It's hard times for Joe Gillis. When we first meet him, he's got, well, nothing. Nothing but his car, and he's barely got that. His career and ambitions have stalled and he has nothing left to do but stumble, half-knowingly, toward his own doom, which takes the form of deranged Silent Screen Queen, Norma Desmond.
Actually, if we're gonna get technical about it, when we first meet Joe, he's already dead. Talk about really having nothing. His murdered corpse floats in Norma Desmond's pool, but his voice, sadder and wiser—though he was pretty sad and smart to begin with—reflects on his demise from beyond the grave, rewinding to the beginning, from which he charts his path toward destruction.
It's flashback time.
Before he meets Norma, Joe's down on his luck. Although he's apparently written and sold screenplays before, he's hit a dry spell. He's too hard-up to fully entertain the dreams of Hollywood success that have apparently motivated him in the past. Now, he just wants to make his car payments—since repo men are trying to take his car—and get a three hundred dollar loan to cover his expenses.
We get the sense that he has few people he can really count on in the world. His producer friend, Sheldrake, can't advance the loan or even find him any hackwork or re-writing to do, and his agent insists that Joe's poverty is a good thing, since it'll force him to create. He's got nowhere to go—except back to Ohio. Bummers all around.
Understandably, Joe feels totally ashamed and embarrassed at his predicament—though he's not about to cry about it. He knows he's about finished and plans on ditching L.A. and its promises of riches and fame (or as much fame as a screenwriter can realistically get) to head back to the Midwest—Dayton, Ohio, to be exact—to the newspaper for which he used to write. At least it's a paycheck.
So that's Joe when we meet him: utterly defeated but still self-aware and with a sharp, self-deprecating sense of humor.
But, of course, he's not destined for the copy desk in Dayton. We know that from the pool. When the repo men chase him early on in the flick, he pulls into the driveway of Norma Desmond's decaying mansion and his story takes off from there. He's still slouching toward doom—but at least it's more interesting than mere screenwriting failure.
While living at Norma's "grim sunset castle" he becomes a chorus, objectively observing and recounting Norma's already significant decline and fairly inevitable fall. For instance, he sees how empty her life is when she throws a serious funeral for her pet monkey:
JOE: There was something else going on below: the last rites for that hairy old chimp, performed with the utmost seriousness—as if she were laying to rest an only child. Was her life really as empty as that?
Joe latches himself to Norma because he thinks she can give him the things he's always wanted—money, security, and a pool. He thinks that he's going to convince her to let him edit her god-awful screenplay—which he does. But rather than taking advantage of Norma's need for an editor, he finds that he's no match for her scorched-earth manipulation tactics. When someone's willing to attempt suicide in order to guilt you into sticking around and sleeping with them—you could say that's a bridge too far.
So Joe, while objectively observing Norma's chronic self-delusion, simultaneously becomes her paid boyfriend. This feels more than a little humiliating, not to mention deeply awkward when he runs into his old friends at Schwab's drugstore, his former hangout. When he tries to break out of this role and get with Betty Schaefer—an ambitious script-reader and aspiring screenwriter at Paramount (oh, and also his friend Artie's girlfriend)—Norma flips out. Her phone call to Betty ends up forcing Joe to invite Betty over, where he shows her the truth of the situation and tells her to go marry Artie. Betty, very upset, leaves, and Norma thinks she's won Joe for herself.
But that's not what's happened.
Joe's had a realization—he has to escape the warped world of L.A. altogether and go back to the simple, honest life of Dayton, Ohio. He sees that the illusions of celebrity poison everything and result in madness. But, being doomed, he doesn't get the chance to act on this revelation, since Norma shoots and murders him when he tries to go. And that's why we see his corpse in the swimming pool at the beginning of the movie.
It's no wonder he's a screenwriter. One of Joe's most central characteristics is his aptitude for witty repartee, which is constant throughout the movie. For instance, consider this exchange between Joe and Betty:
BETTY: Sheldrake likes that angle about the teacher.
JOE: What teacher?
BETTY: Dark Windows. I got him all hopped up about it.
