Norma Desmond  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Norma Desmond is the fictional main character in Billy Wilder's film Sunset Boulevard.


An aging former star of silent movies, Desmond (Gloria Swanson) has withdrawn to her Gothic Beverly Hills mansion, off Sunset Boulevard, nursing dreams of a return to stardom while her grip on reality grows ever more tenuous over the years. Her one companion is Max (Erich von Stroheim), her butler, former director, and first husband, who serves as her protector and shields her from the outside world. Because he is still in love with her, he tells her she is still a star, and cuts her off from the news media, and writes daily fan letters to keep her from realizing that she has been completely forgotten by her beloved public.

One day Joe Gillis (William Holden), a young, unemployed screenwriter arrives at Desmond's with a flat tire on his 1946 Plymouth after being chased by two repo men. He parks the car inside the garage of the mansion and is summoned by Norma to the front door. She confuses him for an undertaker for her just deceased pet chimpanzee.

Norma finds out that Joe Gillis is in fact a writer and asks him to take a look at a manuscript she has been working for a while. It is the story of Salome, and she plans to star in it, though she is long past her prime.

Joe quickly sees a chance to milk money out of the delusional star; he promises to fix her a script for a star vehicle, and Norma agrees as she wants to send the manuscript to Paramount Pictures' famed director Cecil B. DeMille, with whom Desmond once worked. Desmond is elated; she sees in Gillis the chance to regain her youthful promise, and sets him up in style, buying his clothes and paying all his expenses. Max sees through Gillis immediately, but puts up with the charade because it makes his beloved "madame" happy. As time passes, however, Desmond becomes increasingly unstable when it becomes clear that there is no hit movie for her in the works, and increasingly jealous of and dependent upon Gillis. She professes her love for him at a New Year's Eve party, but he rejects her and leaves.

He attends another party, where he first flirts with screen writer Betty (Nancy Olson) and makes plans to move out of Norma's mansion. Norma makes a suicide attempt, and when Joe returns to comfort her, she seduces him.

Meanwhile, Paramount Studios calls repeatedly for Norma. She believes DeMille wants to produce her script. In actuality, Paramount just wants to use her vintage Isotta-Fraschini landaulet limousine in a Bing Crosby film set in the 1920s. While Norma visits DeMille on the set, Max learns that the calls were about the car. He tells Gillis but hides this from Norma. DeMille himself takes pity on her and tells her what she wants to hear.

Gillis begins writing a screenplay with Betty in secret, and Betty tells him she has fallen in love with him. When he hears Norma having a phone conversation with Betty, in an attempt to scare her away, he invites Betty to the mansion and confesses the situation, euphemistically "an older woman who's well-to-do" and a "young man who's not doing too well."

After driving away Betty, Gillis tells Norma he's leaving for good. Desmond snaps and shoots him to death, leaving his body floating in her pool and going into shock. When the police arrive, she thinks they are merely her adoring fans and the production crew for her movie. Elegantly striding toward a news camera, she utters the iconic line, "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."


Norma Desmond was played on screen by Gloria Swanson. The actresses who were considered for the role of Norma Desmond in the 1950 screen version, but declined, were:

Miriam Hopkins and Mary Astor played the role in two separate tv productions based on the film.

In the Andrew Lloyd Webber stage musical, the role was played by:


Joe: "I know you. You're Norma Desmond! You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big!"
Norma: "I am big! It's the pictures that got small!"

Norma: "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!"

Norma (to newsreel cameras): "And I promise you I'll never desert you again because after 'Salome' we'll make another picture and another picture. You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!... All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Norma Desmond" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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