Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones: The Epic World of Norma Desmond – An Alternative Guide to Watching Hollywood Epics – Part 2

As I showed in Part 1 of this post, Sunset Boulevard is a film saturated in allusions to an earlier age of filmmaking, but it is in the film’s extraordinary final scene that the blurring of time, space, and genre (film noir and epic) has the greatest impact. The despairing end of Sunset Boulevard sees the mad and murderous faded movie star made to believe that she is shooting the film – Salome – she has been so desperate to make. She is compelled to believe it so that she can be taken away to prison or, more likely, an asylum. This is the last scene of the movie as it appears in the original shooting-script:

[Max makes his way down the stairs through the crowd of newsmen to the newsreel     cameras, which are being set up in the hall below.]

MAX: Is everything set up, gentlemen? Are the lights ready?

[From the stairway comes a murmur.  They look up. Norma has emerged from the         bedroom and comes to the head of the stairs.  There are golden spangles in her hair          and in her hand she carries a golden scarf. The police clear a path for her to descend.     Press cameras flash at her every step. Max stands at the cameras.]

MAX: Is everything set up, gentlemen?

CAMERAMAN: Just about.

[The portable lights flare up and illuminate the staircase.]

MAX: Are the lights ready?

2ND CAMERA MAN: All set.

MAX: Quiet, everybody!  Lights! Are you ready, Norma?

NORMA: [From the top of the stairs] What is the scene? Where am I?

MAX: This is the staircase of the palace.

NORMA: Oh, yes, yes.  They’re below, waiting for the Princess … I’m ready.

MAX: All right. [To cameramen] Camera! [To Norma] Action!

[Norma arranges the golden scarf about her and proudly starts to descend the     staircase.  The cameras grind. Everyone watches in awe.]

GILLIS’ VOICE: So they were grinding after all, those cameras.  Life, which can be    strangely merciful, had taken pity on Norma Desmond.  The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her…

[At the foot of the stairs Norma stops, moved.]

NORMA: 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 close-up.

FADE OUT.  THE END

In his films (including other classics like Some Like it Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960)), Billy Wilder generally demanded a ‘naturalistic’ approach to acting, and his directing style was of the same mode, but nonetheless, as a master at creating a subtle mise-en-scène, Wilder was also able to transcend the naturalism that framed his films. He employed artificial devices in his films at moments of death or madness, and the ending of Sunset Boulevard exemplifies his ability to switch style perfectly. The last scene is designed as the (bogus) realization of Norma’s dream of appearing as Salome before the cameras; she has no idea that her crime means that cameras will indeed be rolling, but for a very different reason.

Norma’s gloomy old mansion, vast, echoing, and empty throughout the film, now becomes crowded with newspaper journalists, newsreel cameramen, and police officers; they pack onto the grand staircase hoping to get a photograph of her, or a scoop for a gossip column. Max, loyal slave, one-time-husband, and former director, joins forces with the police and psychiatrists to get Norma to leave the house and he tells her that she’s going to shoot the climactic scene in Salome. It is as Salome that she begins to walk down the staircase.

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Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond as Salome… As the deranged Norma descends the staircase of ‘Salome’s palace’, the throng of journalists, gossip columnists, and cops turn into the silent extras of Norma’s movie; they become part of the ‘cast of thousands’ – soldiers, courtiers, traders, slave girls – which every epic film demands.

As she does so, Wilder does an extraordinary thing: suddenly, he switches style from film noir to epic, and for a brief moment we, the audience, are inside Norma’s imagination. We are back in Paramount Pictures of the 1920s, filming DeMille’s Salome. The newsreel cameras become DeMille’s studio cameras and they roll to capture Norma’s vampish performance. As Norma-Salome makes her stately descent of the palace staircase, the film score (brilliantly composed by Franz Waxman) takes on epic proportions too: steady orientalist rhythms (lifted by Waxman from ‘The Dance of the Seven Veils’ from Richard Strauss’s Salome) merge with a distorted sultry habanera previously associated in the film with Norma’s hedonism. Norma finally hears the music of the Salome she wanted DeMille to direct for her comeback. Then, at the foot of the stairs, ready for her close-up, Norma forgets everything around her, walks towards the camera, and breaks all on-screen conventions by looking straight into the lens at us, the audience, as she disappears into a haze of her own madness.

This scene works so well because Wilder completely understands the conventions of epic cinema: he gives us visual spectacle, with an emphasis on a packed mis-en-scène, costume, scale, movement; he provides a dramatic score, and a certain lofty seriousness to the overall style. Wilder knew that these factors combined to make up an epic because epic films had been one of the most dominant genres in Hollywood filmmaking since the birth of cinema. The epic had been a permanent feature of the Hollywood landscape since the 1910s, and by 1950 (thanks to DeMille’s Samson and Delilah) the genre was all set for a major revival. Wilder was aware of this legacy of epic film, and so his Sunset Boulevard was able to play with epic conventions because he, his actors, his designers, and, subsequently, his audiences already knew precisely what those conventions were.

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As Max directs Norma in her final moments of sanity, we watch Norma shift from reality to illusion as she becomes the Biblical princess, Salome. She adopts the poses and posturing we associate with silent-era cinema acting, slowly raising her arms in a balletic arch which seems to capture not only Salome’s haughty beauty, but also the very essence of an outmoded performance style. Norma improvises a costume, and by draping a length of glittering fabric about her body, adding spangles to her hair and face, and covering her arms in bangles and bracelets, she artfully creates the ‘look’ and ‘feeling’ of the epic costumes of the 1920s.

Where does this get us? If your interest, like mine, is in epic movies (of Hollywood’s Golden Age or beyond), what can we learn from Sunset Boulevard? I think you can use it as a way of reflecting on the epic qualities of epics.  As you watch epic films, do what Billy Wilder did so successfully when he crafted the last scene of Sunset Boulevard, his mini-epic-within-film-noir masterpiece, and think carefully about how the camera shots and angles affect our perception of a scene, how the editing impacts on the story, and how lighting, music, and sound effects influences on our viewing experience of the epic. Why is a set designed in a particular way? Why does scale matter? How is colour used in a scene? Think about the impact costumes, hairstyles, and make-up have on the way we engage with the films’ characters. Think too about the acting styles, as well as the movie stars who play the main roles; how do they integrate with the overall ‘feel’ and ‘look’ of the film? What makes an epic film ‘Epic’? Keep all these of questions in mind as you consider how and why Hollywood interacted with antiquity. Think about why the films depict antiquity so and ask what designs did Hollywood have on the past?

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones is Professor of Ancient History at Cardiff University. His research specialisms focus on ancient Persia, dress and gender, and the reception of antiquity in film and popular culture. He is the Co-Series Editor of Screening Antiquity for Edinburgh University Press and has written numerous chapters and articles on Hollywood epics, including the forthcoming volume, “Designs on the Past: How Hollywood Created the Ancient World (1916-1965)”. 

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One Response to Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones: The Epic World of Norma Desmond – An Alternative Guide to Watching Hollywood Epics – Part 2

  1. Tony Keen says:

    What a splendid article, Lloyd! I look forward to the book, which sounds splendid.

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