Norma Desmond, the washed-up, disillusioned, conceited, mentally unstable, borderline agoraphobic, aging actress and ex-starlet, is the antagonist of Sunset Boulevard.
She tries and typically manages to get what she wants throughout the film in many ways, mostly through manipulation and childish behavior. One way she exhibits her controlling, dominating, antagonistic tendencies is early in the film by basically kidnapping Gillis, the younger though not exactly young by Hollywood standards writer/protagonist. She convinces him to spend the night and then practically forces him to move in by having her butler (who we later learn is also her first director and her first husband) go to Gillis’s place and retrieve, or really steal, his clothes and typewriter. Gillis is later seduced (though more by Desmond’s money than by her prowess), manipulated mentally and emotionally, and (when he finally decides to leave) eventually murdered by Desmond (a moment that brings us full circle back to the start of the film).
Another example of Desmond’s antagonistic antics is when she calls Betty Shafer, the young female writer who Gillis clearly appears to be interested in (even though she’s engaged to Gillis’s friend) and who he’s been sneaking out to work/write with every night. A third, and probably the most glaring attempt to get her way and control Gillis is when Desmond slits her wrists on New Year’s Eve in what seems like more of an intense cry for help than an actual attempt at suicide. She seals the deal by threatening to do it again if Gillis leaves.
There were definitely moments throughout the film when I felt sympathy and even pity for Norma Desmond. The fact that Gillis was obviously using her initially inspired my sympathy but it grew throughout the film as we learn more and more about Desmond and we start to see her as a broken lost soul—a woman who devoted her life to her art and her dream to be a star but was simply tossed aside once the wrinkles started to set in. Even though she’s had success and plenty of riches, her life story is a sad one and it demands sympathy and empathy from us as we watch the downward spiral of her fall from grace as she practically begs the universe and everyone in it for another chance at fame and in doing so she loses what’s left of her mind.
Though I’d heard about it, this was the first time I’d actually seen Sunset Blvd. I watched it with my husband and we both enjoyed it. He especially loved the crispness of the picture, the fact that it was in black and white and how it managed to be so intense. We both loved the crazy faces of Norma Desmond. I think she was the highlight of the film. Not only was she an excellent antagonist and one from whom we never truly knew what to expect next but she also perfectly overacted the part of the ever-dramatic and always ready-for-her-close-up actress. It was so easy to see her as the villain (largely in part to the fact that we know right out of the gate that Gillis was murdered) and a complete and utter nut ball, too. But it was also easy to sympathize with her. This was largely due to her character flaws and insecurities as well as her fragile mental and emotional state. But Gillis, the protagonist who was made out to be a crook and a user, and even a jerk at times, also made me feel sympathetic toward Desmond. The way he lied to her and fed into her ego to get money, a free ride (literally) and whatever else he wanted and needed from her made me wonder how many other people had done nothing but use her along the way only to throw her away in the end.