Close-up on Sunset Boulevard
Essays Culture Film

Close-up on Sunset Boulevard

Gabriele Sartoris

The Timeless Glamor of Gloria Swanson

Pity the beautiful,
the dolls, and the dishes,
the babes with big daddies
granting their wishes.

Pity the pretty boys,
the hunks, and Apollos,
the golden lads whom
success always follows.

The hotties, the knock-outs,
the tens out of ten,
the drop-dead gorgeous,
the great leading men . . .

— Dana Gioia, “Pity the Beautiful”


Gloria Swanson is the first and ultimate example of celebrity lifestyle. Her life story reads like a Hollywood script with all the requisite glitz and glamor. From her emblematic role as Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s film, Sunset Boulevard (1950), to her multiple marriages and affairs with some of the biggest names in showbiz, Swanson embodied the essence of superstardom. But behind the scenes, the film industry was a ruthless machine that chewed up and spat out its stars—a meta-textual dark side which Sunset Boulevard exposed in ways both shocking and mesmerizing, then and now.

Swanson’s life and career—as it strolled the line between being a victim of Hollywood’s machinations and willing participant in its seductive game—extended its dual ambiguity to Wilder’s film. Thanks in large measure to Edith Head’s costume design, which both constructs Desmond’s character and insightfully comments on celebrity personae, Sunset Boulevard depicts, as both critique and celebration, the deteriorating, ossifying world of the Hollywood Golden Age.

Facing initial rejection from executives upon premiering his work in New York on August 10th, 1950, Wilder’s critical realism was perceived as an attack on the industry.[1] But was it? Widely considered one of cinema’s greatest works, the film’s recognition stems from its revelation of how the studio system operated. This depiction unlocked a new subgenre of movie productions, ones that showed the tragicomic boom and bust of guys and gals in la la land. While Wilder put a spotlight on that seedy underbelly, paradoxically, his noir dark comedy made it shine all the brighter.

Defining Glamor

When the word “glamor” first appeared in the nineteenth century, it was linked to magical charms. Likewise in the twentieth century, its strongest association was with Hollywood cinema from the 1920s to 1950s, particularly the still photography of its female stars.

Generally, glamor’s history interweaves with changes in femininity and consumerism, fashion and celebrity. Among many reasons to seek it, the desire for glamor meant for ordinary women above all one of transgression, both away from domestic norms and into escapist fantasies with expressed interest in sexual power and the exotic.[2] A form of primal rhetoric consisting of compelling images and totems, glamor binds “image and desire” to give “us pleasure, even as it heightens our yearning,” as one scholar notes. “It leads us to feel that the life we dream of exists, and to desire it even more.”[3]

In sum, it armed film production with a layer of dream-like content that transcended personal and public limits in conventional designs. Whether aided by peculiar details or exotic extravaganza, glamor extended from costumes to sets. Such places—reminiscent of Romantic depictions of ancient landscapes with lush gardens and fountains—combined classical patterns with the slick heights of modernist design. These elements form a timeless pastiche that, by suppressing our notions of time and origin, induce a dream-like frenzy where anything can happen. In other words: the movies.

Such “camp,” Susan Sontag writes, is “the love for the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”[4] In this light we see why glamor is a chameleon. Her set of examples of camp includes “women’s clothes of the twenties (feather boas, fringed and beaded dresses, etc.).” The example is noteworthy when framed alongside the inspiration of her research—Oscar Wilde, who pens that “one should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.”[5] No casual assessment, either: Wilder consciously reflects on the opulence and decadence of one’s own artifice. And Gloria Swanson—who above all others showed how this mystique was assembled—“wore glamor,” as film critics said, “like a second skin.”[6]

Early on glamor meant exoticism. Silent-screen cinema, for example, frequently showcased mysterious slavs, doomed queens, and gypsies in films such as The Great Moment (1921), starring Swanson. The feminine aesthetic of those years combined the oriental harem with the “Cleopatra look”—women wore beads, along with serpent-of-the-Nile arm and ankle bracelets, as well as kohl-rimmed eyes.[7] Stardom paid particular attention to physical beauty, displaying fashion and luxury as exquisitely feminine, partly since American film audiences were predominantly female. As a consequence, sexually promiscuous and independent women were often associated with architectural modernism, as well as their display of wealth with furs and jewels.[8]

Like attracts like: these divas wore artworks because they were artworks. “I want clothes that will make people gasp when they see them,” Cecil B. Demille said. “I don’t want to see any clothes that anybody could possibly buy in a store.”[9] DeMille helped discover Gloria Swanson in 1919, casting her in a series of lavish films about upper-class folk dressed in magnificent gowns and jewel-dripping clothes whose wearers wrestled between sexuality and infidelity.

