Sunset Boulevard

Table of Contents

  • Essay Question 1
  • Essay Question 2
  • Essay Question3
  • Essay Question 4
  • Essay Question 5
  • Essay Question 6
  • Essay Question 7
  • Essay Question 8
  • Essay Question 9
  • Essay Question 10
  1. “I felt caught like the cigarette in that contraption on her finger.” ‘Joe’s downfall is entirely of his own making.’ Do you agree?

“I haven’t been keeping myself at all.  Not lately.” Joe Gilles’ self-deprecating comment encapsulates his willing resignation as he yields to the powerful Norma Desmond’s control. Indeed, Billy Wilder’s darkly comedic classic, Sunset Boulevard, exposes the corruption of individuals as a result of their greed, pride and fear in a society which ruthlessly discards anything it deems “[isn’t] very good”. Wilder’s tragic protagonist, Gilles, transitions from a hopeful writer to a materialistic gigolo, serving as an awfully realistic representation of the fates of many struggling talents in search for fame and recognition. While Joe’s decision to be ‘caught’ by Norma stems initially comes from his materialistic desires, further complications following this decision led to yet another Hollywood tragedy.

The pressures of a capitalist society catalyses Joe’s transformation into a vain con-artist in his quest for economic security. The visually dynamic opening sequence unveils the name “Sunset Boulevard” quite literally shows the street name stenciled in the gutter. The placement of the street name jarringly presents the fate of stars who are ‘kicked to the curb’, left to fade out while the industry focuses on other stars. As Joe is introduced as a floating corpse marks the film’s use of dramatic irony, as the price to pay for fame and personal fulfillment is death. With his sardonic remark of “always [wanting] a pool”, he reflects on how his demise is the result of his greed. Trying to “make a crack at Hollywood” did not provide Joe with any opportunities to succeed, rather, his very own attempts to do so marks the ‘sunset’ of his life. The changes in Joe’s writing style during his exchange with Betty Schaefer and Mr. Sheldrake further symbolises his desperation for stability, as he has essentially traded his talent for some banal scripts to “make a living”. Using Joe as an example, Wilder speaks to a larger audience at the time of the corrosive nature of Hollywood in eliminating talents rather than nurturing them.

Following Hollywood’s abandonment, Joe’s romantic entanglement with Norma is an act of self-fulfilment. Norma immediately captures the screen with her vivacity and over-the-top facial expressions, contrary to Joe’s hard-to-decipher intentions. His grim and sarcastic commentary beyond the grave aid the audience to understand his inner thoughts, and his true intentions to swindle “plenty of money” through his “patch-up job” on Norma’s awful script. By “concocting [the] little plan” and feeding into Norma’s delusion for a “comeback”, Joe does not shy away from depicting himself in an unflattering manner, even if the narrative is told from his perspective. Wilder therefore positions Joe to be a trustworthy storyteller, as his flaws are evident to see. However, Norma is also illustrated as an extreme narcissist with an overly inflated ego, as the grotesque number of photographs in her house represent her desperation to preserve her youth and former fame. The self-playing organ contributes to the eerie atmosphere in the mausoleum-esque mansion. While Joe indeed recognises the whole thing is “cuckoo”, he nonetheless chooses to stay there and enjoy the luxury Norma has to offer. As such, Wilder suggests it is ultimately Joe’s decision which begins the spiral of madness.

While Joe’s final confrontation with Norma is an echo of his own moral compass steering him in the right direction, Norma’s delusion makes it impossible for to escape his grim fate. The chimp’s death from the beginning of the film foreshadows Joe’s eventual death. Max’ offer to “help with the coffin” chillingly reminds the audience of the morbid undertones that the film entail. Not only does Joe choose to leave Norma, he also decides to give Betty a better future, by asserting that he is “all wrong” for her. His selfless act represents his decision to stay true to his morals, but also a powerful reflection on his mistakes thus far. His refusal to accept Norma’s money and admitting that he “[doesn’t] qualify for the job” suggests Joe’s willingness to leave the luxury life to go back to his modest yet honest life. His insistence in returning her expensive gifts further solidifies the seriousness behind his decision. Yet, his last-ditch attempt to shock her into the reality that “the audience [have long] left” her only pushes her closer to insanity. She quite literally imprisons him in her prison forever as she fires the revolver, believing that “no one ever leaves a star”. Therefore, even though Wilder portrays Joe’s absolute resolution to leave, due to the ways he has fed into Norma’s delusion, it is far too late for him to get away from her.

