Norma & I; Spectatorship and the Female Body in “Sunset Boulevard”

It’s hard to imagine the history of cinema without considering the issue of misrepresentation. Every “minority” (that is, of course, because we are to assume and base any observation off of the notion that the spectator is male, right?) under the sun has been done a massive injustice in some way or another by the very medium we look for to exude honesty, clarity, and (for the most part), subjective interpellation on contemporary screens. Consistently represented as an object of sexual desire, the image of the female body has been placed on display for countless audiences since the creation of the medium itself. From early silent films to contemporary productions, the female body has consistently been the most prominent possession of the male spectator’s gaze, often facilitating (while also fulfilling) fantasies of the dominant, intended (generally) heterosexual male audience of American cinema. Generally, films which prominently display the female body adhere to conventional norms which would be deemed “beautiful” by their respective audiences. Billy Wilder’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard instead chooses to emphasize the body of an aging film star, Norma Desmond, fallen from the graces of Hollywood’s silent era, attempting to regain prominence on the screen in a time period which sensationalizes her age versus the “youthful” image she so desperately aims to project. Sunset Boulevard ultimately presents the female star body in contrast to its conventionally “sexual” representation, opting for an aggressively critical view of Norma Desmond (and female stars in general) which condemns the industry which treats her as a disposable commodity, product, and lifeless object of spectacle. However, as a result of this depiction, the film implicates its audience in unique ways. Favoring what could initially be construed as a sadistic criticism, the film funnels elements which initially point to a portrayal of Norma as a “victim” into a characterization that reverses socially-coded roles the female body has played throughout the rather “recent” history (i.e., since the spread of cinema) of a “spectating” American society.

Facets of Norma Desmond’s life prior to her introduction to Sunset Boulevard’s audience function to build a framework for the film’s initial critique of her position within the film industry. The audience is given pieces of information pertaining to Norma’s life as a silent film star primarily through other characters’ recognition of her former place within the industry. It is Joe Gillis, a screenwriter Norma hires to help her finish a “return” script, who first notes his familiarity with her face upon meeting her. Joe, along with many others who come across Norma, does not immediately recognize who he is looking at when first gazing upon her. In fact, it is only through visual association that many of the characters come to recognize Norma in the first place, only understanding who she is (or “was,” in this case) by recognizing her physically through association with her body’s former place on film screens (“You’re Norma Desmond!” he exclaims, “You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”) (Sunset). Of course, vision is a sense most people possess and use to recognize everyday objects, but Norma’s face is presented as one which used to be a familiar object but has since retreated to the deeper parts of the public’s (and audiences’) memory after her successful silent film career came to an end. They have no reason to recall her days of stardom since she is no longer relevant to the film industry, instead associating her face with the faded grandeur it represents. She is a product used by an industry which no longer needs her, casting her aside to rot.

Norma’s post-filmic career amounts to nothing more than pitiful attempts at writing a script she hopes will facilitate her “return” to the screen. She does so within a decrepit mansion which serves as a metaphor for Norma and her body. The house is old, decaying, and assumedly once maintained a greater level of grandeur and aesthetic beauty than its current dilapidated state would suggest. Norma’s body, which was also more conventionally “beautiful” and young, similarly shows signs of age. Wrinkles and crow’s feet are visible on Norma’s face throughout the entire film, but are often juxtaposed with photographs of Norma showing what her face looked like when she was still a film star. This suggests that while Norma is still a physical being, the very thing which makes her human (life, itself) is also the cause of her position within the industry; she is old (by film industry standards), decaying (in a figurative sense), and no longer represents the youthful conventional standard of beauty valued by the film industry.

However, despite the fact that Norma is presented as “decaying” does not necessarily mean she is not a powerful woman. She has commanded the spectatorship of an entire nation of people who flocked to see her silent pictures when she was still a commercially viable star. It is, after all, this type of audience which made her and Gloria Swanson commercially viable enough to provide them a pedestal from which to fall in the first place, though the distinction between “commercially viable star” and “powerful woman” is something the representation of Norma Desmond’s character delicately straddles. As a result, the film converses with its audience on a dual track of association, speaking to their literal relationship to the film based on associations and references to “their” world and incorporating them into the diegesis of Sunset Boulevard. The film relies on the dual spectating groups gazing upon Norma (both male and female, both the diegetic audience and audience viewing the film itself) to make a case for her irrelevance to both. The film industry in 1950 America no longer “favored,” for lack of a better word, Gloria Swanson as an actress who could carry a picture to financial success, similar to how the film’s treatment of Norma sees her at the tail end of a career nosedive. The use of Gloria Swanson to portray Norma Desmond relies on the audience’s familiarity with the latter’s situation, based simply on the assumption that the film’s audience would draw conclusions based on former’s career and relate them to a characterization of the fictional character. Hence, Norma Desmond uses her financial power (given to her as a result of her willing participation in and harnessing of the objectifying realm of a male dominated film industry) in an attempt to regain the “visual” power that results from being an attractive, youthful woman in front of a camera.  She will “buy” a screenwriter to finish her “return” screenplay, while also commanding his sexual attention at the same time.