A Star Is Born

Before the 1920s, the word “glamor” was rarely used. Gloria Swanon’s “dazzling persona,” however, put it on the map and “into common usage, making it synonymous with Hollywood.” Characteristically eager to make the transition from reality into illusion, Swanson said: “I have decided that when I am a star, I will be every inch and every moment a star.”[10] Even off-screen, the shining Swanson would wear the same luxurious fabrics and jewels of her films, always attending premières in opulent gowns.[11]

This style, combined with her dramatic love affairs and serial marriages, helped maintain her persona for the public eye. The first film star required by contract to dress fashionably whenever appearing in public, Swanson by 1929 was the most photographed woman of the decade. Moreover, as a true leader of celebrity culture, she was the first Hollywood star to marry a nobleman, and, eventually, the first actress to have a talk show, The Gloria Swanson Hour (1948).[12]

Seen in this way, there is a noted spontaneity in stardom: “Glamor portrays luxuries as normal experiences,” that “feel casually attainable,” being “all the more reason to desire,” as one author notes. “That ease stokes the audience’s yearning. All the barriers are hidden.”[13] An ideal put on display not to satiate, but stir public consumption, glamor creates a demand for more of itself. As an icon of Hollywood’s most opulent era, Swanson brought to Sunset Boulevard her first-hand experience and knowledge of that world—she helped build it.

Seen and Unseen

Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is a Hollywood story of megalomania and murder. As Norma Desmond tries to recapture her youth and career with the help of broke screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), her life is continually blurred between the past and present.

The film opens with the scene of a dead Joe floating in a swimming pool. As the narrator, he takes the viewer back to six months beforehand when he was struggling to make ends meet and get his work taken seriously. While trying to flee a car repossession, Joe drives into the driveway of a seemingly deserted mansion, one it just so happens is inhabited (if not haunted) by Norma. The first thing he finds is a funeral for a dead pet chimpanzee: something exotic laid to rest after being claimed by old age.

Despite this foreshadow, the forgotten silent-film star seizes on the glimmer of opportunity to return to success: Joe will work on her script about Salome as a comeback vehicle. But who’s driving it? Eerily, Joe soon loses his repossessed convertible, to take up Norma’s car: a 1929 Landaulet limousine of the Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A. “The whole thing was upholstered in leopard skin,” Joe narrates, with “those car-phones, all gold-plated.” Either one is an artwork or drives one.

As with these symbols, the film contains a considerable number of meta-elements. Wilder intended to give his audience déjà-vu by screening Queen Kelly (1932), an actual film which starred Swanson. Further, the movie has numerous cameo appearances: DeMille appears as himself alongside the silent film stars H.B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson, and Buster Keaton.[14]

Most of these cameos show stars long gone from both stage and memory: Warner, Nilsson, and Keaton are just three friends meagerly retained in Norma’s weekly poker club. In fact, many silent-film stars did not survive the transition to sound from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s. Actors and actresses who built their stardom on facial expression, when suddenly finding themselves out of gigs, resisted the change—and floundered, if not foundered. Those few who adapted, such as Charlie Chaplin, survived, while the overwhelming majority who did not were nearly forgotten.

A shift in public perception also occurred, symbolically linked to the Great Depression by critics. Suddenly in 1929, the ostentatious display of wealth by celebrities appeared distasteful and vulgar. Hollywood stars who had previously enjoyed the reverence of ancient pharaohs were abruptly humiliated and demoralized.

Downsizing: Wilder’s film fully encapsulates this tragedy. Swanson’s Norma is ostentatious, elegant, yet unnatural. Responding to Joe’s recognition that “You’re Norma Desmond . . . You used to be big,” Swanson replies with both dramatic voice and facial expression: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small!”[15] In fact, Norma is quite right: pictures did get smaller. The dramatic change from silent to sound films caused a reduction in the overall dimensions of film production, distribution, and ultimately the significance of the star. In this way, Wilder explicitly refers to dramatic transitions within the studio system to explain the psychological makeup of its heroine, thereby rendering her tragedy the result not only of hubris, vanity, or delusion, but concrete historical and technological circumstances as well.[16]

In one key scene, it is revealed that whatever Norma Desmond became, she was not always so. “Thirty million fans have given her the brush,” C. B. DeMille comments, “You didn’t know Norma Desmond as a plucky little girl of seventeen, with more courage and wit and heart than ever came together in one youngster.” But, his assistant objects, “she was a terror to work with.” Well, “she got to be,” DeMille explains. “A dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.” And after that system threw her away while millions forgot her, she, obsessed with this betrayal, yearned to be taken back. When she receives a call from the studio, Norma believes it concerns her script. Instead, Demille just needs the 1929 limousine. From stardom to car rental!

Not all roles are the same. Whereas Max the butler (Erich von Stroheim) was once Max von Mayerling the director and Max Desmond Norma’s husband—a role Joe the screenwriter is quickly studying—Norma cannot (or will not) be taken back in a subordinate position as Max was. Not all roles are exchangeable, either. Whereas Gloria Swanson got a second career with her artistic performance, her character has only one shot: because art is unavailable to her, murder is the only thing left.