In conclusion, Joe Willis’ many poor choices led to the final grim outcome. Financial difficulties make Norma’s wealth even more alluring, thus propelling Joe to take advantage of her madness. However, even after having some clarity and finally deciding to leave Norma once and for all, Joe fails to truly escape from her as she has grown attached to his company in a toxic manner. Ultimately, Willis’ story reflect the realistic yet terrible reality of many Hollywood hopefuls in trying to navigate success in a ruthless environment.

  1. How does Sunset Boulevard successfully combine the genres of film noir and romance?

“Shout at me, strike me! But don’t hate me, Joe.” Norma Desmond’s heart-melting yet tragic cry epitomises a toxic romance. While Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is inherently a dark comedy loaded with drama and suspense, the all-time classic also highlights alarmingly realistic depictions of the highs and lows of a relationship. Produced in 1950, the highly acclaimed film is eerily timeless as it accurately exposes the ugly truth of Hollywood’s own destruction of its stars. Wilder’s protagonist, Joe Gilles, narrates the film from beyond the grave as he recounts his romantic involvement with both Norma Desmond and Betty Schaefer. Love is cynically depicted as a series of transactions, with prevalent notions of control and manipulation. Wilder also explores how one’s own desire for self-fulfilment can expose them to dangerous relationships. Ultimately, the inability to draw a line between obsession and love leads to the literal and figurative deaths of many.

Wilder offers a grim outlook on love whereby power plays a more dominant role than genuine connections. Introduced as a struggling writer with a hope to make it in Hollywood, the audience can ‘hear’ the sound of the golf ball, and Joe’s career, makes it down the hole in the golf course. Franz Waxman’s eerie flute-like music, played during the scene where Joe is about to step foot in the mausoleum-esque mansion suggests the impending danger he is about to face. As Joe insists on having “twenty-twenty vision”, the irony becomes evident as he is struck by greed at the thought of this “great big white elephant” of a place. Joe only wishes to have “plenty of money” to salvage his Hollywood dream and pay off his car’s rent. It is this very own desire which renders him powerless to Norma’s control. Joe’s responsibility does not stop at being Norma’s editor, rather, he becomes her new “important chimp” who would eventually meet the same terrible fate. Norma begins to “lutch [his] arm”, “[sits] very close” to him, eventually using ‘we’ and ‘us’ to make Joe her own. She orders Max to move all of Joe’s belongings to her mansion, against his futile objections. Her house is decorated with numerous portraits of her youthful appearance, highlighting her narcissistic nature. Rather than romanticising her expressions of love towards Joe, Wilder there illustrates her in a rather antagonistic light and thus heavily imply the tragedy which is about to unfold as a result of their ill-fated encounter.

Against the backdrop of Hollywood in the 1950s, even true affection is not enough to thrive in such environment. Max von Mayerling serves his role as Norma’s servant flawlessly. As she clings onto the belief that people “want to see [her]” even after all these years, such delusion is made possible by the numerous “fan letters” she still receives every day. What she does not realise is that Max is the one forging these letters, out of his genuine love and pity for her. The reference to the lack of doorknobs in the mansion suggests Norma’s morbid “attempts at suicide”. Therefore, Max tries to maintain Norma’s delusion for as long as possible. Furthermore, his absolute faith and devotion to her stems on his true acknowledgement that she is the “greatest star”, yet the way he executes his adoration towards her only contributes to her madness. During the scene where Max finally unveils his secret as Norma’s first husband to Joe, and his voluntary decision to come back to her, the high contrast lighting emphasises his inner torment knowing he is contributing to Norma’s madness. By only illuminating half of his face, Max feeds into her obsessions while being aware of the destruction he is causing because of his loyalty. Even in the final moments, he performs as DeMille to keep Norma’s dreams alive once more. Wilder suggests that it is Max’ refusal to tell Norma the truth propels her to continue clinging onto her ‘fame’.

