As readers, television viewers, and film goers, we are exposed to hundreds or even thousands of characters, each living in their own unique world. While most of these characters fade from our memories, some are so richly layered, well written, and expertly portrayed that they live on in our minds for years, decades, and in truly iconic instances generations. One such character is the tragic heroine of the 1950 noir masterpiece Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond. As portrayed by actress Gloria Swanson, Norma is a talented, unique, woman who is so consumed by her past successes that she is letting her present pass her by. While Norma’s acting career ended years before the events of Sunset Boulevard take place, she remains a truly unforgettable character who is, and always will be big.
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1. SHE IS RELATABLE: Despite the many very ugly actions that she commits, there is still something strangely endearing about Norma Desmond; her resonance within real life. Our society values youth, fame, and desirability above all else, all qualities that can only last for a limited time. As a result, many people find themselves faced with a crossroads when they reach a stage in their lives in which they have lost those attributes. This crossroads can become a full-on crises of identity for those who are unable to see beyond the shallowness of these social values, and no group is more susceptible to the pressures of these values than those whose very livelihood depend upon these superficial standards; entertainers. Even today, stars are often considered to be in their prime before they have reached their mid-twenties, and this standard is especially damning for women in the entertainment industry. While male actors such as Cary Grant and George Clooney have gone on to continue playing romantic leads well into their middle age, actresses are often reduced to cameo roles as wives and mothers who serve little function in a film’s plot. This double standard was as much in place in Norma Desmond’s heyday as it is now, making her struggle to accept the end of her all too brief career a chillingly relatable example for today’s entertainers. In an age of botox parties, TMZ, and Youtube celebrities, the desperate need for, and seemingly endless addiction to attention, youth, and temporary pleasures that fuels Norma Desmond’s descent into deluded madness remains as startlingly relevant and ominous now as it was over sixty years ago.
2. SHE IS A TRENDSETTER: While she is portrayed in the film as a living relic of the past, Norma has proven herself to be a groundbreaking trendsetter in the decades since the film’s original release. In the years immediately following Sunset Boulevard’s debut, a plethora of films detailing the decaying influence of Hollywood were released in an effort to capitalize upon the film’s success. While these films contained differing plots and actors they all had one thing in common; leading roles that were thinly veiled recreations of Norma Desmond. Even today, Sunset Boulevard remains consistent fuel for imitation and parody with television episodes, plays, and novels continuing to exploit the notion of a past legend trapped in their own past even today.
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3. SHE IS SOMEONE WE COULD ALL LEARN FROM: Regardless of how mesmerizing her story is, Norma Desmond is a person that most of us shudder at the thought of imitating. Her warped tale of delusion and decadence can all be summarized by her tragic weakness; her inability to live in the present. Like Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, Norma convinces herself that she can repeat the successes of her past and spends her days locked away from the world in a stubborn effort to maintain this fallacy. While her efforts are exaggerated, her motives are all too familiar, as all of us are faced with moments in which we long to escape to happier moments in our pasts. When overcome, this longing fades into mere nostalgia, but when left unchecked this same yearning can color our presents as pale imitations of an exaggerated past. While Norma’s dilemma highlights the fixation upon past successes in the entertainment industry, the tendency to measure the present unfavorably against the past is a flaw that people of all ages, occupations, and lifestyles can identify with. As a result, Norma’s tragic end remains an example of what can happen when nostalgia is followed through to an illogical extent and serves as a warning that all of us could learn from against the dangers of living in the past.
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