By recalling the tragic lives of has-been film stars whose careers in silent pictures ended with the advent of sound, Sunset Boulevard epitomizes the passing of the old Hollywood glitz and glitter. The decaying swimming pool on Norma’s estate, for example, is a relic of the grandeur of her lost superstar status in Hollywood. Cracked and empty at the film’s start, it is gradually restored with Joe coming into her life, signifying Norma’s hopes to revive her lost youth and past glory. But a renovated house does not a saner mistress make.

This unwarranted enthusiasm springs from her soul’s deeper instability within. Swanson’s Norma has “the threat of madness throughout,” from ”the cockeyed glint in her eyes” to “the unruly and unmanageable passions” always lying just underneath her exterior. We the audience cannot keep from watching her Norma lead Joe, and thereby us as well, “down the treacherous path to tragedy.”[17]

The larger effect is thus: in Sunset Boulevard, everything is in protean flux as Wilder explores the visible versus the invisible, with all of the shadows in between. In this wild and Wilder world, actor, writer, and producer are ever-changing roles, or at least they seem to be. While fame and stardom are ephemeral experiences, the merciless aging process most certainly is not. Like the reporters hungry for a scoop upon Gillis’ death, cameras signify that only petty sensationalism, public melodrama, and private passions structure celebrity life.[18]

Put another way, everything public is made for melodrama, and everything private is suborned to emotional performance. In Hollywood, there is no real life outside of celebrity life.

Designing Norma

Funny enough, it took a few decades for Norma’s actress and designer to collaborate. Though Gloria Swanson had been one of Paramount’s biggest stars, when costume designer Edith Head began working there in 1924, the two never worked together until Sunset Boulevard.[19] Winner of eight Academy awards, Head usually avoided store-bought clothes for her film designs, knowing that they would end the practice of designing and making new costumes for movies, as later happened in the 1960s. Head wanted to start fashion trends, not follow them.

Edith Head was also critical to crafting celebrity: the actress Veronica Lake, for example, shows how a woman could transform herself through Head’s styling. As Lake said during the fittings in silky gowns and negligees: “pardon me while I put on my other head.” Responsible for maintaining the “Elvis Style,” Head worked on her fashion shows with business partner June Van Dyke. Models in their fashion shows had to be coached in performing the personae of the stars whose gowns they were wearing. Their costumes were not just a look but a show of personality.

Mood and atmosphere in the film depended, like Norma’s archaic 1920s mansion, on an intersection of eras. In finding a look for her, Head, Swanson, and Wilder decided Norma’s clothes would primarily follow contemporary lines, albeit always with some bizarre touches of 1920s exoticism. The fashion detail is critical to Sunset Boulevard’s symbolism: these touches get more pronounced as the film proceeds and Norma becomes increasingly insane.[20]

To build the star persona known as Norma Desmond, Head combined up-to-date Parisian designs with small touches of over-the-top and oversized accessories. This is seen, for example, in a headdress when Norma sunbathes in a silk robe printed in leopard skin. Thus the audience immediately knows she is a throwback to lost luxury. Such bits were meticulously detailed to reveal her inner character.

Consider one further example. For the scene when Norma returns to Paramount to meet with DeMille, Head dressed Swanson in a black Kasha peg-top dress, along with with a short waist-length cape, one both lined in ermine and combined with an ermine cuff muff and hat. Such items betray the absurdity of her quest. Someone who says to DeMille, “I don’t care about the money, I just want to work again,” yet who also dresses like that, should be expected to quickly qualify her commitment—which she soon does: “But remember, darling—I don’t work before 10 in the morning, and never after 4:30 in the afternoon.”

Overall, Head relied on rich fabrics and fur pieces to convey Norma’s wealth—these include a pale gray woven Kasha dress with a mink-lined cape and a spiral mink hat, a brocade gown topped with chinchilla fur, as well as black velvet hostess pajamas with a printed silk trim. Finally, Head made use of structured lines of a 1920s dress to showcase the mad-ending spiral of the film, when Norma’s mind has completely regressed to the past as she performs the end scene: “Alright Mr. Demille, I’m ready for my close-up.”[21]

Norma’s Throwback Face

Swanson’s acting style of expressionist poses, deliberately invoking the silent era, is a sharp contrast to Holden’s modern style, detached and laid back. “We didn’t need dialogue,” as Norma puts it. “We had faces!”

Norma is a prime example of the much-publicized lifestyle of a bankable film star—one invented by the silent era as a commodity and fantasy life that could be sold to the public. Ironically, stars from Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich to Swanson, it turns out, all mastered the transition from silent to sound, showing that Norma’s real challenge is her age, among other things.

Her face, the source of her power while a star of the silent era, becomes the source of her madness. Her formerly youthful but still feminine looks infuriatingly indicate her career’s decay.[22] Before her sense of privilege was tolerated because her youth proved useful to the industry, but when technology and business alter in basic ways, age with a refusal to adapt lead to entitlement and insanity.

