Sunset Boulevard is often described as director Billy Wilder's poisoned love letter to Hollywood. It is a cynical, noir-ish story about struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, who becomes the companion of the older, near-forgotten former silent film actress Norma Desmond. Desmond is among the most famous characters in film history, and Gloria Swanson received a best actress Academy Award nomination for the role.
The entire film is a flashback and opens as Gillis narrates the circumstances of his own death. Pressed for cash, he tries to pull a favor by selling a script, but the script reader, Betty Schaefer, shoots it down. She doesn't realize that Joe is in the room, and she apologizes and mentions Joe's reputation as a talented writer. "That was last year," says Joe, "this year I'm trying to earn a living."
Pursued by creditors, Joe ducks into the driveway of a mansion he assumes to be empty. Its resident mistakes him for an expected visitor. This resident is former silent film star Norma Desmond, who thinks he is the undertaker come for her pet chimpanzee, who lies in state on a massage table. She offers him the opportunity to write the script for her planned comeback film, a treatment of the biblical story of Salome. The task of rewriting Desmond's thousand-page script proves endless, and Joe virtually becomes her property. He feels conflicted about this, but has no other options and finds comfort in the luxurious lifestyle she provides as he settles in as her lover.
Norma proves to be an erratic, fragile and delusional character. It is only through the faithful service of her butler, Max, that she is able to function. Joe sees Betty at a party and the two make plans to collaborate on a script, but Max refuses to put her calls through to Joe and tells Norma that the calls are from someone looking for a "stray dog." Norma lavishes expensive gifts on Joe, who by now has essentially replaced her chimp.
Desmond lives under the delusion that the world awaits her return, but doesn't realize that time has passed her by and that modern audiences are unaware of her. She takes her script to Cecil B. DeMille, who is sympathetic to her plight and notes that "a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit," but has no interest in her script. The meeting nevertheless fuels her delusions, and she becomes convinced that her return to the screen is imminent. Joe meanwhile sneaks off at nights to write with Betty. An attraction develops between the two, but Joe is ashamed to tell her of his living situation. Norma's discovery of Joe's collaboration leads to a conflict that sets up the famous final scene in which Desmond shoots Joe and, in her delusions, mistakes the waiting police and press for a crowd of adoring admirers.
The film is full of references to Hollywood culture. Schwab's Pharmacy is shown. Norma's circle of actor friends includes silent film actor Buster Keaton, and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper reports on the murder. The silent film Norma watches in her projection room is Queen Kelly, the infamous film in which Swanson was directed by Erich von Stroheim, who plays Max.
The depiction of Desmond represents unequal attitudes toward aging between men and women. Her age, which is only 50, is treated as a thing of loathing. One character jokes that she must be 100 years old by now, while her elder DeMille, a rare voice of reason in the film, asks how old that would make him. Max and DeMille are respected for their ages, but Desmond is depicted as a gross old lady. This in part reflects the attitudes in Hollywood where, especially in Swanson's time, the careers of lead actresses typically did not extend much past age 25.
Norma's repulsive image is heightened by her vampiric quality. She is sheltered in a castle-like mansion, and her first appearance is associated with death. Wind blowing through organ pipes creates a spooky sound, a device which is later used in Asa's tomb in Black Sunday.
Norma Desmond has numerous real-life parallels with Swanson. Both were Mack Sennett bathing beauties and both were notable for their work with DeMille. Swanson appeared in films directed by von Stroheim, while Desmond appeared in films directed by von Stroheim's character, Max. The arrival of talking films marked the downturn in both of their careers.
Connections: everywhere. Norma Desmond's character has entered popular culture. "I'm ready for my close-up" is a household phrase. A notable reference occurs in Mulholland Drive, where the car that was Norma's in the film is parked at the studio gate when Betty Elms arrives for her audition.