JOE: You did?
BETTY: He thinks it could be made into something.
JOE: Into what? A lampshade?
BETTY: Into something for Barbara Stanwyck. They have a commitment with Barbara Stanwyck.
This is pure Joe Gillis, exemplifying his self-deprecation and cynicism about the movie business. Of course, Betty doesn't share his cynicism, and her drive to make a serious movie with an important message—a study of the lives of schoolteachers—seems to catch Joe in its own momentum. But, again, as was made clear at the beginning, he's a doomed figure, and this brief ray of sunshine proves illusory.
Norma Desmond is the irregularly beating heart of Sunset Boulevard. She may not be the protagonist—that's Joe—but she is what makes this flick tick.
She's the Queen Bee, the power that controls events and brings about Joe's doomed fate. When Gillis first meets Norma, her eccentricity is already bordering on straight-up nuts. She's holding a funeral for her pet monkey and she thinks Joe is the undertaker. This misunderstanding eventually segues into a rant about the current movie business, when Norma discovers that Joe's a screenwriter. She used to be a silent star and she thinks that the age of talkies is somehow inferior to this perceived Golden Age:
NORMA: They're dead. They're finished. There was a time when this business had the eyes of the whole wide world. But that wasn't good enough. Oh, no! They wanted the ears of the world, too. So they opened their big mouths, and out came talk, talk, talk...
She may have a point here—someone's always bugging about how the next step in technology is totally going to ruin movies—but we can't help but notice that it's all about her.
As Joe gets to know Norma better, so do we. We learn that she lives in the past and in the future—since she's planning a glorious "return" to the screen (she doesn't like the word "comeback")—but never in the present. Her life consists entirely of trying to recapture her glory days, when she was a silent-screen star, and she only watches her own movies, feasting on her own image. Her house is littered with her own pictures, and she claims she receives a ton of fan mail.
Shmoopers, at this point, it's just plain creepy. What fans could this woman possibly have left?
As it turns out, exactly one: Her servant Max—who was actually her first husband and the director who discovered her—forges these letters into order to prevent her from being "destroyed" (though you could argue Max is just making the delusion worse). Norma's suicide attempts indicate that she knows she's not really as beloved as she used to be, and that her feeling of lovelessness is perhaps the real problem at the root of her craziness.
Gradually, she uses Joe to replace her dead pet monkey, making him into a receptive audience for her celebrity. And Norma does still have some star-like qualities, even if her mugging for her audience goes way too far beyond mere smizing. Joe thinks her eyes are expressive and impressive, and her verve and self-confidence are extremely palpable. Through gifts and a suicide attempt, Norma gradually guilts him into being her gigolo, but his impulses toward living his own life prove impossible to control. From this example, it's pretty clear that Norma was once quite something.
But not anymore. Norma thinks she's getting the awful screenplay that she's been writing made into a movie by Cecil B. DeMille. When she visits DeMille over this misunderstanding (caused by a DeMille assistant who only wanted to rent Norma's hot, vintage car for a movie), some of her old star-power still manages to mesmerize the people on the set. Which, of course, only adds to Norma's delusion.
Naturally, things fall apart, and when Norma tries to tell Betty Schaefer the truth abut her and Joe, Joe breaks things off with Betty—before trying to leave Norma, too. In the process, he tells her the truth about the DeMille movie. And Norma, of course, murders him.
Unable to deal mentally with the murder, Norma dives headfirst into her delusion. Oh, it's on now.
She really believes that she's making her Salomé screenplay with DeMille (a script about the Biblical femme fatale, Salomé, who helps contrive the murder of John the Baptist—a fitting role for Norma). In her madness—if not in real life—Norma gets what she wants, as she mistakes the news cameras at the murder scene for DeMille's cameras. To the last, Max von Mayerling helps pad her delusions, assuming the role of DeMille behind the news cameras. She feels fulfilled—although in a totally ironic way. Joe says that life has been "strangely merciful to Norma" in that it let her believe her own illusions. She seems utterly insane and yet overjoyed as she utters the movie's famous last lines to the crowd of reporters and photographers and gossip columnists, whom she mistakes for a film crew:
NORMA: I can't go on with the scene. I'm too happy. Do you mind, Mr. DeMille, if I say a few words? Thank you. I just want to tell you how happy I am to be back in the studio making a picture again. You don't know how much I've missed all of you. And I promise you I'll never desert you again because after Salome we'll make another picture and another picture. You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!... All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.