“Timeless glamor promises something greater,” one critic notes: it promises an “escape from age and loss, decay and death, into the artifice of eternity,” as found in the “eternally youthful contours of” someone like “Greta Garbo’s face.”[23] This promise of eternal youth—glamor, in other words—was packaged and sold to audiences as a vicarious experience. Sound in pictures, along with time and age, took all of that away.

In order for Garbo to maintain such an aura, as Norma declares, she had to disappear from public view at only thirty-six. To be known as beautiful, one must retreat from acting, but to keep being known, one must keep working. Fame, it seems, does not let one live forever. Thus Garbo cashed in when she could, or, as Norma would have it, sold out.

Thus Sunset Boulevard holds up an ironic funhouse mirror to Hollywood glamor, with the autonomous and synchronous moments of splendor cast as transient and uneternal.

The reason is that mythology, as Roland Barthes understood, turns nature into technology. Certain features of a culture that appear true and natural, like Greta Garbo’s immortal youth,[24] are essentially the result of fabrications rendering a sense of normalcy. As it delivers images, mass media acts as a purifying process that creates this neutrality. An actress’s persona, whilst presented as an accurate depiction of reality, was a carefully crafted and mediated experience easily packaged as attainable to everyone else.

In this way, the artful design of Hollywood built and sold beauty and personality as natural—a vicarious totem for the audience’s mass consumption. In Sunset Boulevard, Wilder likewise lets the audience pretend to be in on the joke, mutually aware that stardom is more flash than substance.

But why is that so? Norma’s glamor transforms everything around her. And if she has fallen from great heights, did she not first possess some great ability to climb up there? That she can turn both policemen and reporters into a film crew at her career’s end with just a word from Max—among all of the other transformations in the film—shows she possessed some great ability to stun and dazzle beyond what a dozen press agents could conjure. Their work first needed a solid foundation in Norma’s capacity for metamorphosis.

Actors and Spectators All

While satirizing noir tropes, Billy Wilder also innovated new ones. Sunset Boulevard revolves around the film industry’s role in the public imagination. It explicitly showcases how its making and selling of narratives is a matter of life or death.

Or are they? Many of the intentional parallels between Gloria Swanson and Norma Desmond purport to show the reality of show business, mass media, and celebrity worship, true. But then if these images of life and death have no reference points in reality, is the appearance of the audience being let in on the joke actually just another exercise in toothless escapism? Maybe it turns out, to paraphrase Jean Beaudrillard, Norma Desmond’s close-up did not take place. Wilder’s masterwork deliberately poses these questions, ones without easy answers.

The spectacle certainly alienates both subject and spectator. As Norma shows us, her human desires are obliterated by the need to return to a past glory. All aspects of her life are fictionalized, from the fan letters written by her butler to her illusory encounter with DeMille to revamp her career. Norma’s performance has taken over all aspects of life: her life is her performance.

In a search to complete the void left by the accumulation of fantastic images—be it a funeral service held for a dead pet chimp, her screenplay to play Salome, or her 1929 Isotta Fraschini—Norma is stuck suspended between delusional escapism and desired transcendence.

It is likewise with Joe. He leaves aside the girl Betty Schaeffer (Nancy Olson) and their screenplay they write together, because he, like the Norma he pities, does not want to dispense with the illusion. When Joe and Betty walk one night through the backlot and studio sets—laughing but reminiscing at the fake buildings of hollow facades, cardboard, and mirrors, with a street for swashbuckler films right next to one for the old west—they notice how pretend the whole thing is.

But to dispel an illusion brings not comfort, but a curse. (”After nine years” in reality, “you what I realize?” Cypher explains in The Matrix (1999), “Ignorance is bliss.”)

What Norma was to the studio system—a pet chimp, a tragic figure, a lover, a mere vehicle—Joe becomes to her. After all, did Joe arrive to replace Max the lover, Demille the director, or maybe just the pet monkey? At the end, like a parody of King Kong (1933), “it was beauty that killed the beast.” But the beast wanted that ending, and Joe wants that glamor. He wants that “spectacle.”

Spectacle is an invitation to project oneself into an imagined period when time is suspended. But a certain distance from the glamorous object is required to fully sustain its mystery and desire. [25] Collapse that distance with time’s fantastic distortion, and the glamor goes out. “Time may enhance what seems dogged or lacking in fantasy now,” as Sontag writes, “because we are too close to it because it resembles too closely our everyday fantasies, the fantastic nature of which we don’t perceive. We are better able to enjoy a fantasy as a fantasy when it is not our own.”[26]

Is it ever our own? Wilder, Head, and Swanson exaggerate story elements to keep the illusion, but the film thematically collapses the distance between spectating and performing: like the reporters, we cannot look away.

