The Billy Wilder Blogathon — The Couples of Sunset Boulevard

“I AM big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

Sunset Boulevard (1950), which focuses on aging silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), is fairly jam-packed with fascinating couples. There’s Norma and the young, down-on-his-luck writer, Joe Gillis (William Holden), who stumbles into her orbit. Joe and fellow writer Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson). Norma and her first husband, Max (Erich Von Stroheim). And Betty and her fiancé, Artie Green (Jack Webb).

For this year’s Billy Wilder Blogathon, I’m taking a look at how my two favorite teamings – Norma and Joe, and Joe and Betty – came to be.


Joe Gillis is a hustler – he has talent but he doesn’t have a job. And in he’s in dire straits. He owes three months’ rent on his apartment, his car is about to be repossessed, he can’t sell any of his writing, and he can’t convince his agent to float him a loan. He even gets a flat tire! But just as things are looking their darkest, it appears that he gets a break when he manages to elude two repo guys by turning into the driveway of what appears to be a deserted mansion.

Norma is a fast worker.

Norma is a fast worker.

But the mansion isn’t deserted. It’s the home of Norma Desmond, former silent film star – the “greatest of them all,” according to her first husband (and now her butler). She was so popular in her heyday that she received 17,000 fan letters in one week, Max tells us. Men bribed her hairdresser to get a lock of her hair. A Maharajah once traveled across the world to beg her for one of her silk stockings, only to later strangle himself with it. But that was a lifetime ago. And now Norma is an eccentric recluse, living in the past. When she first spots Joe, Norma thinks he’s the pet undertaker, there to help bury her recently deceased pet monkey.  Once she finds out Joe’s real occupation, Norma doesn’t waste a moment in snagging his services to edit the manuscript she’s been writing – Salome.

Norma may appear to be slightly off her rocker, but she’s wily and sharp – not to mention persuasive. To convince Joe to stay with her while working on her screenplay, Norma arranges for Max to collect Joe’s clothes and other belongings and pay off the rent on his apartment – he doesn’t exactly have much of a choice.  Before Joe can say “Bob’s your uncle,” Norma has moved him from the room over the garage to the room in her house where each of her three former husbands stayed. Slowly, but surely, their relationship begins to change from less employer-employee and more, well, aging silent screen star-boy toy. When Norma plays bridge with her fellow former stars (a group that consists of Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner, and Anna Q. Nilsson), Joe is seated at her elbow, apparently there just to empty ashtrays. After remarking on the condition of Joe’s clothes, Norma buys him a new wardrobe (“Why begrudge me a little fun? I just want you to look nice,” she says.).

Norma's suicide attempt was just what it took to bring Joe back.

Norma’s suicide attempt was just what it took to bring Joe back.

And then there’s the New Year’s Eve party-for-two, when Joe finds out how Norma really feels about him. He concedes himself that he may have been “an idiot not to have sensed it was coming. That sad, embarrassing revelation.” When Norma tells Joe that she’s in love with him, he does what he does best – he flies the coop. But while he’s gone, Norma does what she does best – makes a suicide attempt. And it serves its purpose – evoking in Joe just the right amount of pity mixed with self-preservation – and so their affair begins.


Joe and Betty Schaefer don’t exactly meet cute, but they meet memorably. Their first encounter takes place at Paramount Studios, in the office of Mr. Sheldrake (Fred Clark), described as “a smart producer with a set of ulcers to prove it.” Joe is there to discuss a story idea he’s submitted, and Betty, who works at the studio as a reader, brings a copy of Joe’s treatment to Sheldrake’s office. She doesn’t see Joe in the office when she enters, and gives the producer her frank opinion of the piece: “It’s a rehash of something that wasn’t very good to begin with.” Seconds later, Sheldrake introduces her to Joe, and although she’s properly chagrined, she stands her ground.

New Year's Eve -- and so it begins.

New Year’s Eve — and so it begins.

These two don’t see each other again until New Year’s Eve, when Joe flees Norma’s house and winds up at the party given by his Assistant Director friend, Artie Green (Jack Webb) – who just happens, incidentally, to be engaged to Betty.  Joe and Betty don’t spend much time together at the party – just enough for Betty to tell him about one of his proposals to the studio that she “found worthy of notice.” And, also, even though they’re playacting, just enough for Joe to almost kiss her. Neither of them seem to recognize it yet, but the sparks are flying between these two like nobody’s business.

Those sparks are fanned into a slow but sure conflagration when Joe and Betty begin meeting at night at her studio, turning his screenplay proposal into a workable script. They work together like a well-oiled machine; they trade places doing the typing and they bounce ideas off each other on how to move the story along. And sometimes they go for walks around the uninhabited studio grounds, sharing bits and pieces of themselves, like the time Betty got a nose job in an effort to further her would-be acting career; the look on Joe’s face as Betty talks tells us that in spite of himself, he is becoming more and more attracted to Betty’s wholesome good looks, her talent for a turn of phrase, her unflagging honesty, her quick wit –  even her unique scent. (“Might I say that you smell real special?” he asks. “It’s like freshly laundered linen handkerchiefs. Like a brand new car.”) He tries mightily to fight his growing feelings, but when Betty gets word that Artie wants to move up the date of their wedding, neither one of them is able to continue denying that they’re head over heels for each other.

Unfortunately, and in that great noir tradition, Joe doesn’t wind up with either of the women but, instead, floating face down in Norma’s swimming pool, with a bullet in his back. (The poor dope. He always wanted a pool. Well, in the end, he got himself a pool.)


This post is part of the 2015 Billy Wilder Blogathon, hosted by Aurora at Once Upon a Screen and Kellee, over at Outspoken and Freckled. Click the banner to the right and check out the great posts that are part of this great event!

~ by shadowsandsatin on June 21, 2015.

18 Responses to “The Billy Wilder Blogathon — The Couples of Sunset Boulevard”

  1. Yes, two very contrasting relationships.

  2. Still a film that has eluded me over the years. Need to remedy that soon.

  3. […] Shadows and Satin – Famous Couples of Noir: Norma and Joe (and possibly Joe and Betty, too!) in Sunset Boulevard […]

  4. What a FABULOUS idea to cover the Wilder couples. Love this post, Karen! Thanks so much for joining our blogathon bday party!

  5. Love this take on my all-time favorite film. Poor dope indeed. Enjoyable read. Now I have to watch this for the umpteenth time to picture your observations.

    Thank you, Karen for this contribution to the Wilder blogathon!


  6. […] Shadows and Satin – Famous Couples of Noir: Norma and Joe (and possibly Joe and Betty, too!) in Sunset Boulevard […]

  7. No matter how many times I watch or read about this classic it’s never enough! Had never really thought about the differing couple dynamics before , it’s impossible to pick a favourite duo.

  8. I really like your take on this film and how you analyzed it according to the couples. Very clever, you!

    Also, I loved your line about William Holden stumbling into Gloria Swanson’s “orbit”. Perfect!

  9. Excellent review, very well written! 🙂 I love this film so much, I think it’s so fascinating and the screenplay is just great.

  10. Very much enjoyed this post on a truly memorable film, in so many ways. I love the watching William Holden as Joe, squirming to avoid facing who and what he is, with and without Norma. I also can’t help but compare his performance in Sunset Blvd. with his role and performance in Born Yesterday. Two dynamic, over-the-top women, magnetic actresses in hypnotic roles: I can’t imagine anyone thinking he’d be able to compete. Frankly, taken together, the films make me respect Holden, even as I find him dull (intentionally) in both and, hence, perfectly cast.

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