39.6% of the film
A hack screenwriter writes a screenplay for a former silent-film star who has faded into Hollywood obscurity.
What an impressive film, really. It’s done so well and with such a great directorial technique that it feels fresh and fascinating even today. Some might find it too cuckoo, but I think of it to be a delicious look inside Hollywood and a fascinating portrait of an aging crazy diva.
There are some iconic characters that would represent the world for any movie fan and Oscar fan in particular. There’s Scarlett, there’s Blanche and there’s definitely Norma Desmond. Unlike the previous two characters showing up in Oscar’s archive, Miss Desmond has the distinction of being an original character. It’s very possible that this legendary name wouldn’t have entered American culture with the same undying force had it not been for Gloria Swanson. She made it possible, also with the help of some terrific material.
Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond, a rich ex-silent-movie star, living an isolated life in a fantasy world. Her delusion borders insanity, as she strongly imagines her return to the screen in the leading role of Salome. She finds love interest in a screenplay writer with an agenda of his own and becomes his sponsor as she slowly continues to sink into madness. It’s a juicy role, yet difficult to play.
Do notice the limited screentime, which kind of surprised me. Truth is the film is more about the struggling writer, but she makes such a strong impression that you would hardly associate Sunset Blvd. with anyone other than Gloria Swanson/Norma Desmond. I will just limit myself in presenting what I liked where I think there were some issues or difficulties for me to fully digest the performance.
I think Gloria’s best acted scenes are, hands down, the ones in which she acts most normal; eccentric, but not crazy. Her first scene, with the chimp burial and the Gilberts! the Valentinos!, is the best. She is fascinating to look at, but normal enough for me to understand the character and the human side of it.
Same with her scene visiting Paramount studios or her falling in love with this younger man. Even in her scenes of jealousy I could sense the sickness of this woman, how she was trying to fight it, but ultimately had to surrender. In all the scenes showing vulnerability, she stops being a caricature and becomes a relatable human being. I loved that about her and those scenes filled with weakness, arrogance were the most fun scenes for me.
But the screenplay demanded more from her and here’s where the crazy came in. At first, I didn’t react that entirely great to it: it seemed the-mother-of-all-theatrical and overacting. It looked like overcooked schizophrenia that makes a good film, but not a great performance. However, revisiting scenes over and over, I understand how truly unselfish Gloria is when playing Norma. She is sacrificing some credibility to get that extra-bump of memorable and history-making that the film demands.
Gloria is being pushed into overplaying it for the sake of the show and I have to get used to the idea that Gloria delivered exactly what the film required. Did I fully love her sacrifice? No. But she was carefully, memorably, precisely acting the script.
It’s a performance people will still be talking about 100 years from now. It shows modern audiences the 1950s perception of a 1920s movie star. Gloria Swanson is very good, but due to reasons mentioned here, I couldn’t fully love the performance. Strangely, it’s most recognized for the weird crazy scenes, but I loved the human, vulnerable moments. It was hard for me to choose between 4 and 5, but I’m going with , as I’m trying not to get influenced by the fact that people always expect you to worship this performance.