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I am big...it's the pictures that got small!
~ Norma Desmond's famous line.
All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.
~ Norma as she prepares for a shooting of the film.

Norma Desmond is the antagonist of Billy Wilder's 1950 film Sunset Boulevard.

She was portrayed by the late Gloria Swanson.

Biography

Desmond was once a giant of the silver screen's silent era, but the proliferation of talking pictures marked the end of her career as a big time Hollywood star. She lives a reclusive existence in her lavish Beverly Hills mansion on Sunset Boulevard with her servant, and former film director, Max von Mayerling and pet monkey. It is the death of her monkey that serves as a source of confusion between the main characters at the onset of the film.

A struggling screenwriter named Joe Gillis arrives at Desmond's home after his car gets a flat tire and he pulls into her garage. Desmond thinks that Gillis is an undertaker, who has come to make funeral arrangements for her recently deceased pet. When the matter is cleared up, Desmond's interest is piqued by Gillis' profession and she asks him to review a manuscript she has been preparing based on the legendary tale of Salome and the dance of the seven veils. It is her hopes that the script will serve as a starring vehicle for her major big screen comeback.

Gillis accepts the proposition and quickly becomes the faded star's kept man. Desmond schemes to get the script into the hands of renowned filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille for Paramount Pictures to produce. The once-famous actress is misled into thinking Mr. DeMille is interested in working with her again, but in truth he wants to use her vintage car, a 1929 Isotta Fraschini, in his current period epic. It is Max who lies to Norma Desmond about Mr. DeMille's intentions in order to keep her happy and in denial about her fallen status. His actions, however misguided they may seem, stem from his admiration for her, as it is later revealed he was also her first husband.

Norma saw Joe sleeping while came to his room, took his script and discovered that he write the script with Betty Schaefer. Betty reveals to Joe that she doesn't love Artie anymore and begin to developing her feelings toward Joe. After kissing Betty, Joe returned to Norma's mansion and discovered that Norma is calling Betty about him, causing Joe to take the telephone away from Norma and gave Betty the address of Norma's mansion. Norma, feeling desperate, begging Joe to not hate her and reveals to him that she brought a gun as she planned to kill herself in the front of a mirror, but she couldn't. Betty went to the mansion and Joe told her who Norma Desmond is.

Norma, feeling grateful that Betty leave Joe, however she discovered that Joe is packing his clothes as he about to leave her and Max. Realized that Joe quit writing the script for her, she tried to call Max as Joe returning the watch and the cigarette case that she gave him to her. Norma bring her gun and as Joe tell her the truth, she refuses to believe it as Max came to the room and taking Joe's bags to the car. Norma, in denial, still believe that she is the "greatest star of them all" and as Joe leaving, she shoots him three time, causing him drop into the pool, lying dead.

The police found Joe's body in the pool and take him for the examination. The paparazzi and the police came to Norma's mansion, Hedda tried to stop the police from calling Norma as Norma refuses to answer the police's questions about Joe as she is doing makeup. When she heard it about the camera, she feels relieved that she is about to returned to the silver screen for a long time as the police felt it would be an idea to arrest her. As the camera prepare to shoot, Norma finally came to the shooting of the film as she is making a screen comeback. As the filming begin, Norma begin to act in the screen, she is very happy about making a picture and after finished shooting the film, she promised to the audience that she will make pictures again though she is about to get arrested for the murder of Joe Gillis. Norma stated that she is preparing for the film and look at the camera as she is begin to act in the end.

History

The role of Norma Desmond was initially offered to Mae West (who also kept monkeys as pets), Mary Pickford (who demanded Wilder make too many script changes), and Pola Negri (who also lived in seclusion and, like Mae West, rejected the role) before it was accepted by Gloria Swanson.

Swanson almost turned down the role after Billy Wilder requested she do a screen test for it. Director George Cukor reportedly suggested Gloria Swanson for the role of Norma Desmond. He told her, "If they want you to do ten screen tests, do ten screen tests. If you don't, I will personally shoot you." Swanson reluctantly agreed to the test, and got the role.

Trivia

  • Photographs of the young Norma Desmond that appear throughout her house are all genuine publicity photos from Gloria Swanson's early years as an actress. The name Norma Desmond is thought to be a combination of two well-known figures from the silent film period: actress Norma Talmadge and director William Desmond Taylor. According to Gloria Swanson's daughter, her mother stayed in character throughout the entire shoot.
  • Norma Desmond's iconic scene in which she descends down the staircase was performed while Gloria Swanson was barefoot. The steps were too narrow for the actress to navigate in heels and, she was terrified of tripping and falling. She is said to have burst into tears upon completion of the scene.

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