Wilder condemns the idea of obsession through portraying the bleak yet frighteningly realistic tragedy of Hollywood failed romances. The opening sequence of the film showcases a floating body of a man in the pool, whom the audience learns to be Joe Gillis. By immediately spoiling Joe’s fate to the viewers, the narrative becomes rather ironic as the audience sees how his actions gradually lead to his death. As such, his encounter with Norma marks the ‘sunset’ of his life, rather than another chance at life. Norma visually dominates the screen when she is in frame with Joe. Her expressions are grandeur yet intricate, contradicting Joe’s constant reliance on sounds and words to deliver his point of view. As Norma is undergoing her rigorous beauty treatment, she grabs Joe hair while standing behind him, giving him a warning to not “[do] anything” and that she “wouldn’t let” him. Her eyes are filled with a kind of twisted love, foreshadowing Joe’s eventually doom. She even promises she will “fill the pool” for him, ironically indicating his final place of rest. Therefore, once Joe decides to leave her once and for all as he “[doesn’t] qualify for the job”, in her delusion, Norma shoots him multiple times with a revolver. Norma’s complete madness and Joe’s return to reality are two contradicting entities, with Max’ final assurance that Norma is “the greatest star”, it is her to emerges out of this miserable love the survivor.

As the film concludes, Norma leaves the world of sound. She does not respond to the questions of detectives, nor does she pay attention to the investigation of the “homicide squad”. However, she perks up with the sound of “cameras”, suggesting she is forever stuck in her delusions as her “dream . . . had enfolded her”. True to her Salome script, “the princess” has murdered the man she loves as she cannot have him. As though she has completely transformed into Narcissus, Norma slowly descends the staircase in an orchestrated scene directed by Max. The true tragedy, as Wilder portrayed is that Joe’s downfall is ultimately caused by a woman. Despite her charms and her powers, Hollywood has abandoned her. Yet, in the final moments, Norma reaches to touch the scene, merging herself with its splendour. It is both an eerie yet fascinating sight. Wilder does not show what is to happen next, whether it be that she will continue on with this fantasy, or that she will finally succumb to the rule of law, waiting for her act to finish.

  1. ‘Norma is the real victim in Sunset Boulevard.’ Do you agree?

“They’re below, waiting for the Princess . . . I’m ready”. Norma Desmond’s delusion of stardom renders her a pitiful antagonist, as her surroundings force her down the spiral of madness. Billy Wilder’s 1950 dark comedy, “Sunset Boulevard”, centres around the aging silent-film queen, Norma Desmond. The movie captures the invasion of sound which marks the end of many silent stars’ careers, and Norma was no exception. Wilder’s authentic depiction of Hollywood’s ruthless disposal of its former stars allow another perspective for audience to recognise the struggling efforts for those like Norma to stay relevant. Through portraying romance in a rather cynical light, Wilder further highlights Norma is very much a prey due to her status and wealth. Ultimately, her extreme narcissism and inflated ego also renders her a villain as she refuses to wake up from her delusions.

Wilder suggests Norma’s delusion is the product of Hollywood’s treatment of its former stars. The opening sequence quite literally shows the street name “Sunset Boulevard” stenciled in the gutter, ironically reflecting the fates of many famous movie stars ‘kicked to the curb’ as the industry adores the new youthful talents. Norma Desmond’s mansion is grandiose and grim, a “great big white elephant of a place”. As Joe first sets foot to the entrance, the external environment and the interior of the house greatly contradict one another. The darkness and mausoleum-esque feeling the mansion gives off reglects Norma’s state of mind, though she is trapped in the world of silent pictures and eternal fame. Though she is portrayed as a femme fatale whom has seduced Joe to her own advantage, much of her actions reflect a deep insecurity and fear that the world has truly abandoned her. The lack of locks in her mansion have been made to prevent “suicide attempts”. Wilder thus manages to capture the essence of Norma’s insanity but also her awareness of her own dwindling fame. Through having these glimpses, the audience can recognise a much more vulnerable self beneath the façade of the “great Norma Desmond” she claims to be. As such, Wilder portrays Norma as one of the unfortunate preys of Hollywood, discarded once she has served her purpose.

