This week’s installment in the “Ethical Dilemmas on Film” Series at the State Theatre is the 1950 film noir classic Sunset Boulevard. Here are some things to consider as you reflect on the film:
Many critics consider Sunset Blvd. to be the best Hollywood film about Hollywood. What does the film have to tell us about Hollywood? 
Billy Wilder was a European �migr� who knew barely any English when he arrived in the States. Is Wilder’s status as a foreigner/outsider evident in the film? 
What elements of Joe’s narration indicate that he’s a screenwriter? Can we tell how good a screenwriter he is from his narration? Does he finally write that successful script? 
Is Joe better as an actor than a writer? 
Why is Norma writing a script about Salome? 
Is it worth following up Joe’s reference to Great Expectations
What is the significance of ghost writing? 
How many plots are there in Sunset Blvd.? Who are the plotters? Who is the best plotter? 
Why does Joe stay with Norma after New Year’s Eve?
For a film of its time, Sunset Blvd. relies very little on shot/counter-shot. How does Wilder tend to construct shots instead? 
Consider the significance of these lines: 
  • “I hope you haven’t lost your sense of humor.” 
  • “I’ve got 20-20 vision.” 
  • “That’s the trouble with you readers, you know all the plots.” 

How does the film use diegetic and extra-diegetic music? 

Is Joe’s narrative morally redemptive? Does Joe need to redeem himself? 
Joe says that “life is strangely merciful” to Norma in the end – is the film?
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23 Responses to Sunset Blvd.: Questions for Reflection


    It is apparent that each of the characters in Sunset Boulevard is complex. My main focus obviously being on Norma, Joe, and Max. However, it isn’t their strange personalities and actions that I find so interesting, rather it is the mystery behind each of them. Each character evolves and shifts their mysterious way throughout the film. For example, when we first meet Joe he seems like a typical man who is down on his luck. Escaping repossession and experiencing rejection at work are surely unfortunate, but it is not uncommon or strange.

    But then we meet Norma, who throughout the film surprises us in new ways. However, I find her to be most mysterious and strange in her first scenes. Although assuming Joe is an undertaker for her recently deceased chimpanzee is not the strangest thing we see from Norma, it is the first impression. That together with her appearance, her emotions, the extravagant house, and her butler Max, our first impression is quite haunting. Throughout the film, when things get even stranger and Norma reveals herself to be even more erratic, I was not terribly surprised. I think part of the excitement and enjoyment of this film was watching Norma, Joe, and their dynamic shift, change, and crumble in on itself.

    It would have been easy enough for Joe to simply leave in the night or just not return after sneaking out, but something was keeping him at Norma’s estate. Initially, it was Norma’s hospitality and the sheer fact that Joe did not have anywhere to go and no money to get there. However, when Norma began showering him with lavish gifts there was a shift in Joe. Not only did he feel obligated to stay but I feel that he truly did like this change. I feel that he was weighing his options and considering the consequences of indulging Norma, probably not thinking ahead towards the inevitable escalation.

    Though Norma is fragile and unstable, she knows how to manipulate Joe into getting what she wants. She knows that she can get a little further each time she asks something of him and that there is no room to move backwards. So each time Joe indulges her, he becomes a little bit more stuck. Joe moves from the guesthouse into the main house, he accepts her gifts, he helps her write her screen play, and they are even intimate. Norma may seem weak but I believe she is very smart and clever in how she essentially traps Joe in her life. Joe stays after New Years because he feels that he is committed. If he left, Norma would undoubtedly suffered a horrendous breakdown and most likely try to commit suicide again. In this way I think that Joe has good intentions, but it is those intentions that inevitably lead to his death.

  2. Natalie Masters says:

    This film portrays the self-obsession that Hollywood stars can achieve. You cannot entirely blame Norma for her self-obsession. Everyone feeds into to, the butler, her old fans, and even Joe at the beginning of his stay. The fans are the reason that Hollywood stars can develop a shelf obsession. If Norma realized that she was not as well loved as she thought, the entire plot may have never played out. Applying this to Hollywood in general, you cannot blame the “stars” when they mess up. They are in the center of many people’s attention on the cover of gossip magazines because we put them there. The public obsession with celebrities disgusts me. The people in this world who deserve the attention are the ones who are trying to fix it. There are countless people working hours in labs towards the cures for currently deathly illnesses. All their recognition comes from within their own community while everyone know who stared in the latest James Bond film. Sunset Boulevard is a unique interpretation of exactly what could happen to the people that we idolize so much. We encourage their self-loving and eventually it drove Norma to insanity.
    Once you find out the truth about the situation, I do think life is merciful to Norma. As we can see no one but Joe actually stands up to her. They do not want to cause her pain or hurt by revealing she lost her popularity. The director she consults will not even tell her the only reason he called was to get a car like hers for the film. The butler keeps everything hidden from her knowledge. This is merciful because she does not have to deal with the depression of losing the lime light. She does not even notice that the only people who are at their party are the people she hired to be there. She is pathetic, but does not even know it.


    Sunset Boulevard is an excellent commentary on the emptiness of fame and fortune, a life fulfilled through the eyes of an audience and ratings. Norma Desmond epitomizes Hollywood as an empty, lifeless, delusional soul. She is caught in her past fame with the undying goal of getting it back. Without it, she knows nothing; she feels like nothing. Her house is overflowing with expensive things: tennis courts, swimming pools, untouched furniture, antiques. Yet, none of which actually reflect her as a person. Norma watches her old films at night with Joe because those are times when she was told who to be, how to act, and what identity to embody. As the directory of her own life, she is lost and meaningless, absolved in the physical modifications and expectations that Hollywood focuses on. When she believes she is making her big film comeback, she goes to extensive cosmetic measures to beautify herself again because that is one thing that she has full control over; her appearance and outward “character” are the perfect mask to her emotional instability that one can easily see in her company. It is as if she is the only one that does not realize her own disguise, and this disillusionment is what Hollywood was beginning to embrace. Actors and actresses, to be considered good, had to fully embrace the role of their character, to breathe life into scripted words and be somebody that they are not naturally. Essentially, actors and actresses in Hollywood spend their time perfecting lies. Norma Desmond is a sad and pathetic example of this, in which time has moved on and she has not. Joe is thrown into this emotional mess in the midst of his own personal crisis. He is trying wholeheartedly to create a script to make it big, yet he fatefully encounters Norma that stops him along his journey. Joe immediately recognizes her lack of skill, talent, and sanity, yet he is helplessly thrown into her world of constant lies and cover-ups. Without a chance to look back, he gets swept up in keeping Norma sane and at peace, as well as Max the Butler, because they just can’t bear the thought of watching her face reality. This concept could be expanded upon to insinuate that Norma Desmond’s life and encounter with Joe is an allegory of Hollywood and its community. It is nearly mindless to get swept up on the hoopla of Hollywood, the money, the fame, the glamour, the attention, yet it is rare to have a moment of solitude to stop and reflect on one’s actions. The whole incentive and driving force behind the success of Hollywood is bigger, better, more, more, and more. Improvements can always be made, and more money can always be acquired. Hollywood’s hot shots do not understand when to quit, stop, or say no, because it is a world of constant progression and sad demises. Joe’s demise is clear and obvious with his death, yet Norma’s demise has already occurred in the onset of the film and is, perhaps, more tragic to behold; it is a demise of the internal self and her purpose in life.

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