A New Tradition

As far back as the silent era, the filmed depictions of show business would host mildly critical but mostly lavish celebrations of an industry with low stakes.

Against the temptations of the big city, true love triumphs over struggle, and virtue is eventually rewarded, all within ninety minutes, no less. By movie’s end, our talented young heroine, as aided by a veteran performer, has experienced both the highs and lows, if not earning riches then at least learning to stay humble and true to her roots. Her naivete is gone, but her tested innocence is preserved. But move back home? Are you crazy?

Not despite but because of its roughs and tumbles, naive dreams and love of excess, Hollywood remained the place to dream big and make it bigger. Beginning with King Vidor’s Show People (1928), this nostalgic tradition ranges from the more conventional but competent Oscar-bait fare in Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist (2011) and Damian Chazelle’s La La Land (2016), to its occasionally deeper gems—such as in that highly underrated celebratory satire, both very loving and very catholic, the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar (2016).

Even in all the chronically morbid versions of A Star Is Born, when the older and washed up male love interest commits suicide, the new starlet never recants her performing for showbiz glitz. His was a necessary sacrifice she must honor—for the show must go on.

Perhaps the greatest self-prodying example comes by way of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s classic, Singin’ in the Rain (1952), itself pastiche of past Broadway musicals. Using over three decades of Arthur Freed’s lyrics and his creative partner Nacio Herb Brown’s music, it features just one original song: “Make ‘Em Laugh.” When creative camera work became less feasible, people still needed to see and hear movement. The film thus shows what sound’s introduction made possible: song and dance on the big screen.

In the film a silent movie industry is stuck in transition, but most of the main characters happily make it into the sound era, from veteran leading man, Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), his lieutenant and comic relief, Cosmo Brown (Donald Brown), to the plucky new girl, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds). The only one left behind is “a triple threat,” she who “can’t act, can’t sing, and can’t dance,” the ditsy if pretty Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen).

The story’s moral also defines its genre: like Rocky Balboa when softened by success and knocked down by a rival, Gene Kelley’s Don Lockwood must relearn his craft with a hungry man’s ambition. No longer the lazy expressive who hides his blue-collar Vaudeville upbringing with WASPish rhetoric and a fake publicity romance, he must reinvent himself as a singer and dancer, finding love in the mix.

Gene Kelly plays a similar character in the film-within-the-film. Altered from The Duelling Cavalier to The Dancing Cavalier, the story is about a Broadway actor who—while reading A Tale of Two Cities backstage and getting knocked unconscious by a falling sandbag—dreams he is in ancien regime France. We get this unnamed plucky dancer’s backstory in “The “Broadway Melody” sequence, which shows a hero-journey oddly reminiscent of Don Lockwood’s own.

A lad new to the big city, Gene Kelly’s amateur knocks around town telling various agents he’s “gotta dance.” When the third one likes his stuff, Kelly gets shown the downtown scene. S he falls for and dances with a green-dressed, bob-styled femme fatale (Cyd Charisse), but she is lulled away by a scar-faced, coin-flipping mobster. Disappointed, Kelly moves from stage to stage dancing with chorus girls, each time more successfully at a richer establishment, with finer clothes, but doing less and less dancing.

When admiring men and adoring women toast his peak success, the tuxedo-wearing Kelley sees Charisse again. In a dream sequence the duo dance again, while in reality he runs across the room to her. She dismisses this desperate chump with a flipped coin, and rejoins the mobster, still his main squeeze. Disillusioned with modeling himself after what she valued, he strides outside. Then a young man comes by, saying “Gotta dance,” and strutting his stuff.

Reminded of the reason he got into show business, Kelly shouts, “Gotta dance!” Then crowds of dancers join him in the big city, concluding with the refrain, “That’s the Broadway Melody!” The sequence is almost a throwaway scene—but with long takes, some single tracking, creative cuts, dream sequences within a dream sequence, and no dialogue—shows an entire character’s storyline in under ten minutes to boot.

“Broadway Melody” shows what filmmaking was again able to achieve after so long: pure cinematic storytelling by sound and image alone. The larger film also shows who got left behind. “They can’t make a laughingstock out of Lina Lamont,” Jean Hagan cries, “what do they think l am, dumb or something?” She does, after all, “make more money than Calvin Coolidge put together.” Well, she did, for a while. As she tells studio-head R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell): “People, I ain’t people. I’m ‘a shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmament.’ It says so, right there” in the newspaper. These lines could have come straight out of a younger Norma Desmond. They probably did.

Further, Singin’ in the Rain holds a layer of irony. For The Dancing Cavalier, Reynolds’ Kathy Seldom is voice acting for Lamont’s image: her melodic voice in speech and song replaces Lamont’s waspy, high-pitched squeal. But outside of the song, “Good Morning,” we do not hear Reynolds’ real singing voice. Instead, for the two Dancing Cavalier songs—”Would You” and “You Are My Lucky Star”—ghost singer Betty Noyes’ voice haunts the film in lieu of Reynolds. Even when a girl gets the Hollywood treatment, she is still as replaceable as her predecessor.

