Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture . . . they think the actors make it up as they go along.
Billy Wilder's classic Film Noir from 1950, Sunset Boulevard is a dark take on the film industry and the fleeting nature of fame, to this day one of Hollywood's most scorching (and yet wistful) depictions of itself, and indeed one of the greatest films of all time. (In 1998, the American Film Institute ranked it as the twelfth best American film of the twentieth century.) While the characters are deeply flawed, some of them beyond any redemption, the film still presents them each as complex, sympathetic, and even endearing.
In 1993, it was adapted into a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The Broadway premiere starred Glenn Close, and the 1996 Australian premiere in Melbourne showcased a relative unknown named Hugh Jackman, who played Joe Gillis opposite Debra Byrne as Norma Desmond (who, at the time, was ironically Australia's own White Dwarf Starlet). It won the 1995 Tony Award for Best Musical, in a year in which only one other show was even nominated.
- All Take and No Give: Gillis takes because Norma gives and gives.
- As Himself: Cecil B. DeMille and Hedda Hopper play themselves. Norma's bridge partners, whom Joe dubs "The Waxworks," are also played by once-famous silent film stars (such as Buster Keaton) who are credited as themselves.
- Bittersweet Ending: Yes. Joe is dead and Norma shot him, but Norma's complete break with reality lets her think she's finally making her comeback.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: Norma Desmond's final speech puts a jarring little crack - indicting both Hollywood and moviegoers for her fate - in that fourth wall. See Freak-Out below.
- Chekhov's Gun: In this case, Norma's gun.
- Also the pool.
- To a lesser extent, the ostentatious car.
- The Chessmaster: Joe thinks he's this. Boy, is he wrong.
- Clingy Jealous Girl: Norma -- suffocatingly so -- due in part to her melodramatic star persona.
- Cool Car: Norma's customized 1929 Isotta-Fraschini 8A landaulet. One of Gloria Swanson's own cars.
- Crapsack World: For much of the picture, Joe sees the world this way.
- Dead All Along: One of the more famous examples of the trope and pretty much spoiled ever since due to how frequently it's referenced or parodied.
- Deadpan Snarker: Joe Gillis.
- Defrosting Ice Queen: Norma is an especially unsettling one.
- Deliberately Monochrome: The film is in black and white, which wasn't by any means unusual in 1950 but wasn't strictly necessary either.
- Destructive Romance: And OH, how dysfunctional, with Norma's outbursts and Joe's passive aggressive BS. Close to the end, it turns out that her relationship with her butler is even worse.
- Disco Dan: Norma is stuck in the 1920s.
- Everything's Better with Monkeys: Inverted with Norma's dead pet chimp.
- Executive Meddling: In-universe example, when Joe talks about his screenplays: "The last one I wrote was about Okies in the Dust Bowl. You'd never know because, when it reached the screen, the whole thing played on a torpedo boat."
- Freak-Out: Norma has one by the end, where she believes that the news cameras come to report on the murder are film cameras for the filming of her next movie, and addresses the camera with a speech, which ends famously:
"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."
- Gallows Humor
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: It's strongly implied, and among the production crew outright stated, that Norma has been using her pet monkey as a surrogate lover.
- Which means that the unfortunate Joe caught her on the rebound.
- The nature of the relationship between Joe and Norma was also unmentionable in the Hays Code era.
- Though Joe does everything but spell it out for the audience: "Very simple set-up. Older woman who's well to do. A younger man who's not doing too well. Can you figure it out for yourself?"
- Glory Days: Norma Desmond's are well over.
Joe: 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.
- Grand Staircase Entrance: Norma invokes this trope when she meets what she thinks is a Media Scrum covering her big comeback. She's actually getting arrested for Joe's murder.
- Green-Eyed Monster
- Grey and Gray Morality
- Happiness in Slavery: Though he's technically a servant, Max slavishly dotes on Norma, doing everything she asks and more, including running her old films over and over and even writing all the "fan mail" that she gets every day. He turns out to be her discoverer, career-long director -- and first husband. He's still in love with her.
- Happy Place: By the end of the movie, Norma's gone there, and she's not coming back.
- Hello, Nurse!: Norma, at least in her own head. She's a movie star, after all.
- Horrible Hollywood: Subverted, surprisingly enough. We do see decent people working in the film industry, and even DeMille As Himself defends Norma and what happened to her career. It's just all that fame and celebrity creating a "world of illusion", and that Hollywood is still a place of business where people get chewed up and spat out...
- Certain producers - notably Louis Mayer of MGM - weren't thrilled when the movie was made, worrying it would belittle Hollywood and insult film-makers.
- How We Got Here: With an epilogue as well.
- If I Can't Have You: Implied as the cause of Joe's death.
