Sunset Boulevard Ending Explained

Billy Wilder’s bitingly humorous noir classic Sunset Boulevard spoiled its own ending at the beginning of the film, but there is so much more to the movie’s finale than meets the eye. Originally released in 1950, Sunset Boulevard captured the spirit and essence of Old Hollywood and had a lot to say about stardom and the fleeting nature of success. Met with universal acclaim upon its debut, the film went on to be nominated for 11 Academy Awards, and its legacy secured it a spot among the AFI’s 100 greatest American films in 1998 and 2007.

While films like 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain showed Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound films as a joyous occasion, Sunset Boulevard offered a glimpse at the other, more sinister side of the coin. Often ranked among the best films about the movie industry, Sunset Boulevard transcended its Hollywood roots and got to the soul of its characters in a way that made them larger-than-life, but universal. Even if the climax was revealed at the beginning of the movie, the twisting plot and how the characters arrived at their dark fates were what really mattered in Sunset Boulevard.

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Why Did Norma Shoot Joe?

Joe floating face down in the pool from Sunset Boulevard

Shown right during the opening scene of the movie, the fate of poor Joe Gillis (William Holden) was revealed as he was seen floating face down in a pool. The movie never kept how Joe died a secret, but the mystery of the film was unraveled as the audience learned why the out-of-work writer met his fate. In a jealous rage, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) shot her former beau in the back as he tried to leave her, and it said a lot about how the aging former star saw the world around her.

The best film noir movies often featured femme fatales, but Norma was far from the usual black widow out for her next big score. In fact, the movie switched the roles as Joe was the one playing with Norma’s heart, and bilking her of her opulent fortune. She couldn’t bear the thought of being abandoned by Joe, and the only way she could think to keep him was by killing him. Though the over-the-top act seemed out of place, it represented how Norma saw life as one big movie, a point that was further illustrated by her reaction to the news cameras at the conclusion.

Why Did Max Go Along With Norma’s Delusions?

Max answers the phone in Sunset Boulevard

One of the keys to understanding the legendary character of Norman Desmond could be found in her doting butler, Max von Mayerling. Max was played by real-life director Erich von Stroheim, a man who directed some of the 1920s’ best Hollywood movies. Max was revealed to be a former silent movie director with a career very much like the actor who played him, and he had just as big of a need for delusions of grandeur as Norma did. Norma’s career was established to have fizzled with the birth of sound movies, and so too did the once-celebrated director’s.

Though Max’s grip on reality was much stronger, he allowed Norma to believe she was still receiving fan mail because he could live vicariously through her success. Temperamental, as actors usually were, Norma couldn’t handle even the slightest disturbance to her fantasy realm, and Max worked overtime to keep it going. The way he spoke of her was quite similar to the director’s relationship with their muse, and it wasn’t a stretch of the imagination to see that Max was in love with the image of Norma that he helped cultivate.

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What Was The Significance Of Salome?

Norma looks on while holding a hand mirror in Sunset Boulevard

Movies about acting and actors often depicted their subjects as a bit obsessed with their work, and Norma’s fascination with the character of Salome was another indication of who she was. Drawn from the Bible, Salome was the step-daughter of King Herod who asked for the head of John the Baptist and rejoiced when her step-father fulfilled her request. Salome was the subject of the rambling screenplay that Joe had been hired to edit, and Norma identified greatly with the Biblical figure. As with Norma herself, Salome’s character was left up to interpretation, and ideas changed over the years.

Initial, and strictly biblical, interpretations of Salome saw her as the personification of “the evil that existed within womanhood” and upheld the femme fatale archetype, but modern artistic looks painted a different picture. Judging by the way Norma spoke about the character with reverence, it was obvious that she viewed Salome much in the same way Carl Jung or Oscar Wilde did, as the spurned woman who had John the Baptist executed for rebuffing her. With that in mind, her script for Salome foreshadowed when she would kill Joe for spurning her.

How Does Norma Represent Old Hollywood?

Norma stands in the light of a movie projector in Sunset Boulevard

Though the film was released a whole decade before the Hollywood studio system nearly completely collapsed in the 1960s, Sunset Boulevard nevertheless saw the writing on the wall. Pop culture was still new in the 1950s, and movie stardom was even newer in the grand scheme of things. Though she was still quite young, Norma Desmond had risen and fallen in such a spectacular fashion that she represented Old Hollywood itself. Though there were surprisingly progressive movies in the ’30s and ’40s, Old Hollywood was the embodiment of antiquated ideas, and by the ’50s, they had worn quite thin.

Norma was Old Hollywood because she was stuck in her ways, and too delusional to see that the world had passed her by. More than that, she refused to adapt to the world around her, as her insistence on making Salome a silent film decades after the adoption of sound illustrated. She had been roped in by the Hollywood system, and eventually abandoned by it, and it turned her into a sort of ghost who lived in the shadow of the past. Like the light flickering on the movie screen, Norma Desmond was an illusion of Old Hollywood.

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The True Meaning Of Sunset Boulevard’s Ending

Norma Desmond approaches the camera for her closeup in Sunset Boulevard

Though the iconic thriller spoiled its ending in the opening, the real meaning of Sunset Boulevard plunged much deeper than what was merely shown on screen. Joe Gillis was the typical jaded Hollywood type, but he met his match when he ran into the whirlwind that was Norma Desmond. Like many who tried to scale the impossible mountain of the movie industry, Joe strived to dig out a comfortable niche for himself as Norma’s writer but got burned just like she did. Sunset Boulevard‘s shocking ending went a long way to say that no one truly got out alive from the movie business.

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