Something like Singin’ in the Rain purports to show how the sausage gets made, but instead of Upton Sinclair’s Jungle we get the dream factory, though a fantastical and fantastic one at that. Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard broke with those sorts of tropes, taking the bitter starlets of dimestore novels, romantic pulp, and noir subplots into the mainstream. It asks us to imagine what happened to someone like Lina Lamont after the industry left her behind. Well, Wilder answers, she became Norma Desmond, a scapegoat of the California dreamscape with its forgotten stars and hack writers.

Thus Wilder initiated another tradition, one stretching from Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) to David Lynch’s LA trilogy of Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001), and Inland Empire (2006), not to mention David Robert Mitchell’s bizarre but masterful flick, Under the Silver Lake (2018). In all of these, the sunset strip has an underbelly to its glamor, though one no less stylish.

Twilight of Gods

Sometimes directors try to split the difference. Chazelle’s Babylon (2022) is a case in point, both exalting in Hollywood’s pornographic degeneracy while condemning its social iniquity. Consider one clever if deceptive scene.

"You’re a cockroach, Elinore,” remarks Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt). This washed-up leading man confronts gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), who trashed his failed attempt to get into talkies. Looking for a fight, he instead gets a lecture. The actors in the spotlight do not survive, she replies, only the cockroaches—“the ones who just watched.” And not any single man or woman lives forever, instead only the dynamic between gods and worshippers, stars and their consumers: “there’ll be a hundred more Jack Conrads, a hundred more me’s, a hundred more conversations just like this one—over and over again until God knows when.”

Even God could destroy Hollywood like Sodom and Gomorrah, but another Babylon would arise in its place. So far, so good: Chazelle’s mouthpiece suggests an insightful answer to Wilder’s basic question: those who produce and consume are just temps, but the production and consumption stay forever. So far, so good: Chazelle’s mouthpiece suggests an insightful answer to Wilder’s basic question: those who produce and consume are just temps, but the production and consumption stay forever.

Still, consider Chazelle’s elaboration. “In a hundred years” when both of them are “long gone,” St. John tells Conrad, “anytime someone threads a frame of yours through a sprocket, you will be alive again.” Jack Conrad as man and star is mortal, but as celluloid forever rises again from the dead. And while “one day every person in every film shot this year will be dead,” nonetheless “one day those films will be pulled out of vaults and all their ghosts will dine” and “adventure together,” be it “go to the jungle or to war.” For whenever a future “child” stumbles on “your image flickering on a screen,” it is as if “he knows you like a friend.” Though long dead, “you’ll spend eternity with angels and ghosts.”[27]

The imagery, to be sure, shows poetic maturity, with classical echoes at that. But only if it were true! For a filmmaker obsessed with film history, Chazelle missteps: celluloid does not bestow immortality. Like fame, it is highly flammable, both burning effortlessly and fading effervescently, such as with the 1937 Fox and the 1965 MGM vault fires. For the 2008 Universal Studios fire alone, “there has never been a full accounting of film and video losses in” it, just half the tragedy next to the countless original musical recordings destroyed.[28] But demise need not happen by industrial accident.

Time, aging, and neglect affect film canisters as much as film stars: there are unusable reels from Orson Welles that, if opened, would disintegrate immediately. In total, about three out of every four silent films are probably lost forever,[29] and while Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation does wonders, it is a prophet in a wilderness where real profit is—or was until streaming took over—found in Babylon, not the desert nor the archives.

No wonder Jack Conrad gives up on life. Both La La Land and Babylon reference Singin’ in the Rain many times, but Chazelle might have done well to learn from Wilder’s comic-tragedy. The illusion is not Chazelle’s alone: Rod Serling made the same mistake.

Consider the Twilight Zone episode that Sunset Boulevard inspired. In “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine” (1959), the former starlet Barbara Jean Trenton (Ida Lupino), while brooding alone in her mansion betwixt melancholy and nostalgia, wearies at her aged costars. Pining to join her ageless friends on the screen, her wish is granted. In a flash her agent and maid cannot find their boss, save in her screening room when the reels play as she waves goodbye. Rod Serling’s concluding narration enthuses about movie magic—that a “queen of another era” had “changed the blank tomb of an empty projection screen into a private world.”[30] Like Chazelle, Serling’s optimism has a blind spot about the technology—quite surprising given his humanistic, often tragic, sobriety.

His heroine’s longing for immortality is fulfilled so long as the reels play. Or so long as they avoid too much heat, moisture, dryness, or really too much of anything. The National Archives’ specifications for film preservation, for example, is basically a list of dozens of common things or conditions to avoid. The idea that celluloid or film—or today the servers owned by Apple, Google, and Amazon—guarantee everlasting life for Jack Conrad, let alone Barbara Jean Trenton, is the making for a Black Mirror (2011-2019) episode.

