Joe Gillis (William Holden): You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson): I am big. It's the pictures that got small.
#24 movie quote of all time, American Film Institute
I'm not an authority on Bill Holden's body of work. I've seen many of his movies, and I know he was one of the best actors of his generation, but I certainly haven't seen all of his movies. And, while I am hesitant to proclaim anything the best that someone ever did unless I have seen or heard or read all the entries for myself, I would probably have no problem declaring his performance in Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard," which premiered on this day in 1950, his best. It's hard for me to see how he could have topped it.
In a story that began at the end, with Holden's lifeless body floating in a swimming pool, and was told in flashback, Holden played a down–on–his–luck screenwriter, trying to scrape together enough cash to square things with his aggressive auto finance company. I'm sure there were equally pressing issues in his life, but that was the one on which he was fixated when the movie began — and it dictated his every move.
It was while trying to evade the guys from the finance company who wanted to collect past–due payments or repossess the vehicle that Holden's character found himself on the estate of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a great star from the silent movie era but a has–been since the advent of talkies. He first thought the mansion was deserted, but it wasn't. Swanson's character lived virtually alone in a cavernous mansion, accompanied only by her dedicated — and fiercely protective — servant (Erich von Stroheim).
When I say "cavernous," I mean it. Really. In the viewer's first real glimpse of it, that huge mansion — with its overgrown tennis court and empty swimming pool — always reminds me of Xanadu in "Citizen Kane." A big, mostly empty (of people, that is, not things) coliseum. About the only things missing were the animals Charles Foster Kane had gathered from around the world.
But Norma Desmond matched Citizen Kane when it came to manipulating people. She always got her way — or she got her revenge.
Holden became something of a kept man. Swanson's character had been working on a script to be used as her comeback vehicle, and she needed a writer to polish it. He accepted the job, not realizing that she intended for him to move in to the mansion. He discovered that the next day, when he woke up in the room she had provided — supposedly for one night — to find his belongings all around him. Max (von Stroheim) had moved them himself, and Norma had settled things with his landlord. Holden resented his sudden dependent status, but he accepted it as the price of doing business.
It was at a New Year's party that he realized that Norma was in love with him, and he bailed. He felt liberated, but later, when he called to ask that his things be forwarded to a new address, Max informed him that Norma had attempted suicide, and he was back in her web.
It seems to me that Swanson was so good in that role not because she was the best actress but because she had lived much of the character's life. The character had been a huge silent film star, and so had Swanson, but a key difference (well, sorta) is that Swanson was quick to embrace talkies, appearing in her first talkie in 1929. But she never really made it in talkies. Swanson made her attempts to fit in to the world of the talkies, but she never really caught on and had made only half a dozen movies in the two decades before she starred in "Sunset Boulevard."
In "Sunset Boulevard," Norma Desmond appeared to have resisted the changing technology — I don't think it was established whether she had ever tried to make a talkie — but she also seemed to have reached the conclusion that she would have to adapt if she wanted her career to have a new life — and she clearly did. It was, after all, her motivation for the script.
But, whether it was stated or not, it was clear to me that Norma hadn't been around the movie culture much after talkies came along. Why was that? I don't know. Maybe her character was one of those people who don't like the sounds of their own voices. Maybe she believed her skill as an actress was only suited for a silent environment. We can only guess.
In Swanson's visit to the studio to meet with her former director, Cecil B. DeMille, the legendary filmmaker offered to show her around because so much had changed since the last time she had been there. He artfully avoided any discussion of Norma's script — which he really didn't want, anyway — and then escorted her to her car. She seemed none the wiser.
In fact, she embarked on a beauty regimen in anticipation of her big comeback, and Holden began working nights with a pretty script reader on an idea she thought showed promise. In the course of their work together, the two fell in love. Swanson found out about it and, in a series of events that are better seen than explained, wound up shooting Holden three times.
And, as the movie came to its conclusion, the viewers were returned to the present day, with Holden's body floating in the pool and the police filling both the poolside and the house. Norma descended her staircase, believing that the cameras were there to film her comeback. Max — who, the audience learned earlier, was once a film director who discovered the teenage Norma, made her a star, married and then divorced her and became her servant rather than live apart from her — played along with her, giving her directions while she spoke of being ready for her close–up.
The American Film Institute, by the way, chose that line about her close–up as the #7 movie line of all time.
Swanson was good enough to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, but she lost to Judy Holliday.
"Sunset Boulevard" got 11 Oscar nominations in all — including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress — but won only three in more technical categories (Best Story and Screenplay, Best Dramatic or Comedy Score and Best Black and White Art Direction).
Franz Waxman won the Oscar for Best Dramatic or Comedy Score, and the American Film Institute ranked his work on "Sunset Boulevard" 16th among all film scores.
The American Film Institute also ranked "Sunset Boulevard" 16th among all films.