T.S. Eliot once said, "Mankind cannot bear very much reality." This would be a fitting epitaph for Norma's tombstone.
Apparently, there's some truth to the Desmond Delusion. As it turns out, Norma Desmond was kinda-sorta based on certain real silent film stars, like the reclusive Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, and Mae Murray. But it would be wrong to mistake her for any one person, when she's really at once a composite and an original creation.
How's this for a twist? Wilder and Brackett based Desmond's name on that of a famous unsolved Hollywood murder from 1922, that of a director, William Desmond Taylor, who was a close friend of silent-screen actress Mabel Normand (who was not guilty of Taylor's murder, for the record, but who is mentioned as a real and distinct person in Sunset Boulevard, making it clear that she's not the same as Norma). The William Desmond murder mystery bears a not-unnoticeable resemblance Joe Gillis's murder. We guess inspiration comes from all kinds of surprising places.
But the most disconcerting parallel is probably between Norma Desmond and the actress who portrayed her—Gloria Swanson. Like Desmond, Swanson really did have trouble transitioning to success in talking pictures—though she didn't go nuts like Norma Desmond, and actually continued working for TV and radio. Also, she had the courage to portray a character who clearly shared features of her life story in a crazy and satirical way—something Norma Desmond definitely wouldn't have done. She would have been too self-conscious. So you've got to give Swanson some serious props.
Swanson even starred in movies directed by Eric von Stroheim and Cecil B. DeMille, just like Norma Desmond (Stroheim plays Max von Mayerling and Cecil B. DeMille plays himself). At one point, Norma and Joe watch one of Norma's old movies, which is really a Swanson film that Stroheim directed (Queen Kelly, from 1929).
The elements of truth in Desmond's character made Sunset Boulevard into a weird experience for the audiences of 1950. They must have felt like they were watching a bizarre, disturbing mixture of fact and grotesque fantasy. Even "The Waxworks" with whom Norma plays bridge were real-life silent-era stars, including the famous Buster Keaton. Wilder and his fellow filmmakers clearly had some fun with this one.
You can't possibly know the meaning of loyalty—we're talking deluded, die-hard, crazy loyalty—until you meet Max.
Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim) is Norma Desmond's steadfast butler—and the man who feeds her illusions. He never challenges her crazy whims, and even goes so far as to forge fake fan letters to help beef up her idea of her own celebrity.
What's his game? Why go so far to prevent Norma from seeing reality? Well, for one thing, he doesn't want her to be destroyed by the truth, which he doesn't think she can handle. (To be fair, she probably can't handle the truth, given her history of suicide attempts. Although, also to be fair, she might not have ever reached that point if von Mayerling hadn't been buffering her delusions all along.)
But there's a whole 'nother sordid layer to this weird dynamic. Midway through the movie, we learn a super-creepy truth about Max. He was Norma's first husband (she had three) and also the director who discovered her and made her a star. Even after they got divorced, Max couldn't get over her and decided to give up his directorial status to become her servant and keep her illusions alive. Oof. Talk about pining.
He reveals this truth to Joe:
MAX: I directed all her early pictures. There were three young directors who showed promise in those days: D.W. Griffith, C.B. DeMille, and Max von Mayerling.
JOE: And she's turned you into a servant.
MAX: It was I who asked to come back, humiliating as it may seem. I could have gone on with my career, only I found everything unendurable after she divorced me. You see, I was her first husband.
Max's devotion shows that he suffers from the addictions of glamor and celebrity, although he knows it. He just can't unhook himself, can't escape Desmond's orbit. May we recommend years of therapy?
