Sunset Boulevard is a great film that dramatises the tension between words and pictures not only in its plot but through its very form. Joe Gillis is an unreliable narrator, using voiceover even from beyond the grave to screen-write his own life, conforming it into a film noir, turning himself into at best an innocent patsy and at worst a scheming, self-aware con man.
However, by then I'd started concocting a little plot of my own...
- Joe Gillis (William Holden)
Gillis is actually a "kept man," bought and paid for, and the emasculation is almost impossible to bear. Witness the glare and musical sting that accompany a salesman's suggestion that, if the lady's paying, Joe might as well opt for the more expensive coat.
There are masochistic and egotistical elements to their relationship that keep Joe in Norma's home and by her side, beyond the financial compensation. As much as he pretends otherwise, he's not that far away from Max. (Those who would deny that there's a sexual component to Joe's relationship with Norma should consider the sheer shame with which he gives Betty a tour of the house once she's discovered his secret.)
Meanwhile, Norma Desmond is well aware of the power of images, of cinema, even if contemporary Hollywood has forgotten this with the advent of sound. When sound first began, cameras had to be sound proofed, limiting their possible movement, a stylistic step backwards for the medium, becoming more literary - or at least this has become the accepted narrative. Similarly, Norma's complaint that the pictures have got small reads as prescient with the ascendancy of television in the coming decade.
You know, a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.
- Cecil B. DeMille (himself)
Gloria Swanson's performance, exaggerated to match her grotesque makeup, evokes silent cinema, navigating the tricky border between camp and tragedy. It's a story of an ageing woman who's been chewed up and spat out by Hollywood, only the allure of stardom and success, however faded, greed, nostalgia and the masochistic and guilty need to 'serve' a master causes those around her to insulate her from reality, to perpetuate the illusion.
Norma is constantly watching herself, trying to reassure herself of this illusion, whether in the multitude of photos from her heyday, screening her old movies at home, her reflection in mirrors, or through the eyes of others (Max at one point offers her feedback on her makeup). Norma needs Joe both to enable her delusions (to worship her, make her feel young again) and as a kind of reality check, although his own cruelty and manipulations prevent him from fulfilling the latter function.
De Mille didn't have the heart to tell you. None of us has had the heart.
- Joe Gillis (William Holden)
Whether Norma sincerely intends to end her life on New Year's Eve or her suicide attempt is yet another performance to get Joe to return (and then, threatening to do it again, to get him to stay), is irrelevant. Unlike words, photographic images have an ontology, have the appearance of being real, and their danger is that they can come to take the place of what they represent. In this moment, image and reality have become conflated.
It's not important whether Norma is suicidal or acting out a plot in which she is suicidal; both will lead to her destruction. Joe believes himself safe in the realm of words (which is perhaps why he's such a lousy screenwriter), which will lead to his destruction.
The image of Hollywood, its artifice, holds sway over every character. Betty, groomed from a child to become an actress, grew up playing on the studio lot and even had her nose 'fixed' when casting directors criticised it. ('Fixed' implying 'corrected' in some way, changing her nose to what it should always have been, her image preceding and superseding her in the same way the street on the studio backlot feels more appealing, more 'real,' than an actual street.)
Look at this street. All cardboard, all hollow, all phoney. All done with mirrors. I like it better than any street in the world.
- Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson)
Although Betty claims being behind the camera appeals to her more, she flirt-acts with Joe at the New Year's Eve party. Subsequently, despite her engagement to Artie (himself an assistant director - with the exception of the repo men, every character is in show biz), she begins to fall for Joe.
Is Betty conflating the script they're working on with her life? Although the film never makes this connection explicit, it's certainly possible (their script, about a a man and a woman who work opposite shifts, mirroring her and Joe's situation, is called 'Untitled Love Story').
(There's also a definite subtext about the way Hollywood treats women, between Betty's nose job, Norma's extensive beauty routine and the fact that DeMille is still making films while Norma is exiled, a recluse. At the same time however, Norma has taken this oppression and turned it into a weapon against those around her. Guilt over her suicide attempt brings Joe back, just as guilt over having made her a star, made her into what she is, having failed her as a husband, is partly what led Max to abandon his directing career behind and become her butler.)
Joe's death scene is painful, awkward, real. Shot in the back once, he continues walking as normal. He's shot again in the back, stumbles and turns, trying to pick up his bag. If he can pick up his bag and walk to the car, if he can appear fine, maintain his cool, everything will be fine.
Later, a gossip columnist dictates her story on the telephone from within what she dubs the "murder house." Joe, in his final few lines of posthumous voiceover, predicts that newspaper headlines will devastat Norma. However, the newsreel cameras ultimately give her the attention she has always craved.
Norma is a star again, albeit now infamous rather than famous. To her and possibly the world, there's little practical difference. Image has surpassed language. Image has surpassed and replaced reality.