March 27, 1899– Gloria Swanson
”I had played the part too well.”
Although Gloria Swanson appeared in nearly 70 movies before Sunset Boulevard, she will be forever remembered for her role as a certain faded film legend. On Academy Award night 1951, viewers watched Swanson’s face as it was announced that the Oscar was going to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday. Swanson always claimed that she was not disappointed, saying:
”People wanted me to care. In fact, they seemed to want more than that. They expected scenes from me, wild sarcastic tantrums. They wanted Norma Desmond.”
Swanson began her acting career when she was 15-years-old, and when she was in her early-20s, she was already in full diva mode. Swanson in 1922:
”I have gone through enough of being a nobody. I have decided that when I am a star I will be every inch and every moment the star! Everybody from the studio gateman to the highest executive will know it.”
Within a couple of years, Swanson was working for producer / director Cecil B. De Mille. By her mid-20s, she was under contract at Paramount Pictures, and she was known to film fans as the ”Queen of the Screen”. At her apex, Swanson received 10,000 fan letters a week. Paramount paid her $22,000 a week, over $1 million a year, but in 1926 Swanson decided to join United Artists, formed in 1919 by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. She wanted to produce her own films and release them through UA, but first, she needed money.
Swanson went to Joseph Kennedy, father of John F. Kennedy, for funding and they soon began an affair. She later found out that Kennedy was swindling her. All the expensive gifts Kennedy had bought Swanson were purchased through her own production company.
At the height of her popularity, audiences went to her films not only for her performances, but also to see her wardrobe. She was often covered in beads, jewels, and feathers and extravagant pieces of haute couture. Her fashion, hair styles, and jewelry were much copied. She was one of the most famous and photographed women in the world.
Swanson starred in 40 silent films and was nominated for the very first Best Actress Academy Award. She did produce her own films, including Sadie Thompson (1927), The Love Of Sunya (1928) and Queen Kelly (1929).
In 1929, Swanson successfully transitioned to talkies with The Trespasser. She made four more movies and then following the completion of Billy Wilder’s romantic musical Music In The Air (1934), Swanson retired from the screen. Her early sound pictures were not big at the box-office, and she knew she was: ”…a fading star the public had worshipped long enough”.
Swanson moved to NYC in 1938, where she started an inventions and patents company whose sole purpose was rescuing Jewish scientists and inventors from Nazis and bringing them to the USA. She helped hundreds to escape.
She started doing theater and starred in her own television show The Gloria Swanson Hour (1948-1950) where she invited friends to be guests and Crown Theatre With Gloria Swanson (1948-1954), an anthology series that she sometime acted in. She took up painting and wrote a syndicated fashion column, toured in summer stock, and became a Conservative political activist, working for the 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater, and she chaired the New York chapter of Seniors for Reagan-Bush in 1980.
Billy Wilder had been wanting to make a film about Hollywood for several years. His first try was titled A Can Of Beans written with his partner and producer Charles Brackett. It was a comedy about an ageing silent film star who wreaks revenge on her enemies. But, the project morphed into a story about a relationship between the silent movie star and a young man, she, living in the past, refusing to believe her days as a star are gone.
The screenwriters, Wilder, Brackett, and D.M. Marshall, Jr., made an audacious choice: The narrator of the film is a dead man. His name is Joe Gillis (William Holden), who explains himself as: “Just a movie writer with a couple of B pictures to his credit.”
He starts the film face down in the swimming pool of an old mansion located somewhere along the 22-mile Sunset Boulevard. Gillis has a story to tell; it’s a winner, and he’s not going let a little thing like death stop him from sharing it. Flashback to six months earlier, the fateful day he met Norma Desmond (Swanson), an aging, reclusive silent movie star who hasn’t worked in decades.
No one’s buying Gillis’s scripts. He’s broke and behind on his rent and car payments. When a couple of repo men show up for the car, he flees, but a flat tire forces him to seek temporary refuge in the garage of Desmond’s mansion. Gillis’s narration describes it as: “A great big white elephant of a place, the kind crazy movie people built in the crazy ’20s.”
