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A Prisoner of the Past
In 1950, Charles Brackett produced the film Sunset Boulevard staring William Holden, who plays Joe Gillis, and Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond. Joe is a down and out screen writer who, by accident, comes into the acquaintance of Ms. Desmond, a once famous silent screen star who is now a secretive recluse. The film is told from the point of view of Joe and describes the relationship between these two characters. Norma is obsessed with her past fame and refuses to accept the fact that she is no longer the famous actress she once was. It is this obsession of hers that ultimately leads to the death of Joe. I believe that Charles Brackett's purpose in making this film is to illustrate the dangers of being a prisoner to the past and not accepting change.
Norma Desmond is a prisoner of her past and the film very effectively reveals this. Once a silent screen star, she still lives in a fantasy world where the glory and fame of those times are still alive. The fact that she is obsessed with her past is illustrated through the plot of the film and reinforced by its atmosphere. In her parlor, there are literally hundreds of photographs of her in her prime lining the shelves and walls. Two or three times a week she watches silent films staring herself on a projection system installed in her house for just that purpose. She does not care at all about the present. There is one scene in which Joe's car is towed away. She trivializes the situation, saying that new cars are pieces of junk anyway and that she has a good, older model automobile. Even in everyday, mundane matters such as this, Norma is constantly glorifying the past and belittling the present.
The scene that best illustrates the fantasy in which Norma is living is the scene at the studio in which she is conversing with Cecil B. DeMille. There is a sequence when a lightman shines a spotlight on her and all of the people flock around her. Eerie music is heard playing in the background. Even though this scene really happens in the movie--it is not a dream sequence--it is given the atmosphere of a dream. The bright lights and the people surrounding and praising her, to Norma, is the dream she has been trying to keep alive since her film career ended. It almost reminds the viewer of the type of atmosphere that usually accompanies encounters with the divine in other films. Norma's whole existence is centered around these kinds of moments. The fame and glory are almost divine experiences for her.
I believe that the mansion is intended to be symbolic of Norma's mind. The house has been static since the time Norma was a star. It has not been maintained; it has just existed. As a result, the entire property has gone into a state of decay. The front doors of the house have bars across them, bringing images of prison cells. The tennis court is crumbling and the pool is a home to rats. The mansion has become a prison full of decay and disease.
This is exactly what has happened to Norma's mind. She is a prisoner of the past, a past which is kept alive in her mind. Her mind has remained focused on the time when she was a star. She has refused to accept the changes that have occurred over the years. As the story unfolds, the mansion becomes a prison for Joe and I think that, in much the same way, Norma's mind has become a prison for her. When Norma thinks she might start acting again, that her past is going to come back to her in all its magnificence, both her and the mansion undergo a rejuvenation. Norma goes through a series of beauty treatments to restore her to her former beauty while the mansion is cleaned up and returned to its once majestic condition. Norma finally realizes that she is not going to act again and she becomes hysterical. She destroys the relationship between Joe and Betty Shaefer and, when Joe starts to leave her, she kills him. The only way in which I feel the film fails in its purpose is at the end. It is slightly vague as to what motivates Norma's murder of Joe. There is some ambiguity as to whether she kills him because she realizes her dream is going to be unfulfilled or because Joe is leaving and she cannot bear to see him go. Joe is the one who tells her that her film is not going to be made, so she may have killed him because he is the one that shattered her world. However, through out the movie, Norma is beset by jealousy over Joe and his relationships with other women, both real and imaginary. This is what causes her to try and destroy the relationship he has with Betty.
I believe that it is a combination of these two motives that caused her to kill Joe. Joe has become a symbol of her past, a time when she was surrounded by men who adored her. Even though Joe hardly shows such affection, he fills that empty place Norma has felt since her film days. Eventually, Norma starts to fall in love with Joe. Joe causes her world to come crashing down first by telling her the truth about her film and then by trying to leave. Norma cannot allow Joe to leave because he has filled a part of her present that reminds her of her past so she kills him. However, this killing is also motivated by love and affection, for Norma cannot bear to see Joe leave. Thus, there is a slight diversion from the purpose when these personal feelings of hers come into play. To make the purpose stronger, it should have been made more clear that the major reason Norma kills Joe was to keep this reminder of her past from walking out on her, like so many men did earlier when she was no longer a star. I feel that the film is very strongly made. The characters are strongly portrayed. For example, Gloria Swanson seems to be over acting at times, but this has the affect of reinforcing the idea that there is something mentally wrong with Norma Desmond. The atmosphere, whether lighting, set decorations, or musical accompaniment, always adds to the plot. It is obvious that a message is being sent to the audience and all parts of the film work to convey and emphasize this message. The one failing in the film that I discussed above is very minor in regards to the message the film is sending. It is still apparent what has caused Norma's problem and what the end result of it is.
Overall, I think the film effectively succeeds in realizing its purpose, which is to illustrate the dangers of living in the past and not accepting change. Norma is a character who has lived in the past for decades, trying to relive the glory of her early career by watching films of herself and surrounding herself with pictures of those bygone days. Joe, by contrast, is a character that lives day by day, looking toward the future. It is through his observations that the audience sees what a destructive influence Norma is having on her surroundings. Not only is she decaying inside, but so is everything around her. Unfortunately, Joe loses his life because of Norma's obsession. The film is trying to convey the message that living in the past is dangerous and even deadly and I believe that it has achieved its purpose effectively.