Like many of us probably believe, but few admit, the most magical place on Earth is the shower. In my shower, I have won Academy Awards, beaten Steffi Graf at Wimbledon, taught Madonna dance moves, defeated Nancy Drew, and duetted with Tori Amos. Today, I unveiled the deep-seated interior realities of Oprah Winfrey's life to her on-air while discussing my Pulitzer-Prize winning novel. No one can accuse me of dreaming too small.
What does this have to do with Sunset Boulevard? You may well ask. In my long argument with Oprah, which by the way culminated with a personal invitation to dine at her home, she asked me to to state the dominant theme of my fictional novel.
I did, and the gist is this: we are told constantly that people make bad decisions because they have low self-esteem. I would argue that some of the most dangerous and impetuous decisions are made by those who have overly high self-esteem. I don't mean arrogance persay, but extreme self-confidence and too much belief in one's rightness. In my imaginary interview, I found it fairly simple to come up with real-life examples to justify this, but very few fictional examples.
Then, like a lightbulb over my head, Norma Desmond popped into my mind, erasing the whole Oprah scenario with one flash of her claws.
Norma Desmond has this idea that she's a superstar even though she has been stripped of everything that made her so. Sure, she still has the trappings -- the devoted servant, the giant mansion, the pet monkey -- but what makes her come alive is acting. I would argue that what defines Norma's story arc is not self-deceit, as is usually argued, but actually a surplus of self-regard.
She is devoted to her art in a way no one else in the film is, not the naive screenwriter Joe Gillis becomes involved with, not even Cecil B. Demille. She is not just devoted to the movies, she's devoted to her own particular vision of what movies ought to be. She is an idealist, she doesn't choose easy compromise the way her fellow stars did. She chooses film-making over flashes of technology.
Gillis may be right that she suffers all sorts of delusions, but he never stops to ask one question: could she be right? Could her nostalgia for a different type of filmmaking be more than nostalgia, could it be an actual belief in the superiority of a particular type of art?
Let's remove a line from the context of the film:
"Writing words, words, more words. Well you made a rope of words and strangled this business! Ha, ha! But there's a microphone right there to capture the last gurgles...and Technicolor to photograph the red swollen tongues!"
She could just as easily be talking about HD, 3D or Michael Bay as the transition to talkies. We take it for granted that talking made movies better. Did it? For every All About Eve you have a hundred trashy melodramas. You have action films without any coherent visual style and lines that would not bear repeating by a child. Perhaps her point is not that adding voice to film is inherently wrong, but that no matter how many new gimmicks come along, it's the film-making that counts. The direction, the acting, the camera work. You can have the greatest dialogue ever written, but if the filmmaking aspects do not measure up, you have a play on screen, not a film.
Let's remember when this film came out: 1950. 1950! More than 20 years after talkies began, 20 years in which Billy Wilder, Cecil B. Demille and Gloria Swanson had ample opportunity to judge the impact of talkies. This was no knee-jerk response to a sudden change. It's an evaluative critique of things lost and gained in the ravages of "progress."
Remember, Norma does not want to make Salome as a silent film. She recognizes the new normal, she knows there must be dialogue. In bringing Joe to rewrite, she even recognizes that she needs help with her masterpiece. These are not the actions of one who is completely self-deluded. These are the actions of one who is able to set aside her ego in service of a greater good: the picture itself.
It's significant that we don't actually find out what Joe thinks of the script when he reads it. He makes a number of superficial assumptions based on her appearance and on her "childish scrawl," but by the time he actually expresses an opinion, he's already concocted a scheme for his own benefit.
So while I originally read the scene with all the silent star 'waxworks' as a cautionary tale about the inevitable end of stardom, I think that, in truth, what we're seeing is a cabal of idealists shoved to the side.
As for her relationship with Gillis, the narrative seems to suggest that she is happy because she has a young man showing an interest in her. But I think it's more than that. She comes alive when she performs for Gillis as Charlie Chaplin, and in fact, this is the only time we see a sincere emotion from him. He actually sits up in interest, this man who shows no interest in anything but his own self-aggrandizement. He recognizes her talent.
But throughout the film, he has deceived her. He has not been working sincerely on her screenplay, and that becomes all too apparent to Norma. She is driven out of her mind not only because Joe rejects her, but because he leaves before he completes the job she's paying him to do: to help her resurrect her career. Any number of sarcastic asides by Joe do not cover up the simple fact -- Norma is aiming to create something great, and Joe just wants to get by.
She believes in herself as a performer, as a creator of art, and as a judge of art. When she breaks, it's because of the dissonance between that belief in herself and the reactions of the world against her: first DeMille, then Joe himself.