One of the strangest mysteries of Sunset is the nature of Max's attitude toward Joe. Is he jealous that Joe is becoming Norma's new favorite? Probably not. If anything, he seems to look at Joe with a kind of pity—like, "Here's the next person getting sucked into this whirlpool of illusion—like me. Poor sucker." At the same time, he's been in the same place Joe's in, and given that he's still devoted to Norma, he probably wouldn't mind trading places with him. At least Joe gets some lovin'.
To the very end, Max pampers Norma's illusions. He just can't bring himself not to. When Joe tries to shock her out of her delusion, telling her that there won't be any DeMille comeback, Max refuses to admit that Joe is telling the truth:
JOE: You tell her, Max. Come on, do her that favor. Tell her there isn't going to be any picture—there aren't any fan letters, except the ones you write yourself.
NORMA: That isn't true! Max?
MAX: Madame is the greatest star of them all... I will take Mr. Gillis's bags.
When Norma finally loses it and thinks that she's actually acting in the DeMille-directed version of her movie, Max solemnly steps behind the news cameras and plays the role of DeMille, filming the final consequences of Norma's madness as she gets ready for her close-up. He dutifully keeps Norma's desperate dreams alive, while at the same time pitying her in her peak moment of insanity. Ain't that just the saddest thing?
Disconcertingly, the man who plays Max, Erich Von Stroheim, really was a famous director of the 1920s and really did direct Gloria Swanson (the actress who played Norma) in silent film roles. When Gillis and Desmond watch an old movie starring Desmond, they're actually watching a real Swanson movie, Queen Kelly (1929), directed by Von Stroheim himself. Weird, right?
She's no has-been. Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) is a Hollywood go-getter. A script-reader for Paramount, she wants to become an actual writer. Which makes her… pretty much the opposite of our man Joe. Whereas Joe has collapsed into a kind of despair, committing himself to hackwork that he thinks will sell (though it doesn't), Betty actually wants to make good movies with a message. And she's not too shabby at it, either.
After giving one of his scripts a firm two-thumbs-down, she criticizes Joe for churning out fluff, and Joe replies that she's one of those "message people" who "would've turned down Gone with the Wind." Yet even though Betty hates Joe's hackwork, she can tell he used to be something.
And after their obvious chemistry at a New Year's Eve party, Betty makes a move. Salvaging part of his screenplay, Dark Windows, she wants to make a movie about the lives of schoolteachers. Joe goes along with it, reluctantly at first, but then starts to sneak out of Norma's house to work on the script with Betty. Eventually, a real attraction blooms—and an artistic partnership.
Of course, there are two giant problems with this: Betty is the girlfriend of Joe's friend Artie—which isn't much of a problem, ultimately, it seems. Norma is the bigger problem. She sabotages the relationship before it can really get started (though Betty and Joe still manage to get a kiss in before it goes south), and Joe has to explain that he's Norma's kept-man to Betty.
At first, Betty says this doesn't matter, but Joe acts like he's got a good thing going with Norma and tells her she should go and marry Artie, which provokes her to leave, if regretfully. (And Norma murders Joe shortly thereafter.) Poor Betty. While Norma may be a delusional fallen star—and Betty an honest-to-goodness star-on-the-rise—Betty still can't quite compete with Norma's ability to pull people into her warped orbit.
Betty comes from a long line of movie people—which was kind of unusual, since the movie business was still relatively new in America (it had only really been around for about forty years by the time Sunset came out).
Because of her family history, Betty feels a certain affection for the fake scenery and cardboard settings that make up her world. She feels at home on a movie studio set, saying to Joe:
BETTY: Look at this street. All cardboard, all hollow, all phony. All done with mirrors. I like it better than any street in the world. Maybe because I used to play here when I was a kid.
It's a weird moment, right? Betty acknowledges the phoniness at Hollywood's core. But instead of complaining about it, she embraces it. Maybe it's that sense of awareness that allows Betty to remain uncorrupted—at least, so far. She can see through the hullabaloo, whereas has-beens like Norma just want that hullabaloo back.
