Written by EM
This is a story about illusions and their eternal fight to survive against a, sometimes cruel, reality.
Meet the narrator, Joe Gillis (William Holden); a screenwriter that can’t make ends meet, although he is, as we learn from other people in the film, very talented. By accident, he finds himself in what he thinks as an abandoned manor. Little does he know that it is still occupied, and by none other than an old, silent picture star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her servant, Max (Erich von Stroheim). The one thing he notices, with a writer’s trained eye, is a house reminiscent of the grandeur that was prevalent through the Roaring Twenties. Despite the majestic look of the house, Joe wittily notices that “A neglected house gets an unhappy face”. As an omniscient narrator, we would hardly think this choice of words is random. You will only understand after meeting Norma that the house might as well warn the passerby of its inhabitant.
When Joe is spotted by Norma Desmond he is mistaken by her and the servant for the executor of the pet MONKEY’S funeral. Soon, the misunderstanding is solved when Joe introduces himself as a writer, after recognising the once great star that was Norma Desmond. Upon his leaving, Norma invites him to read a script she is writing as part of her comeback-sorry, return! And that is when Joe Gillis gets trapped in the spider’s web. He supposedly tricks Norma Desmond into hiring him to correct her script. But Norma has other plans for him. He is almost immediately moved into the manor that will eventually become his prison.
Norma Desmond to me is the personification of illusion. She combines the illusion of grandeur that committed Blanche DuBois in an asylum, and the frozen past that haunted Miss Havisham. If you look closely you can see it for yourself in the film. When we first meet Norma she is wearing a pair of dark sunglasses looking outside the window. She doesn’t take them off inside either, until she learns as much as she needs about Joe. It is behind these glasses that she sees the world in the colours she chooses. Joe Gillis himself considers her a sleepwalker, “still sleepwalking along the giddy heights of a lost carreer”. This is one of Norma Desmond’s problems; she cannot face that the world has moved on without her because she could not keep up with it. She still feeds herself with the illusion that she is a big star whose dedicated fans have not forgotten and crave to see her on the big screen again. Her other problem is that she cannot accept her getting old. Aside from the fact that she openly shows her despise for young actresses, there is something that screams “I will never grow old” from miles. And that is her falling madly in love for the much younger Joe. What could such a lover offer, but waking up every morning next to a face younger than the one in the mirror.
Nevertheless, let us not focus on Norma’s illusions but rather on who fed them to her. And to me, it is none other than the Grand Illusioniste that is Hollywood. When “Normas” are up and coming, they are treated as the center of the world because they are the ones that attract the audience to the theater, be it with their beauty or their talents. But when this attraction is gone, the only thing that remains is respect. But one cannot feed illusions with respect. It must be bright lights, cameras rolling and flashing, and applause; tons of it.
For me, take this film as an opportunity to see what goes on behind the curtain. When everyone leaves the theater, this film will keep you company as the cleaning lady comes in to brush away pop-corn and stardust.