In Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, arguably the ultimate Hollywood movie, struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis falls into professional & personal relationships with two women: Norma Desmond and Betty Schaefer. Each of them represent different takes on the Hollywood experience – two strategies to navigate the twisted, labyrinthine world of show business. Norma ignores the status quo altogether, operating on her own terms, while Betty proactively driving her career forward within the confines of the system.
The film’s first act gives us a glimpse at what the world of show business is like for everyday stakeholders like Joe. He struggles to maintain his relevancy,”grinding out original stories[…] only [he] seem[s] to have lost [his] touch. Maybe they weren’t original enough. Maybe they were too original. All [he] know[s] is they didn’t sell.”
He’s also in a financial jam, so he goes to Paramount to “take advantage” of his friendship with producer Sheldrake to weasel his way into a job, but Sheldrake doesn’t take the bait. His agent doesn’t help either, insisting “the finest things in the world have been written on an empty stomach.”
Joe’s Hollywood is a world of manipulation and exploitation, where friends and partners won’t help a guy in need. He is disappointed in this response, though not surprised; from Joe’s reaction, this seems to be “business as usual” and nothing new.
One car chase and a flat tire later, Joe finds himself at the home of former silent star Norma Desmond. It’s been years since she last partook of the inner workings of Hollywood, making her either oblivious or subversive, or both, to the laws that govern show business. She presents the script she’s drafted for her amateurish passion project Salome to Joe, who warns her to “Never let another writer read [her] material; he may steal it.” She carelessly dismisses this claim, “I’m not afraid.”
A crafty orator, Joe sets himself up for a job by telling Norma the script could be stronger if someone did an editing job. Norma sighs, “Who? I’d have to have somebody I can trust. When were you born — I mean, what sign of the zodiac?” Joe is a Sagittarian, an astrologically trustworthy sign. “I like Sagitarrians. You can trust them,” Norma insists. The stars, not Joe’s talent or credibility, make him a qualified candidate to take on Salome.
As her delusions for a triumphant career return continue to grow, she visits Paramount Studios, uninvited and unannounced, to visit Cecil B. DeMille, a past collaborator whom she has pegged to direct her new masterpiece. At the entrance gates, a guard asks whether she has an appointment, to which her butler/driver/(and more) Max replies “No appointment is necessary” for Norma Desmond. She needs not adhere to the procedural courtesies and rules of show business. After all, “without [Norma] there wouldn’t be any Paramount Studio.”
Norma’s utter dismissal for the governing laws of Hollywood are foiled by the other woman in Joe’s life, Betty Schaefer. Betty is a young talent in the Readers’ department, reviewing incoming scripts and advising on which stories to produce for the screen. Unlike Norma, ignoring the rules altogether, Betty leverages the studio system to propel her career.
Her career kick-start even comes from rejection from the studios. Betty tells Joe about her background, as the third generation of show business in her family, and as such she was expected to become a great star. “Ten years of dramatic lessons, diction, dancing. Then the studio made a test. Well, they didn’t like my nose […] I went to a doctor and had it fixed. They made more tests, and they were crazy about my nose — only they didn’t like my acting.” Joe teases her how sad her story is, and she replies “Not at all. It taught me a little sense. […] What’s wrong with being on the other side of the camera? It’s really more fun.” Betty acknowledges, and grows from, her rejection from the studios; she doesn’t recluse herself away from show business, but finds another avenue within which to grow her career.
She’s not in love with her current job as a Reader, and aspires to be a studio writer. She leverages her relationship with Sheldrake, a Paramount producer, to pitch story ideas and generate buzz for what she’s working on. After work hours, she and Joe meet to collaborate on a past work of his (Dark Windows, a love story about two teachers) to develop it into a fully fledged script to be produced. When she initially offers this idea to Joe, he declines, but she insists, making herself “completely at [his] disposal.” Hers is a proactive, flexible attitude – willing to do what she must in order to take this next big step as a writer.
Betty and Norma offer two very different takes on the entertainment industry. Betty redefines herself, taking opportunities to develop herself and her career within the ever-evolving studio system. Norma, however, exiles herself altogether and operates in her own world. At a time in Joe’s life when he finds himself defeated by the Hollywood machine, these two women offer new strategies on how to get back in the game: one proactive, one ultimately destructive.
Special thanks to Daily Script hosting the Sunset Boulevard screenplay available here.