Who still remembers stage legends Richard Burbage or Edwin Booth, Charlotte Cushman or Sarah Bernhardt, let alone silent-film stars? And who honestly thinks those servers—when on steaming classics get stealth edits, or disappear altogether from the internet—will save the day? Outside of die-hard enthusiasts or fools, only in the Twilight Zone.

Wilder, Head, and Swanson knew better: stars fade and fans forget, tools get replaced almost as fast as their users, but the love of the limelight—glamor, in other words—remains, always all-consuming its devowers.


To retrace our steps: upon blurring the lines between fact and fiction, Gloria Swanson was one of the first celebrities to consciously use celebrity grandeur’s spectacle. Sunset Boulevard, likewise, emblematically shows us not how a star was born, but how she faded, even if with a bang. One silent-era star’s source of admiration, her glamorous face and attire, became the source of her madness, being unable to distinguish between the spectacle and herself.

Likewise, Head’s input shows us the awareness and manipulation of such artifice. As Norma descends into madness, the magnificence of her attire increases alongside the opulence of details and jewelry. Norma’s estrangement from reality is consciously assembled by fusing items from different Hollywood periods presented as one. And, her star persona is constructed through a mythical exaggeration of youth, its fashion both rendered as actual experiences and sold as attainable desires, alongside that underlying illusion for a great return that will not manifest.

The consequence is alienation, for both star and spectator—a lesson Sunset Boulevard can still bestow on us, whatever the decade or the technology. But if you want proof . . .

At film’s end when everything comes full circle, we see at last how Joe’ Gillis’ voice from beyond-the-grave came to be. After Joe decides to leave Norma, and finally does so by getting his big shot . . . in the back—”No one ever leaves a star,” she cries, “that is what makes one a star”—Norma Desmond gets her final shot at a comeback as well. The police and reporters have arrived at the mansion, while upstairs she prepares her hair, having completely left reality. Finally playing a director again, Max orders the reporters into a makeshift camera-crew.

As the police escort Norma to the balcony—in her best sparkling dress no less—the scene is the palace, Max tells her, and Norma is Salome descending the stairs. Setting the lights and camera so, he yells, “Action.” As she walks down, everyone else around her is nearly completely still: Norma Desmond is the only movement, having stopped time itself. “The dream she had clung to so desperately,” Joe narrates, “had enfolded her.”

Notably, the screenplay says “the cameras grind,” and only then Joe narrates, “So they were grinding after all, those cameras.” That suggests Joe perhaps is not an omniscient narrator as first thought. Since the film opens with his dead body floating in the pool, he was merely catching us up to speed. Where is Joe, anyways—in heaven? No, even better: in the audience with us, waiting to see what happens next.

Both Max and Norma relive their youths: he directs her one last time, and she makes her big, if only, comeback. Not to be outdone by Joe, Norma gives the last word:

I can’t go on with the scene. I’m too happy. Do you mind, Mr. DeMille, if I say a few words? Thank you. I just want to tell you how happy I am to be back in the studio making a picture again. You don’t know how much I’ve missed all of you. And I promise you I’ll never desert you again, because after “Salome” we’ll make another picture, and another and another. You see, this is my life. It always will be. There’s nothing else—just us and the cameras and those wonderful people out there in the dark . . . All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.

Oscar Wilde might have said: Norma Desmond was an artwork because Gloria Swanson wore one. Funny enough, she is not interrupting the scene for Mr. Demille, but Mr. Wilder, who’s directing not a film, but Reality Television.™ For if there is “nothing else” real, as Norma states but “us and the cameras” with those “wonderful people” left “in the dark,” just imagine it now with smartphones, social media, and chatbots.

Fittingly, the final shot is a blur: as her face turns towards the lens, Norma Desmond breaks the fourth wall, to come closer, and closer, and closer, until the image softens indistinguishably from a gray haze, then cut to black. We’re all Joe Scillis now, with an ending more akin to that other William Holden movie, Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), since even in death Joe is a prisoner of glamor. And though mad as hell, our aged diva holds the camera captive just as she is captivated by it—like Salome kissing the head of St. John the Baptist. As Wilde’s own Salome says: “the mystery of Love is greater than the mystery of Death,” even if “love hath a bitter taste.”[31]

Who can, after all, access such a lifestyle with its sacred mysteries and the distances put by celluloid productions and their fantastic nature? Not the writers and the directors, designers and producers, nor the viewers and actors, only the characters played on screen and off. They are always out of reach, yet always close-up.

. . . Pity the faded,
the bloated, the blowsy,
the paunchy Adonis
whose luck’s gone lousy.

Pity the gods,
no longer divine.
Pity the night
the stars lose their shine.