Desmond’s butler Max, played cryptically by silent film director Eric Von Stroheim, lets Gillis into the house, mistaking him for the funeral planner who’s been summoned to plan for the burial of Desmond’s recently deceased monkey. She wants a white coffin, lined in flaming red satin. Desmond declares: “Let’s make it gay!”
Gillis attempts to explain his real reason for being there, and Desmond overreacts and orders him off the property. But, she changes her mind when Gillis realizes that this is THE Norma Desmond.
Gillis: “You used to be big…”
Desmond: “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.”
When Desond discovers that Gillis is a screenwriter, she proposes that he turn the handwritten script she’s labored over for years into something Hollywood will produce as a star vehicle for herself.
Gillis: “I didn’t know you were planning a comeback.”
Desmond: “I hate that word! It’s a return.”
Desperately needing an income, Gillis agrees to work on her script. Desmond has one condition: Gillis has to move into her mansion, complete with Max, a wheezing old pipe organ, and hundreds of old photographs of Desmond in her prime (actual stills of Swanson from her silent films). Gillis:
“The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of paralysis, out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion.”
Gillis stays, grinding out pages for a film he knows will never be made. Desmond begins buying him expensive gifts. His initial reluctance to be a “kept man” ends when Gillis becomes comfortable with the arrangement, right up until the moment he realizes that Desmond has developed a possessive obsession of operatic proportions for him. Who can blame her? He’s so darn handsome and nimble with the quips.
As morally ambivalent Gillis, Holden is excellent. He’s sardonic, raffish and looks fine in a pair of swim trunks. But, this is Swanson’s film. She is too credible as Desmond, a woman who can’t stop rhapsodizing about a career that was over twenty years ago. Desmond:
“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”
A modern audience gets why her stardom is a thing of the past. Desmond’s facial expressions and gestures are big, broad and highly theatrical. She perfected them for her silent film acting and they become her essence. There is a strident, affected cadence in her voice that’s totally unnatural.
Sunset Boulevard delves into some dark and juicy territory. It moves easily from a satire of Hollywood, to gothic horror. It deservedly earned 11 Academy Award nominations. It won three: Screenplay, Score and Art/Set direction. Holden lost to Jose Ferrer for Cyrano de Bergerac. Swanson’s loss to Holliday was shocking. It was expected that she would win, and that her only real competition was Bette Davis, also playing a kind of monster, in All About Eve. Swanson’s performance is idiosyncratic, risky and smart. It was an astonishing return to films.
Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and Cecil B. DeMille play themselves in Sunset Boulevard. DeMille is unexpectedly excellent.
It is also very meta. In the scene where Desmond screens one of her silent films for Gillis, Wilder chose a clip from Queen Kelly with real Swanson directed by Von Stroheim, who plays Max. It was a notoriously troubled production. Swanson wanted Von Stroheim fired after a third of the film had been shot. That must have been a weird day on the set.
In a film filled with great dialogue, Holden has one of the greatest lines in Film History:
“Norma, you’re a woman of 50, now grow up. There’s nothing tragic about being 50, not unless you try to be 25.”
It’s one of the best movies ever made about the movies, and Swanson gives one of the all-time great performances. My only real disappointment with Sunset Boulevard was my desire to see Desmond interacting with that monkey. The dead Gillis says: “It was all very queer.” I agree. Sunset Boulevard is so queer, I can’t believe that straight guys are responsible for it.
After Sunset Boulevard, Swanson’s star faded once more. The only scripts she received featured ageing, eccentric actresses. Swanson:
”I knew that if I accepted such parts I would become some sort of creepy parody of myself, or rather, of Norma Desmond, a shadow of a shadow.”
She did appear in a few more films such as Killer Bees (1974) and Airport 1975, where she plays herself.
When her final credits rolled in 1983, the NY Times called her ”The Last Great Star”. Her ashes are interred at the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Fifth Avenue, in NYC. The ghost of Norma Desmond continues to haunt her still.