The film opens with a body floating face down in the pool. As we start at the distorted face, the dead man begins to recount what had brought him there- to that moment, to that house, to that end. Joe Gillis was a down-on-his-luck screenplay writer, whose car was about to repossessed. When trying to get away from the repo men, he stumbled onto an old mansion that is not as deserted as it looks. Within its opulent walls lives Norma Desmond, one of Hollywood’s most glittering stars back before talkies came to town. Now, nearly twenty years later, she explains, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got smaller!”
Alone, except for her strange butler Max, and searching to regain the adoring love and adulations she once knew, Desmond requires Gillis- and only partly to help with the hack-eyed script she’d been writing to relaunch her career. Just as Gillis was becoming ever more enmeshed within Desmond’s bizarre world, his own big break looked to be right around the corner…
Norma Desmond would be the role she would be forever remembered for, predicted Gloria Swanson’s good friend George Cuckor. This may have sounded odd to the actress since Gloria Swanson had been a queen of Hollywood in its silent film heydays. She had survived the transition to sound, but the glamorous image that had been so carefully cultivated throughout the nineteen twenties had been what ultimately ended her career when the Depression struck. This was the chance to get it back. “If they want you to do ten screen tests, do ten screen tests! If you don’t, I will personally shoot you!” Cuckor had threatened. In the end, Swanson did the the tests and got the part, though it would not lead to a comeback. In real life, Swanson had been down to earth and money savvy, but the way Desmond’s and her careers so closely mirrored one another, meant most assumed their personalities were the same as well. This uneasy similarity may have been played up when many of the posters, photos, and other paraphernalia of Swanson’s real life career became the props and set dressing of the film.
Swanson wasn’t the only one from which the film was drawing it’s real life inspiration. Almost everything from the drugstore Gilis buys smokes at to the bed Desmond sleeps in, were real places in Los Angeles and real items owned by stars and former stars. Eric Von Strohiem, in this film playing the part of Max, had once been one of Hollywood’s biggest directors before his epically disastrous film, Queen Kelly ended everything. Ironically, that film had starred Swanson, and clips of it can be seen in Sunset Boulevard. The absurd script Norma Desmond is writing bears a passing resemblance to it as well. Other actors and Hollywood big shots are name-dropped or even have cameos. Perhaps most iconic of all was Cecil B. DeMille, the director who had launched Swanson’s real life career, and in the film inspired that infamous line “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close up.”
And you’ll be ready for it too; it’s a film for the ages that everyone should see at least once. So, go on. Hop in your car, and take a trip down Sunset Boulevard.