Norma Desmond is one of the central characters in Billy Wilder's 1950 noir classic Sunset Blvd. and portrayed in the film by Gloria Swanson.
Desmond was once a giant of the silver screen's silent era, but the proliferation of talking pictures marked the end of her career as a big time Hollywood star. She lives a reclusive existence in her lavish Beverly Hills mansion on Sunset Boulevard with her servant, and former film director, Max von Mayerling (portrayed by Erich von Stroheim) and pet monkey. It is the death of her monkey that serves as a source of confusion between the main characters at the onset of the film. A struggling screenwriter named Joe Gillis (portrayed by William Holden) arrives at Desmond's home after his car gets a flat tire and he pulls into her garage. Desmond thinks that Gillis is an undertaker, who has come to make funeral arrangements for her recently deceased pet. When the matter is cleared up, Desmond's interest is piqued by Gillis' profession and she asks him to review a manuscript she has been preparing based on the legendary tale of Salome and the dance of the seven veils. It is her hopes that the script will serve as a starring vehical for her major big screen comeback. Gillis accepts the proposition and quickly becomes the faded star's kept man. Desmond schemes to get the script into the hands of renowned filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille (portrayed by himself) for Paramount Pictures to produce. The once-famous actress is misled into thinking Mr. DeMille is interested in working with her again, but in truth he wants to use her vintage car, a 1929 Isotta Fraschini, in his current period epic.It is Max who lies to Norma Desmond about Mr. DeMille's intentions in order to keep her happy and in denial about her fallen status. His actions, however misguided they may seem, stem from his admiration for her, as it is later revealed he was also her first husband.
The role of Norma Desmond was initially offered to Mae West (who also kept monkeys as pets), Mary Pickford (who demanded Wilder make too many script changes), and Pola Negri (who also lived in seclusion and, like Mae West, rejected the role) before it was accepted by Gloria Swanson. Swanson almost turned down the role after Billy Wilder requested she do a screen test for it. Director George Cukor reportedly suggested Gloria Swanson for the role of Norma Desmond. He told her, "If they want you to do ten screen tests, do ten screen tests. If you don't, I will personally shoot you." Swanson reluctantly agreed to the test, and got the role.
Photographs of the young Norma Desmond that appear throughout her house are all genuine publicity photos from Gloria Swanson's early years as an actress. The name Norma Desmond is thought to be a combination of two well-known figures from the silent film period: actress Norma Talmadge and director William Desmond Taylor. According to Gloria Swanson's daughter, her mother stayed in character throughout the entire shoot.
Norma Desmond's iconic scene in which she descends down the staircase was performed while Gloria Swanson was barefoot. The steps were too narrow for the actress to navigate in heels and, she was terrified of tripping and falling. She is said to have burst into tears upon completion of the scene.
"All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up" (Voted as the #7 movie quote by the American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes.)
"I am big! It's the pictures that got small." (Voted as the #24 movie quote by the American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes.)