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The story, set in '50s Hollywood, focuses on Norma Desmond, a silent-screen goddess whose pathetic belief in her own indestructibility has turned her into a demented recluse. The crumbling Sunset Boulevard mansion where she lives with only her butler, Max who was once her director and husband has become her self-contained world. Norma dreams of a comeback to pictures and she begins a relationship with Joe Gillis, a small-time writer who becomes her lover, that will soon end with murder and total madness. Written by
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To me SUNSET BOULEVARD has it all. The comedy is sly, the drama is of epic proportions because it's not JUST a story about Hollywood or an aging actress. It's really about the giving up of dreams.
Norma's dream of return, held to for 20 years, is ironic because Norma so closely parallels Gloria. That Norma cannot make a comeback in 1950 even with connections to DeMille is sad. The sadness is due to Norma's refusal to accept her aging or the politics of Hollywood that worship youth. It's ironic that Norma has no place in Hollywood (the parade has passed by) but DeMille is still working and in the scenes from Samson and Delilah we spot other old-timers like Henry Wilcoxon and Julia Faye--still working but not as STARS. The final irony here is that Gloria did make the comeback that Norma couldn't make.
Norma has a thing about STARS.... she says at one point... "the stars are ageless." Well this is true in a filmic sense. I can still watch Gloria Swanson in THE LOVE OF SUNYA or MANHANDLED and yup, she is ageless. She is still twenty something. That screen image is forever held up like a bad mirror to the reality of being 50. On another occasion Norma says "nobody leaves a STAR, that's what makes one a STAR." True again, but it's not just Gillis who is leaving Norma, her fans have already left. Hence if one is left, one cannot be a STAR.
Gillis also gives up his dream (temporarily) of being a writer, Max gives up his dream of directing, and even Betty gives up her dream of love with Gillis. Scary stuff.
The film is also about LOVE. Look what these people have done for love: love of another person or love of fame or whatever. Max loves Norma. Norma loves Gillis. Gillis loves Norma and Betty. Betty loves Gillis and Artie. Artie loves Betty. And all of them love Hollywood.
Everyone is crushed at the end of this film..... The scene of Max "directing" the scene as Norma descends the staircase is one of the all-time great scenes in a film. Norma's final speech, which sums up everything ("there is nothing else"), is devastating. Can she really be insane and make this lucid speech? If she's NOT insane then she has knowingly killed Gillis to prevent his leaving her (a STAR)....... Also the shots of Max blinking away tears as Norma descends (supposedly into madness) and also of Hedda Hopper crying are equally as devastating as Norma's speech about "being back" and "all those wonderful people out there in the dark" (which of course includes us every time we watch the film).
I cannot think of any other film (possibly CITIZEN KANE) that works on so many different levels. And Gloria Swanson gives the greatest performance in film history!
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