Joe Gills (William Holden) is a young screenwriter who tries to find a way of selling one of his works. Unfortunately he is unsuccessful and money keep on fading away very quickly. He considers his job just a job, an ordinary craft. He just wants to make money without attaching weight to his creations. It is not about art but about profit.
One day, while escaping from people that are trying to confiscate his car for overdue payments, he gets to a garage which is situated by, as everyone would think, a deserted mansion. But the truth is the mansion is resided by a long-forgotten silent-film star who lives in imaginary reality.
And that is the way the acquaintance with Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an eccentric middle-aged woman, starts. Very soon Joe finds out that she can’t reconcile with the loss of fame and she still lives with conviction that she is a world-famous star. As a professional silent-film actress she plays by using mimics, the body, she expresses her feelings that way even in a real life. She can’t understand the fact that the times of silent films have passed and now words play main role. Norma believes it is possible to return, that there are people waiting for her. Her house is filled with pictures of her own, a beautiful young girl who used to be a goddess of Hollywood. Moreover, she owns a screen just to be capable of watching films in which she appeared.
When describing Norma, it is not possible to forget about the history of Gloria Swanson who gained fame at the time when cinema was still silent and later couldn’t find her place in the world of movies. Her role in ‘Sunset Blvd.’ is the role of her life. In it she gave a breathtaking performance using her own experience.
It is hard to like Norma in reality. She is a kind of cold, arrogant woman, her emotions seem to be fake. She behaves as if she is playing a role all the time. She wants to be comprehensible without saying a single word. She has lived in the world of films since she was a young girl. There was fame, love of fans, success. She doesn’t understand the rules of real life and the rules of Hollywood. It is the place where only success and pursuit of money matter. Once you get old you are out of the game. There is no place for sentiments, compassion. The show must go on with or without you. Norma’s time went by a long time ago. But she can’t agree to that. Cinema was all she had.
When Joe appeared, her hopes revived. The young screenwriter was the last chance to return. The man silently without saying a word, agrees to create artificial relationship. It is just a great occasion to earn some money. All in all, there is nothing to lose so he stays in. Both of them will live in stuffy atmosphere of lie and illumination. Norma, fascinated by a young man, presents him with expensive gifts. It is a way of letting him know that no matter what he belongs to her now. She doesn’t understand it is not possible to own a man and control his life. Joe seems to be unhappy and deep down he just wants to finish the job and end this sick relationship.
Norma writes a screenplay that, according to what she believes, will gain her popularity. She goes to a director, Cecil B. DeMille, with whom she worked once and who made her a star. He finds it hard to confess that cinema has changed. It is not so different form reality and the main role goes to words.
Norma lives with Max (Erich von Stroheim), a faithful butler, who keeps her in fictitious reality. He sends letters to a forgotten actress that are supposed to be the fan letters. We also learn that he is Norma’s first husband and the director that made movies along with his wife which turned out to be box-office successes. She seems to forget about it. Right now Joe is her new love.
But Joe leads a double life. Along with his friend’s fiancée Betty Schaeffer (Nancy Olson) he starts to write a promising screenplay. He doesn’t want to hurt Norma so he sneaks out in the dark just to do something he really wants to. He is aware of success and knows how much money he could earn – all in all it is the most important factor in Hollywood. Cecil B. DeMille himself says about Norma’s script that the film would be very expensive. And its success is unsure.
Joe is wrapped up in writing a screenplay and what’s more a love story between him and Betty begins. It is hard to hide a secret like that. Joe cheats on Norma, Betty and himself. When Norma finds out the truth she calls Betty just to make the girl believe that Joe is a fibber. But Joe hears this conversation so he pulls out the phone and tells Betty to come up and learn the truth.
Norma is full of contradictions. She wants to return as a star and at the same time she is afraid of facing real life. The definition of life is different in her dictionary. It was very important to her that she was loved by fans, that people adored characters she had created. She has never thought of herself, her own personality and because of that she is so unpleasant and unnatural in real life. The real self was always covered with the greatness of her characters.
Betty, concerned by a weird call, decides to find out the truth. When she gets to Norma’s place, Joe tells her about his relationship with the actress. He confesses the fact he has sold himself. He did all those things just to earn money and lied to both Norma and Betty. He is the one that agreed to live in lie just like Norma used to do. It was cruel and artificial reality. The cheated girl leaves. Now she also has no illusions about sparkling world she has been dreaming of. For a very long time Betty has believed it is possible to live in that fake reality. The truth she learned about the man she loved sets her free.
The movie is narrated by Joe. From the beginning we know how the story of a poor screenwriter ends and it doesn’t leave us with hopes. It is tragic as well as Norma’s madness. The woman thinks the flashing lamps in her house belong to some film cameras. Her contact with reality, if has existed so far, breaks off definitely.
The title of the film and the name of the street where Norma lives – Sunset Boulevard – summarize the actress’s life. She fell off the top and it is important to remember that the higher you are the longer you are falling. Her splendid career ended the same manner sun sets. She dedicated everything to cinema but the price she paid was unusually high. Beside movies, she had nothing else, so when all of this was taken from her, she was left behind all alone in strange reality.
"You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark! All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."