If Norma is to be successful at “returning” to the screen she vacated with the coming of the “sound” era, she must convince both the audience of Sunset Boulevard and the audience within Sunset Boulevard that she is still capable of commanding the spectator’s gaze. In Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey states that “the determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (203). In essence, the female body is the defining point of interest of the male gaze, with Mulvey further commenting that “the beauty of the woman as object and the screen space coalesce; she is no longer the bearer of guilt but a perfect product, whose body, stylized and fragmented by close-ups, is the content of the film and the direct recipient of the spectator’s look” (Visual 206). Mulvey’s observations point to the classical representation of women in films as the object themselves, created and viewed by a male-dominated industry and perspective respectively. Sunset Boulevard, however, utilizes the aforementioned metaphor of the mansion to frame Norma’s insistence that the gaze—any gaze, for that matter—be focused on her, in an attempt to regain the visual power she’s since lost.

Despite the mansion’s exterior implying that its owner is a forgotten film star, the interior of Norma’s home is maintained to its inhabitant’s personal standards of self-indulgent grandiosity, becoming a metaphor for its owner’s insistence on commanding the look of a spectator. Its marble flooring is waxed (as Norma tells Joe on New Year’s Eve), its rooms ornately decorated, and its lavish appearance generally maintained. Similarly, Norma attempts to maintain a sort of interior balance within herself by adorning her body with lavish costumes which recall those she donned in the films she once starred in. Norma becomes fixated on glamorizing her outwards appearance in an attempt to appear youthful and relevant to the film industry, wearing headpieces, jewelry, and flamboyant gowns and accessories (none more excessive than the ensemble she wears on New Year’s Eve) to reflect not only the monetary stability being a film star provided her but also to preserve her body’s physical image as a commodified star whose physical appearance will earn money. As Norma reveals towards the middle of the film, however, most of her financial prosperity comes from business ventures (“I’ve got oil in Bakersfield pumping…what’s it for but to buy us anything we want?” she asks Joe) and not with income from making films, which renders her decorating her body like delusional attempts at physically appearing as a film star versus actually being one (Sunset). This does not, however, demean her prowess as a businesswoman. The film casts her in an exaggerated light in reference to her attempt at a return to film, but this exposition of the source of her income only strengthens the impression of Norma as powerful in her own regard. She is not simply a “has been” film star; she is now an expanded brand of business ventures, making a stake in male-dominated business industries since she has arrived at a temporary (at least, to her) roadblock along the road to becoming a relevant film star once again.

Because of the emphasis on Norma’s image and the consistent obsession with her appearance, it becomes clear that her presence in the film industry is what facilitated her insistence on creating a spectacle of her body. Because silent films relied on visual spectacle to appeal to an audience (pantomime performances, lavish costumes and sets, etc.) Norma is conditioned to do the same in her efforts to “return” to prominence. As a result, she continuously forces Joe to watch her old films, look at her old head shots, and fondle her when she forcibly places herself within his embrace (at the pool when she dries him off, when she clutches him during a screening of her film, etc.). This sort of “reaching” and “fondling” of Joe indicates a firm grasp she has on the male gaze; even though she “paid” for Joe’s presence in her life, she has command and control over it. She is not the victim of his gaze, but rather the being which facilitates and demands it. She is his possession, but only because she chooses to do so, and he is merely a manipulative reversal (of sorts) of the traditional “femme fatale.”

