By John H. Foote
Gloria Swanson had been a silent screen legend and a respected businesswoman, producing many films for various companies including her own. But by 1926 she had just $65 in her bank account and serious debts to pay. She was no longer a box office titan, and was listening to the advice of her lover Joseph Kennedy at the time. She left film and went back to the stage, only to return to film, becoming a bi-coastal actor, moving easily between film and the stage. She stopped making movies in 1934 for seven years, and after the film Father Takes a Wife (1941), she did not make a movie for another nine years, until coaxed into playing Norma Desmond for Billy Wilder in Sunset Boulevard (1950).
She was not the first choice, as Wilder had considered Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Mae West, and Mary Pickford before George Cukor suggested Swanson. Just 50 when they made the film, Swanson looked much younger and was considered both beautiful and sexy. She read the script, loved the role and accepted after Cukor told her that this was the film for which she would be remembered. Prophetic words.
Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a down on his luck writer hiding from the men who have come to re-possess his car, pulling into a rundown mansion. Taken into the house he realizes he is in the home of silent screen great Norma Desmond, who says to him after he says to her, “You used to big.” “I am big … it’s the pictures that got small.”
Believing that she is going to make a comeback, Desmond has written a script based on Salome that she wants her old friend Cecil B. DeMille to direct. Joe agrees to take the job of writing and editing the work for her and the two become an item. Taken into her life, her bed and her world, he realizes Norma is deluded and often in a world of her own. Behind the walls of her mansion it is as though time has stopped, and she is still a major star when in fact she is barely remembered. Her butler Max (Erich Von Stroheim) was her former director and a husband, and is so devoted to her, he cannot leave her presence. Even when she takes Joe to her bed, Max stays and supports her.
Events in the mansion become more and more bizarre, the infamous monkey funeral, the card game with former silent screen greats Buster Keaton and H.B. Warner portraying themselves (the waxworks, they are called), and her impressive impersonation of Charlie Chaplin which Swanson was somewhat famous for. The actress disappeared into the role completely, embracing the madness of the character, falling into the madness of Norma. They spend their time watching her films, as she refuses to watch sound films. “We had faces then” she says, disparaging sound cinema. Even her Salome script will be a silent film some 30 years after the end of the silents. Her visit to the Paramount lot where DeMille is there shooting his latest epic Samson and Delilah (1949) is equally strange as the great director treats her like the star she once was, once again feeding into her delusion. Most people on the set do not have a clue who she is except for DeMille and a few of the old timers, her spot in the sun long gone.
She moves like a silent film star, her every day life is an imitation of a film, her gestures over the top, everything about her is larger than life, yet never real. Norma does not know how to be real, she has been a star in her mind for far too long, that everything about her is manufactured. Her entire being is expressionistic. It is all melodrama, nothing touches reality.
When Joe tries to leave she slashes her wrists for his attention, her claws into him even deeper. The beauty of her performance is we can see the madness in her, so can Gillis, but her hold is such he cannot shake her loose. Realizing he is a kept man, a bought and paid for lover, he gradually becomes disgusted with himself but Norma is oblivious, she sees nothing in her world except herself and how things impact her. Internally she seethes at how the film industry left her behind, never really gave her a chance when the talkies rendered the silent cinema extinct. Like so many of the stars of that era, she was left behind, wealthy, but forgotten and for one with an ego like hers that is devastating.
She kills Joe, shoots him dead when he tries to leave again, and slips into full blown insanity. When the police come, and the TV cameras to cover this illicit shooting, she believes she is shooting her comeback and Max shouts directions as though he too were making a film. She descends the stairs, her face eventually taking up the entire screen, her eyes ablaze with insanity, Norma has gone over the edge. At last, her big comeback. How perversely twisted!
Swanson must have known the risk she was taking in taking the role, because the parallels with her own career were so very close. She gave a fearless, vanity free performance as a woman sinking into madness, unable to shake loose of the past and accept the present. It is an astonishing piece of work that was nominated for Best Actress, and was robbed of the win, losing to Judy Holliday, very good in Born Yesterday (1950), but not for the ages as was Swanson. Petulant, vulnerable, arrogant, a raging narcissistic woman yet oddly sympathetic, this character is vividly brought to life by an actress who must have known this was the role of her lifetime, and in working with the great cynic Billy Wilder, gave it all she had. Hailed a masterpiece from the moment audiences first saw it, it has endured, often feeling like a horror film with its gloomy sets and the happenings inside that dark mansion, so empty of life. And at its core, is Swanson, never better, before or after.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.