- I Never Got Any Letters: Inverted.
- The Ingenue: Betty exemplifies the trope (without being cloying). Norma used to and, tragically, still thinks she does.
- Insistent Terminology: Everything with Norma has to be her way, including the words. She's not making a comeback, she's making a return.
- Ironic Echo: Max was Norma's first director. When it's revealed Norma will come down for her arrest if she think they're filming her movie, Max rushes to the news cameras and begins lining them up like an old pro, getting ready to direct Norma one last time...
- It Got Worse
- It's All About Me: Norma lives her entire life like this.
- I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Cruelly subverted with Joe and Betty.
- He realizes that he can't provide the kind of life that Betty deserves so he pretends to be a major Jerkass so she will leave him to marry Artie.
- Also, this is Max towards Norma.
- Large Ham: Gloria Swanson as Norma, because that's how Norma behaves.
- Left the Background Music On: The organ as Joe enters Norma's parlor for the first time.
- Lemony Narrator: Joe's a particularly cynical example. Probably because he's dead.
- Love Makes You Crazy
- Love Makes You Dumb
- Love Makes You Evil
- Love Triangle: Except that Joe doesn't love Norma, he just has to appear to in order to keep her happy.
- Possibly a Love Dodecahedron once you factor in Betty's fiance.
- And then there's Max...
- Possibly a Love Dodecahedron once you factor in Betty's fiance.
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Betty, although she's not especially manic.
- Norma supplies manic to spare. Heck, she's kooky, shakes up our boring protagonists' life, and is by all means not all there -- Norma is a totally straight Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
- Manipulative Bastard: Joe sees himself as this, but he's an amateur compared with Norma and Max.
- Meet Cute: Joe and Betty (although for them, at the time, it's more "mortifying" than "cute"). Then it's subverted in a dozen different ways.
- Norma may see her first meeting with Joe this way, but he mostly views her as an annoying meal-ticket.
- Naive Everygirl: Betty, at least in the estimation of a jealous Norma. Betty, for her part, insists she isn't.
- Nice Guy: Betty's fiance, Artie. Also, Betty thinks Joe is this. Joe knows better.
- Joe sees Betty as a Nice Girl. And he's probably right, even if she is borderline-cheating on her fiance Artie.
- Oblivious Mockery: Joe Gillis complains to the producer Sheldrake that Betty Shaefer, a script reader, would have turned down Gone with the Wind; only for Sheldrake to reply "No. That was me".
- Out-Gambitted: Joe.
- Posthumous Narration: One of the most famous examples.
- Pretty in Mink: Several furs Norma wears, although in the style of 1920s clothes, like most of her wardrobe.
- Red Herring: Max, being Norma's "discoverer," principal director, and pathetically devoted first husband, would seem to have more than ample motivation to kill Joe. It turns out that Norma does it herself.
- Rule of Pool
- Scenery Porn: The whole film is exquisitely shot, often on vast and intricate sets.
- The stage production is also extremely elaborate.
- Shrine to Self: Played horrifyingly straight.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: It's Billy Wilder, so, cynicism.
- Sugar and Ice Personality: Max is a rather bizarre (and creepy) example.
- Title Drop: The very first line: "Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California." Interestingly, there is no actual title card, and the first shot simply shows a street marker, so it's still debatable whether the title proper should be Sunset Boulevard or Sunset Blvd.
- True Companions: Evidently how Max tries to view things. Subverted first by Joe (who just wants to get paid and leave) and then brutally by Norma.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Norma Desmond's backstory is essentially the same as Gloria Swanson's, playing her. Her life after films turn to sound, not so much.
- Except Swanson's life never turned out like Norma's. When she was offered the role, she had already successfully put that part of her life behind her. However, she did know peers who were very much like the character, which was why she was reluctant to accept. She didn't want audiences to mistake the story for hers. Swanson thought she had made a comeback, only to learn she had been typecast.
- Western Zodiac: Norma mentions that she is a Scorpio. Given that sign’s general use in fiction, it probably explains a lot about her.
- White Dwarf Starlet: Norma Desmond is probably the ultimate example. She also supplies the page image.
- Wide-Eyed Idealist: Betty. Also her fiance.
- Writers Suck: Joe sells out his talent more or less for a quick buck and a place to stay, eventually leading to his death.
- This is highlighted in the musical, where he even gets a song about it.
- Yandere: Norma. Full stop.
Joe: What I'm trying to say is that I'm all wrong for you. You want a Valentino -- somebody with polo ponies -- a big shot --
Norma: What you're trying to say is that you don't want me to love you. Is that it?!
(She slaps him and runs upstairs.)
- Then, later that evening, she slits her wrists with his razor in a halfhearted suicide attempt.