Norma also dresses herself in the aforementioned costumes, creating a physical spectacle of her body simply by wearing them and drawing attention to herself by way of their flashy materials and construction, commanding again Joe’s gaze but also the gaze of the audience (the flamboyance of Norma’s attire is of key importance, because they appeal to both genders, not overtly sexual enough to only demand the male gaze). Norma is essentially forcing her body to be gazed upon not only by Joe but also by the audience of Sunset Boulevard, what with her flashy attire and gestural mannerisms (which mimic those performed in silent film pictures) suggesting Norma’s undying insertion of herself into the film industry. If the films won’t come to her, she will literally bring them (and the life that comes with being a film star) to herself; she will buy the most expensive clothing and jewelry, “perform” exaggerated expressions and physical movements in everyday life, and fine-tune her body to her perceived level of perfection since she consciously desires to be the “product,” not the helpless victim of the male gaze who is unknowingly subjected to the male gaze. She recreates the familiar spectacle of silent films in her everyday life, even going as far as to impersonate silent film icon Charlie Chaplin in an attempt to humor Joe but also draw another line of familiarity between the audience of Sunset Boulevard and her own world. Her identity as a true “product” of the film industry becomes apparent, as does her insistence and power enough to command that it return, what with the industry literally intruding upon her life through her conscious decision to draw attention to herself as a spectacle. This does not, however, strip her of her commanding, powerful presence; merely it marks a willing desire to attain the attention by her own means, not the means of the men who “created” her (she tells Max she doesn’t want to speak on the phone when she receives a call from one of DeMille’s assistants, letting the phone call go unacknowledged because she is not being appropriately sought after in the way she hoped to orchestrate).

After all, as Norma says, “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small,” so she will force the “small” (as she perceives it) industry upon her life through her grandiose life practices of Gloria Swanson’s metaperformance and Norma’s conspicuous consumption (Sunset). The term metaperformance is given to film performances that essentially entail the actor or actress performing within their initial performance; In other words metaperformance describes a performance in which the actor or actress is playing an actor or actress who is “acting” within the context of the containing film. To conceptualize metaperformance is to understand the medium of film itself, seeing as one must recognize that the person they are seeing act the part of a character onscreen is in fact a person who exists within reality and is only portraying a figure in a fictional (sometimes biographical or reality-based) medium. Metaperformance describes the extra layer of performing within a performance on top of the actor or actress’ initial performance. In essence, metaperformance is two performances contained within one performer. Norma has been used and discarded by the industry that made her a star in the first place, without a single role or performance since the silent film era ended. Her overemphasized enunciation, extravagant costumes, and bodily motions reminiscent of those belonging to an actress in a silent picture indicate that Desmond has taken on the responsibility of “acting” in her everyday life. She is tied to the industry which “created” her much as a car is tied to the manufacturer which produced it. When a BMW breaks down or requires an extra part to work again, those who designed and built the car will supply the replacement, continuing a line of consistency from producer to product. Here, Norma carries silent film “performance” with her in everyday life, signifying that her body is a product of the film industry, albeit a self-made spectacle with no one “important” (an actual diegetic film “audience”) viewing it in order to make the product a commercially viable one.

A key scene in Sunset Boulevard uses elements of metaperformance to emphasize Norma’s body as a physical product. Just minutes prior to shooting Joe, Norma is attempting to thank him for turning Betty Schaefer, his “real” love interest, away from the mansion after she arrives to retrieve him. Joe retreats to his room and Norma, sans elaborate makeup and ornate costuming, attempts to follow him. She repeats Joe’s name over and over as he ignores her and enters the room, shutting the door behind him. Norma rushes to the closed door, but stops dead in her tracks as she catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror hanging in the hallway. The audience is given two images of Desmond’s face; one that gazes at itself, and one which gazes back. The image takes on dual meaning. At once the scene registers as showcasing the true nature of the “audience” for Norma’s body (the only audience member being herself). Because Norma is able to “gaze” upon this “natural” (only intended to imply that she is physically “there”) image of herself in the mirror, she is able to see her body as a physically unfit object for a man to see what with chemical peels dangling from her temples, wrinkles creasing over her face, and not a stitch of makeup on to cover it all up. She rips the peels off, attempting to “fix” her face by running her fingers over it and through her hair. Because the illusion of “youth” is spoiled when she sees the very means by which she hopes to achieve it (the chemical peels), she deems her body unfit for the male to gaze upon. She removes the “falsities,” fixes her hair, and readjusts her posture to suggest that which a film star would have as she stepped before a camera shooting a motion picture. By incorporating more “camera-friendly” elements into her physical appearance in this scene, Norma again makes herself “acceptable” for the male, Joe, to physically “see” her in an emotional state, emphasizing the intrusion of the film industry’s standards of the female body as objectified spectacle onto her “real” life, albeit harnessed in a conscious effort to persuade Joe to stay in her life (it is only when he goes against her powerful will that she “snaps” and kills him).