Norma’s enormous wealth positions her as a vulnerable victim to Joe’s exploits. The scene which introduces Joe Gillis invites the audience to view the harsh reality of Hollywood, whereby the struggling protagonist is glued to his typewriter. The suffocating interior of the one-bedroom apartment encapsulates Joe’s state of mind, and the desperate desire to escape his circumstances. His precious “Plymouth convertible”, in which he considers “his legs”, is about to be taken away as he is “three payments behind”. The creation of “Bases Loaded”, is an ironic representation of Joe as he is the struggling main character who is “trying to go straight” but financial drawbacks threaten him to “throw the World Series”. Therefore, his encounter with Norma represents an opportunity to be financially stable. He takes advantage of Norma’s fixation on a comeback to the film industry by becoming her editor to complete a “patch-up job” on Salome. His goal originally is to get “plenty of money” for that script, but Norma’s strange infatuation with him leads to him to take “the Vicuna”. The expensive coat is both a representation of Joe’s increasing dependence on Norma’s wealth, but also his manipulation of her affection towards him. As he questions Norma, “What right do you have to take me for granted?” is filled with irony as he has been receiving the best treatment from her.

While Norma is indeed mistreated by her environment, she does not passively let the world abandon her and acts in ways which further her influence and power. In scenes where Norma and Joe are shown in the same frame, she is visually dominant and dynamic. Her expressions encapsulate her thoughts, while Joe relies on sound to convey his point of view. When Norma is suspicious of “a woman” occupying Joe’s mind, she stands behind him while grabbing onto his hair, her expression both sinister and possessive. It is almost as though she is giving him a grim warning of what is to come. As Joe is shown to be literally looked down upon, Wilder subtly reminds the audience of the control she has over him. While Joe has indeed exploited her madness, Norma in return strikes Joe’s pity and lack of financial security to trap him in her grand prison. Her “[attempt] at suicide” forces Joe to submit to her, as he surrenders himself to her with the soft utterance, “Happy New Year, Norma”. As Norma once again threatens to harm herself when Joe leaves, the irony is that she chose to not kill herself. Even as Joe tries to shock her that her “parade . . . had long past”, Max’s absolute devotion to her assures that she is “the greatest star”, leading her to conclude that “no one ever leaves a star”. By shooting Joe and effectively ending his life, she prevents him from ever leaving her, but also to ensure the very threat to her stardom is removed as she drowns herself in her delusions.

As the film concludes, Norma leaves the world of sound. Rather than responding to the “homicide squad” and the detectives, she only perks up to the word “cameras”. Joe now speaks beyond the grave, suggesting Norma’s “dream . . . had enfolded her”. As though Norma has completed her role as “the princess” from her beloved Salome, she has indeed made a return to the screen, only from an entirely different industry. Her complete transformation into Narcissus is a result of Hollywood’s treatment, Joe’s betrayal, but also Max’ twisted love. When Norma slowly descends down the staircase in an orchestrated scene directed by Max, the gaze of pity falls upon her. The true tragedy, as Wilder suggests, is how “a lovely little girl of 17” can be ruined by this industry and herself. In the final moments, Norma eerily reaches to touch the screen. The gradual blur essentially emphasises an open ending, as the audience is not sure whether Norma will continue to be warped by this destructive fantasy, or will she finally stop “sleepwalking along the giddy heights of a lost career.”

  1. ‘In order to succeed in Hollywood, the only values that really count are ambition and self-interest.’ Discuss.

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