Great Character: Norma Desmond (“Sunset Blvd.”)

March 1st, 2013 by

This month’s theme: Femme fatale. Today’s guest post by Jason Cuthbert features Norma Desmond from the classic 1950 movie Sunset Blvd., written by Charles Bracett & Billy Wilder & D.M. Marshman Jr.

The legendary Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, The Apartment) sat in the illustrious director’s chair for the 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard, a high and low angle look at Hollywood – co-written by Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr. Ageism, depression, disillusionment and unrequited love are just a few of the still currently relevant themes explored via Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) – a 50ish cinema starlet who only allows herself to live in the past. The Academy Awards bestowed a trilogy of Oscar statuettes upon Sunset Blvd. – Best Art Direction-Set Decoration-Black-and-White, Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture and certainly Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.

Sunset Blvd. plot summary from IMDB:

A hack screenwriter writes a screenplay for a former silent-film star who has faded into Hollywood obscurity.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the iconic femme fatale character Norma Desmond is her balance between appearing as the creepy antagonist giving her dead money a funeral and as a sympathetic lonely victim of circumstance. She literally traps the financially strapped B-movie screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) in her home with her wealth. But after 3 ex-husbands, one of which she also has trapped as a brainwashed butler, Gillis may be half her age, but he clearly is Norma’s chance at mating with a much younger guy who is around the age she wishes to remain frozen in.

NORMA DESMOND: I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.

Joe Gillis is also Norma Desmond’s more contemporary chance at reemerging into the Hollywood spotlight that has outlasted her superstar shine; via transforming her stack of amateur script pages into a conceivable film vehicle to get her name back on theater marquees. But unfortunately for Ms. Desmond, there are newer and younger sex symbols, dialogue is now part of the cinematic process and her previous collaborators over at Paramount Pictures want to hire her 1929 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A luxury car more than her.

JOE GILLIS: I didn’t know you were planning a comeback.
NORMA DESMOND: I hate that word. It’s a return, a return to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen.

But it is not just Norma’s perpetual nostalgic loop back and forth into her more successful past glory that has prevented her from progressing socially, professionally and psychologically. Norma also has an intense distain for anything current. Essentially, when the fame machine spit Norma back out into Common Man’s Land, she refused to adapt and evolve with talking pictures and remained mum in her aging Sunset Boulevard abode, throwing stones at the proverbial castle, as its ranks of royalty rule the entertainment industry without her.

NORMA DESMOND: There once was a time in this business when I had the eyes of the whole world! But that wasn’t good enough for them, oh no! They had to have the ears of the whole world too. So they opened their big mouths and out came talk. Talk! TALK!

With a house full of self portraits, a movie screen that only showcases her own work and a stack of fugazi fan mail, Norma’s brittle ego is glued together with a thinly veiled facade that can only exist under her own roof.  With frequent suicidal episodes, it is apparent that Ms. Desmond is ill equipped to inhale the frigid air of reality, but her own disillusioned sense of stardom also seems to make taking her own life preposterous, and merely a cry for help when she needs some undivided attention.

Max the manservant and Norma’s overly exaggerated legion of fans have never left Norma’s side, so why should Joe? As long as she can purchase peoples affection, Max can continue to bath her in a sanctuary of manufactured fame to keep her fake foundation alive. Even after literally making Joe stay put at her palace with the force of a firearm, Norma is still floating around in a dizzy daydream of untouchable celebrity instead of high tailing away from the authorities. Reality checks bounce in Norma’s bankrupt bank. By the end of her road, Norma is so emotionally dead that it seems a little too late for her funeral.

For her spoken flamboyant flare for the dramatic and her cautionary celebrity journey – Norma Desmond is a tremendously GREAT CHARACTER.

Perhaps not your typical femme fatale, but the end result is the same: a dude’s dead body.

See you in comments for your thoughts on Norma Desmond.

Thanks to Jason for the post!

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