The final sequence of the film proceeding the murder of Joe at the hands of Norma similarly emphasizes Norma’s physical objectification by the film industry which cast her aside years prior. A crowd of reporters and camera crews swarm Norma’s house after word gets out that she shot Joe. Reporters and journalists (including a cameo by real-life gossip columnist Hetta Hopper) hope to capitalize on the misfortune the “famous star of yesteryear” brought upon herself, indicating the media and public desire to sensationalize stars and exploit their connection to the industry even when they are no longer a commercially viable “star,” as is the case with Norma (Sunset). Norma ignores reporters attempting to question her as she preps her face (once again, maintaining the spectacle) for the cameras downstairs, thinking they are part of a motion picture crew when in actuality they are there to document her arrest. Norma’s delusions of starring in another picture lead her to believe that she is on the Paramount lot filming another picture, pantomiming in full costume as she wafts down the stairs of her mansion towards the cameras as if she were playing the role of a princess for a film.

As Norma reaches the bottom of the stairs she pauses, thanking everyone in the room for welcoming her back to the set of a picture and expressing excitement for her future as a film star. The power of the scene comes from two sources, the first of which drawing from the fact that it is one of the only scenes in the film where Norma commands an audience who watches her perform. Granted, they are not gazing upon her body for its brilliant costuming or to see a brilliant performance for the screen as she desires, but rather they sensationalize and objectify her as a culmination of what it means to “fail” in the eyes of the film industry. Norma then turns toward the camera from which the audience of Sunset Boulevard gazes upon her, contorting her arms in a stew of acrobatics and gestural exaggeration as the lens blurs, distorting her face into a monstrously unidentifiable mixture of makeup, motion, and costume (the only things which become traceable in the silhouette created by the blur). At once this scene demonizes both the media and film industry which produced Norma, but also condemns the star herself for lending her life to such a monopolizing industry which sensationalized her body onscreen as well as in its state of post-stardom fragility which facilitates her delusions.

The scene also functions to implicate the audience of Sunset Boulevard for participating in the capitalist structure of the film industry which killed Norma’s career. The popularization of synchronized sound ushered the silent era of Hollywood out, putting stars such as Norma Desmond (and Gloria Swanson, who plays Norma, for that matter) out of work as “fresh” faces were implemented into the “talkies.” Sunset Boulevard is one such “talking” picture documenting the effect the transition from silent films to sound films, and viewing the descent of a silent film star by way of a sound picture lends itself to the condemnation of the audience as well. The audience viewing Sunset Boulevard indulges in consuming the spectacle of Norma’s presentation of her body as spectacle within a film which uses sound technology that killed her career. The audience is therefore “guilty” of rendering Norma’s body as a product as well, playing into the producer/consumer model which dictated the decision to transition to sound films from the silent era. Norma was simply “loose fat” which needed to be cut during the transition, the film chronicling her expenditure as a used product audiences no longer desired via the very technical innovation which put her in that place to begin with. It is this reversal and implication of the audience which functions as a testament to the dual relationship of the narrative and its elements to the audience of the film itself. Norma, on one hand, can be viewed as the victim of such a cruel and scrutinizing industry, but her power to transcend the narrative of Sunset Boulevard and make a predatory move upon the spectator of the film speaks volumes about her mastery of bringing the gaze upon herself. She is controlled by the industry which “created” her, but she spends a vast majority of the film proving that she has a relevance to the art of spectacle, commanding attention upon herself and harnessing that attention to aide her “return” to the diegetic public which once bowed at her feet.

It becomes clear through the seamless blending of Norma Desmond’s extra-filmic life with delusions inspired by her “reign” as a silent film star that her body is nothing more than a commodified product. She adorns herself in lavish costumes and moves about her deserted mansion in highly exaggerated fashion, mimicking the pantomime of her former days acting in silent pictures. Even when the film attempts to inspire sympathy for Norma, that sympathy is turned into guilt, using the medium of the sound picture to incriminate the audience for consuming it and, in essence, killing Norma’s silent film career. Through such technical and thematic elements, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard creates a critical view of the female star’s body and the industry which “produced” it, shying from the typically sexual representations of the female body and instead condemning the industry wide standard of objectifying female stars’ bodies through the use of its star as a self-created spectacle for both diegetic and non-diegetic audiences. But, Norma’s commanding of an audience’s spectatorship based simply on creating visual spectacle out of her life and body remains a testament to her power as a physical point of awe, simply without any commercial outlet to funnel her awesome qualities into. The real victim of the film, then, becomes the audience of both Sunset Boulevard and the diegetic audience within the film; we are all at the mercy of Norma Desmond, regardless of how the male gaze “wants” to frame her, she will ultimately seek control and (usually) succeed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s