Of course, Betty's not totally immune to the Hollywood mystique. She tells Joe that she had to get her nose fixed in order to try to act—but they didn't like her acting:
BETTY: I come from a picture family. Naturally they took it for granted I was to become a great star. So I had ten years of dramatic lessons, diction, dancing. Then the studio made a test. Well, they didn't like my nose—it slanted this way a little. I went to a doctor and had it fixed. They made more tests, and they were crazy about my nose—only they didn't like my acting.
So, she's familiar with the way Hollywood makes people try to change themselves in order to become celebrities. But instead of taking that route, she's decided to write and become a movie-creator—to make films that matter. Unlike Joe or Norma, she's the person who survives the movie's wreckage in order to do something that isn't just pure illusion. If only Joe could've joined her and somehow stayed honest in the process (i.e., not betrayed Artie), he might've escaped the hole he was in.
Clever casting alert: Cecil B. DeMille was a storied, revered old director—in real life. Today, he's probably best known for his Ten Commandments movie with Charlton Heston as Moses. In Sunset, he plays himself; he's the former director of the admittedly fictitious Norma Desmond's movies, though he actually did direct major movies that starred the actress who plays Norma, Gloria Swanson. It's another detail that makes Sunset seem disturbingly close to life, and DeMille is in on the joke.
In Sunset, DeMille comes off as a sensitive, sympathetic guy. When Norma visits him, believing DeMille's going to make her awful Salomé screenplay into a movie, he tries to be kind, without necessarily egging on her delusion. Commenting on Norma's narcissism to an assistant, DeMille explains that she used to be witty and courageous and likeable, but "A dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit." In other words, Norma's mind has been warped by her own public image—and nobody ever called her on it (himself included). Ultimately, however, DeMille can't do much more for Norma than tell her that he'll see what he can do—which Norma unfortunately interprets as a guaranteed movie deal, rather than the kiss-off it really is.
Here's the crazy part: This whole scene was filmed on the set of real movie DeMille was making at the time, Samson and Delilah, an example of the kind of massive Biblical epic for which he was known. Norma evidently was writing a script in this vein, too, since Salomé is a princess who, in the Bible, helps provoke the martyrdom of John the Baptist. What a fitting role for Norma, given the fact that she becomes a murderer by the time the movie ends.
Artie (Jack Webb) is a good guy, really. But he's not exactly a mover and a shaker.
He's Betty's boyfriend and one of Gillis's close friends, and he seems like a happy enough dude. But he probably senses that Gillis and Betty have a lot of chemistry from the first moment they meet, and that's an awkward place to be. Betty pursues Gillis with help and suggestions about his screenplay, and all the while shows less and less interest in her actual boyfriend. For instance, when Artie chimes in, "Could you write in plenty of background action, so they'll need an extra assistant director?" Betty replies, "Shut up, Artie," before turning back to Gillis. Oof.
Aside from acting as a waning love interest for Betty, Artie provides the occasional joke—like, musing whether Joe Gillis has been smuggling opium, which would explain the fine clothes he's been wearing. Ironically enough, Artie might actually be the one who "gets the girl" in the end. After Artie proposes marriage to Betty, she wants to run away with Joe, but Joe shoots her down, explaining that he's actually a gigolo to Norma Desmond, which is just about the worst thing you can hear from a guy you're in love with. He tells Betty to go marry Artie and have a nice, virtuous life—which, hey, might be a possibility. Artie's one of the good ones.
Every movie about the movie biz needs a movie maker, and in Sunset Boulevard, that's Sheldrake (Fred Clark). He's a producer at Paramount. Joe Gillis tries to pitch him a story for a movie about a star shortstop whom gangsters try to force to throw the World Series, but Betty (a script-reader for Paramount) bursts in without noticing Joe and tells Sheldrake that the script is terrible.
Joe and Betty have a testy, witty exchange, and Sheldrake (who seems to be suffering from an ulcer) adds in a few deadpan comments. For example, when Joe tells Betty she would've rejected Gone with the Wind, Sheldrake quips, "No that was me. I said, 'Who wants to see a Civil War picture?'"