  1. Gerd Gemünden, A Foreign Affair: Billy Wilder’s American Films (Hamburg: Berghahn Books, 2008), 94 - 95. ↩︎

  2. Carol Dyhouse, Glamour: Women, History, Feminism (London: Zed Books, 2010), 1-3. ↩︎

  3. Virgina Postrel, The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 6. ↩︎

  4. Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp” (1964), Against Interpretation and Other Essays (London: Penguin, 2009), 275. ↩︎

  5. Quoted in Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” ibid, 277. ↩︎

  6. Annette Tapert, The Power of Glamour: The Women Who Defined the Magic of Stardom (New York: Crown Publishers, 1998), 39. ↩︎

  7. Dyhouse, Glamour, ibid, 12. ↩︎

  8. Stephen Gundle and Clino T. Castelli, The Glamour System (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 70-71. ↩︎

  9. David Chierichetti, Edith Head: The Life and Times of Hollywood’s Celebrated Costume Designer (New York: Harpercollins, 2003), 14. ↩︎

  10. Tapert, The Power of Glamour, ibid, 16. ↩︎

  11. Gundle and Castelli, The Glamour System, ibid, 72. ↩︎

  12. Tapert, The Power of Glamour, ibid, 20, 34. ↩︎

  13. Postrel, The Power of Glamour, ibid, 85. ↩︎

  14. Jay Jorgensen, Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer (Philadelphia: Running Press Book Publishers, 2010), 159. ↩︎

  15. Andre Spicer and Helen Hanson, A Companion to Film Noir (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2013), 324. ↩︎

  16. Gemünden, A Foreign Affair, ibid, 80-81. ↩︎

  17. Gene D. Phillips, Out of the Shadows: Explaining the Canon of Classic Film Noir (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, 2012), 124. ↩︎

  18. Gemünden, A Foreign Affair, ibid, 77-78. ↩︎

  19. Jay Jorgensen and Donald L. Scoggins, Creating the Illusion: A Fashionable History of Hollywood Costume Designers (Turner Classic Movies) (New York: Running Press, 2015), 234. ↩︎

  20. Chierichetti, Edith Head, ibid, 103-104, 235. ↩︎

  21. Jorgensen, Edith Head, ibid, 96, 161, 265, 344. ↩︎

  22. Gemünden, A Foreign Affair, ibid, 89-90. ↩︎

  23. Postrel, The Power of Glamour, ibid, 100-101. ↩︎

  24. Greta Garbo is a notable parallel and contrast to Norma Desmond. She was, for example, highly self-aware when it came to her beauty. The Swedish actress began her career in the silent era and achieved great heights with films such as the romantic drama, Flesh and the Devil (1927). Her speaking debut took place later with her sixteenth film, Anna Christie (1930). The following year, Garbo starred in Mata Hari (1931): one of her most commercially successful works to date, she played an exotic dancer executed for espionage during WWI. Dubbed “The Divine,” she was charged with mythical undertones by the sheer acclaim.

    Her reluctance to engage with celebrity life’s extravaganza, favoring privacy when not performing, merely added to her persona’s mystique. Compared to other actresses, Garbo—very much unlike Norma—understood celebrity and youth had expiration dates. By removing herself from public life, she successfully consolidated a timeless impression of stardom for the public eye.

    In Mythologies (London: Vintage, 1993), Roland Barthes—who holds that images and writing act as signs for the mythical languages of visual cultures—dedicates an entire essay to Garbo’s face. She designed how she would be remembered. “Garbo’s face,” Barthes writes, “represents this fragile moment when the cinema is about to draw an existential from an essential beauty, when the archetype leans towards the fascination of mortal faces, when clarity of the flesh as essence yields its place to a lyricism of woman” (57). Her image held within it mythical depths. ↩︎

  25. Postrel, The Power of Glamour, ibid, 101. ↩︎

  26. Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” ibid, 285. ↩︎

  27. Damian Chazelle, “Babylon Screenplay” (2022), Scene 205: “Int. Elinor St. John’s Office - Early Evening,” 126-129, online. ↩︎

  28. Jody Rosen, “The Day the Music Burned,” New York Times, 11 June 2019, online. ↩︎

  29. Paul Harris, “Library of Congress: 75% of Silent Films Lost,” Variety, 4 December 2013, online. ↩︎

  30. Rod Serling, “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine,” The Twilight Zone, Season 1, Episode 4, premiering 23 October 1959, online. ↩︎

  31. Oscar Wilde, Salome: A Tragedy in One Act (1891), translated from the French (London: John Lane, 1907), online. ↩︎

  32. Dana Gioia, “Pity the Beautiful,” Poetry (May 2011), online. Gratefully quoted with author’s permission. ↩︎

Gabriele Sartoris is a writer originally from Switzerland now living in London, UK. His writing can be found on his Substack, Psychic Oasis. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.

Featured image: Studio publicity portrait for Sunset Boulevard film (1950) with Gloria Swanson and William Holden via Wikimedia Commons.