In Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond is an aging silent film queen who refuses to accept that the world has forgotten her. She hires a down-on-his-luck screenwriter named Joe Gillis to help write a movie to restart her dead career. While Joe believes he can manipulate her to his benefit, but he soon finds out he’s dead wrong. Joe’s conflicting feelings towards their awkward relationship and Norma’s diminishing grasp on reality leads a grim death.
‘Sunset Boulevard’ Movie Summary
We flashback six months where Joe’s a down-on-his-luck screenwriter. He’s broke, and on the verge of moving back to Ohio to take a job at a low-paying newspaper. He meets with a Paramount Pictures producer named Sheldrake Broke in a last ditch effort to persuade him to buy his most recent script. However, once script reader Betty Schaefer gets a hold of it, she gives Sheldrake a bad review of the script.
Meanwhile, things are so bad for Joe, the bank has sent men out to repossess his car. While fleeing from some of these men, one of Joe’s tires blows out. It rolls to a stop in front of a large, deserted mansion on Sunset. He hides the car in the garage, and goes into the old home. To his surprise, the house isn’t deserted. The woman living there mistakes Joe for the undertaker she called to tend to her recently deceased pet chimpanzee. Her equally odd butler, Max Von Mayerling ushers Joe inside.
As the woman greets Joe, I dawns on him that she’s the long-forgotten silent-film star Norma Desmond. Norma’s delighted to learn that Joe’s a writer. She eagerly wants to know his opinion of a script she wrote about Salome. She’s hoping this film can revive her long-over career, but Joe thinks it’s terrible. Seizing on her desperation, Joe flatters Norma into hiring him as her script editor.
Getting cozy on Sunset Boulevard
She sets Joe up in a guest room, but he’s a bit alarmed to find that she paid his overdue rent, and then had Max move all his belongings into her place. While he doesn’t like having to depend on someone else for survival, he really doesn’t have a choice at this point. So he accepts his current lot in life.
First Norma has Joe stay in a room over the garage, but eventually, she moves him inside the mansion itself. It’s soon apparent that Norma is clueless to that fact that the world has forgotten her. While she doesn’t allow Joe to critique any of her works, she still makes him watch her old films after supper to relive the good old days. Norma still gets fan mail, but Joe learns that Max sends those letters to help with Norma’s fragile state of mind. He doesn’t want her trying to commit suicide again.
As the weeks roll by, Norma gives Joe more and more attention. She buys him expensive clothing including a fancy tuxedo for New Years where the two spend it alone with one another. While Norma’s fallen in love with Joe, he does his best to let her down easily. It doesn’t work, and she slaps him in the face before running off to her room.
Joe takes the opportunity to meet with Betty again at a party his friend Artie Green throws. While she still doesn’t like his writing, she finds one scene that has potential. So, Joe half-heartedly agrees to work on it with her. He calls Max to tell them he’s leaving the mansion. Unfortunately, while out, Norma tries to kill herself with Joe’s razor blade. He immediately rushes off to apologize to Norma before making sweet, sweet, silent film love to her.
The script is finally ready—or not
Soon after, Norma believes her script is ready for production, and she sends it to Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount. An executive named Gordon Cole calls her, but she refuses to speak to anyone but DeMille himself. She orders Max to drive her and Joe to the studio in her elegant 1929 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A. As DeMille walks with Norma, many of the older employees on the set recognize her, and welcome her back.
Meanwhile, Joe and Max, learn that Cole only called because the studio wants to rent her car. They have little interest in her script because it’s terrible. Max tells Joe to help him hide this reality from her. He also tells Joe that he too was once a respected film director, and he discovered Norma as a young girl. While he was her first husband, he only remains with her because he cannot bear to leave her.
Now convinced of her comeback, Norma spends her time getting many beauty treatments. Meanwhile, Joe’s begun working with Betty in secret to polish his screenplay. Joe’s one charming guy because even though Betty’s engaged to Artie, she falls in love with him too.
However, after Norma finds Joe’s script, she calls Betty in a fit of rage. She makes all kinds of insinuations about the type of person Joe really is (and she might be right too as Joe only sees Betty and Norma as convenient friends).
Enough is enough
Once Joe finds out, he’s had enough of everyone and everything. He invites Betty to the mansion to see his situation for herself. After Betty arrives, Joe plays up his gigolo persona and coldly dumps her in favor of living off Norma.
Betty runs off in tears as Joe heads to his room to pack for a return to Ohio. He then just as coldly informs Norma of the truth he’s been hiding—there won’t be a comeback for her—those fan letters are only from Max, and the world has forgotten her. Norma cracks as Joe ignores her threats to shoot herself. However, she turns the gun on him instead as he leaves. The gun fires, and Joe falls into the pool, dead.
We then return to the beginning of the film where Joe continues to narrate his fears that Norma lacks the ability to cope with reality. Once the police show up to arrest her, it’s clear that Joe’s correct. Thinking that the news cameras are part of a film shoot, Max has the police play along to coax her down the stairs. Max sets the scene for Norma before yelling, “Action!” She dramatically cascades down her grand staircase, and into the waiting arms of the arresting officers.
Joe’s final voiceover laments that life spared her the pain of knowing the dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her. Norma makes a little speech before the gathered crowd that she’s happy to be back making a film. She then utters the film’s most famous line: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”