Ultimately, Sheldrake isn't interested in Joe's script and tells him that there's no other work available for him sprucing up other people's scripts. And when Joe asks him to loan him three hundred bucks in order to keep his car, Sheldrake explains that he's having money problems himself, what with needing to mortgage his ranch and pay for life insurance.
He seems harmless enough as a person, though. And his rejection helps bring about the movie's main plot: Joe's relationship with Norma.
Played by Lloyd Gough, Morino appears for about a minute… and that's it. He's Gillis's agent. Having failed to successfully hit Sheldrake up for cash, Gillis heads to a golf course, where he finds Morino and begs him for money.
Morino says he could give Gillis money… but he won't. Gillis should use his desperate state as inspiration: It'll force him to write because he'll need to do it. Eventually, Gillis gets fed up and basically demands money, which prompts Morino to say that Gillis should maybe consider finding a new agent.
And that's all we see of Morino. Which is probably a good thing, because he seems like a real jerk.
The repo men are Joe's worst nightmare. These two guys (Larry J. Blake and Charles Dayton) are trying to track Joe Gillis's car down and repossess it. Although they're not major characters in the film by any means, they do play an important role in getting the movie's action started.
First, they pester Joe about the whereabouts of his car—he claims it's in the garage, but it isn't. After failing to get the money he needs to pay off the car, Joe ends up in a car chase with the repo men. He pulls into Norma Desmond's driveway, and the movie gets into its main conflict from there.
Oh, and later on, they do repossess Joe's car, which has the effect of making him even more dependent on Norma.
When Norma Desmond makes her return to Paramount—to triumphantly agree to make a movie with Cecil B. DeMille, she believes—she immediately confronts the gap between old Hollywood and new Hollywood (or what would've been new Hollywood in 1950). The younger gate guard, Mac (John Cortay), refuses to let her into the studio, pointing out that she doesn't have an appointment. But an older gate guard, Jonesy (Robert Emmett O'Connor), who recalls Norma Desmond's halcyon years, pays her due reverence—or maybe takes pity on her—and lets her through.
When she actually gets onto DeMille's set, she ends up being surrounded by movie people who remember and admire her. Hog-Eye (John "Skins" Miller) turns the spotlight toward her for a second, and we (and Norma) briefly get a sense of the glory that once was. But when her negotiations with DeMille start and she acts like she's still a diva, we remember—yeah, she's pretty deluded. And everyone's awkward reactions are proof.
We're not talking wax figures here, although we might as well be.
Norma Desmond regularly meets with a group of three other famous silent-screen stars to play bridge. None of these people have speaking roles, but they actually were famous silent-screen stars in real life (just as Gloria Swanson, who plays Norma Desmond, was). The three faded celebrities, all playing themselves, are H.B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson, and Buster Keaton (a master of slapstick).
Obviously, the fact that they're playing a bunch of washed-up has-beens is meant to be a sly, self-deprecating joke on their part. Plus, it heightens the eerie and unnerving true-to-life feel of the movie.
Gordon Cole (Bert Moorhouse) is one of Cecil B. DeMille's assistants. When he calls up Norma, she thinks he's presenting her with an offer from DeMille to direct her movie, yet she refuses to talk to him because he's just an assistant and she feels DeMille should have called her personally. But, later, we learn that Cole was actually just calling Norma to see if the studio could rent her car for use in a movie. Awkward. So very awkward.
This is yet another cameo by a person playing her actual self. Hedda Hopper was a famous Hollywood gossip columnist, and we see her at the end of the movie, phoning the newspaper from inside Norma Desmond's mansion and dictating the story of the murder. (It's the very tabloid version of the story that Joe warned the audience about at the beginning of the movie.)
Connie (Gerry Ganzer) is Betty's roommate, but she doesn't play a very prominent role in the movie. All she really does is give Betty the phone when Norma calls to hint at the true nature of her relationship with Joe.
The undertaker (Franklyn Farnum) shows up in order to bury Norma's pet monkey. And that's all you need to know about him.