion that Max has trapped her in, but she does not want to be freed. Fame and public adulation are all that she desires in life, and she will ultimately forfeit her soul and her sanity to maintain them. Joe is really the only character in Sunset Boulevard who shows Norma any real love, but in her twisted mind, not even the healing powers of love could ever be better than the soul-eating powers of fame.
Sunset Boulevard serves as a powerful reminder that fame is fleeting and sometimes quite corrupting. It also shows that no actions that rely on dishonesty and delusion can ever be justified, especially in the name of love. Sixty-seven years later, it is still a film worth watching and studying time and time again.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.