Three Faces of Norma Desmond

by Randy Krinsky

Billy Wilder’s 1950 film, Sunset Boulevard, is a tale about a former silent film icon immersed in her self-image of being a star.  The film is told from the perspective of an out-of-work screenwriter, Joe Gillis (William Holden).  While on the run from debt collectors, Joe hides his car in the garage of an unkempt mansion.  The mansion is somewhat hidden off of Sunset Boulevard.  This once great manor’s exterior is messy and neglected, overgrown with weeds and a swimming pool devoid of water.  Residing inside the mansion is former silent film star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).  After the two meet, Norma coaxes Joe into editing her script for a film that would surely mean Norma’s big return to the silver screen.  Quickly Joe realizes that there is no hope for the uninspired script, but the pay and benefits are good and soon he has become her kept man, and reluctant lover; an arrangement that will eventually lead to their ultimate demise.  Gloria Swanson’s depiction of Norma is uncanny; a once great silent film star being portrayed by a once great silent film star.  Swanson is able to bring a level of verisimilitude to the role that is unparalleled.  Using all the skills she honed in the great silent era, Swanson unleashes a whole host of emotions, thoughts, and moods with the simplest of nuanced facial and eye movements.

Nowhere in Sunset Boulevard is this more evident than in a short scene near the beginning of the film, shortly after Joe has been introduced to Norma.  A particular shot contained within this scene, lasting all of seven seconds, involves a close-up of Norma.  This one short shot conveys what could be construed as three distinct faces of Norma, each one rich with emotion and attitude.  Each one delicately delivered and almost impossible to distinguish in any other than a close-up shot.  Throughout, Swanson, as Norma, is framed in center, a full-focus close-up with head and shoulders visible.  She wears a leopard-skinned colored head wrap and a black dressing gown with the same leopard-skinned colored lapels.  In the background, three-tiered candles can be seen at head level at frame left, with the base of a larger candle set at frame right.  There are large flowing light-colored drapes hanging behind her.  Just a hint of light appears to show through the draping as the illumination appears natural and subtle, with the lighting on Norma being low-key from above, giving off just the faintest shadowing along her cheek bones and chin.  Her hair is pulled up under the wrap, her eyebrows immaculately groomed with glossy black eyelashes framing those hard, steely eyes with glistening irises.  Norma’s face is powdery white and her complexion unblemished.

Literary and social theorist Roland Barthes would refer to Norma’s make-up in this shot as a “snowy thickness of a mask,” it’s soft yet hard at the same time, giving cover to everything that she has hidden within.  It could be said that this “mask” allows only the eyes and mouth left to evoke the ephemeral glimpses of emotions and feelings Norma wishes to portray.  Many facial expressions are quick and elusive, being more open to interpretation than speech.  However, if you can catch these nuanced expressions and interpret them correctly, they can reveal much about the true nature of the person from which they have been taken.  In his book, Theory of the Film, Béla Balázs fittingly stated, “it is much easier to lie in words than with the face.”

In a previous shot, Joe has commented that he recognizes her as a former celebrity and remarks that she “used to be big.”  In this close-up shot, the three distinct faces of Norma begin to be revealed.  The entirety of the shot could be broken down as follows:  Initially, Norma’s mouth is slightly open, appearing to be shocked at his words.  She squints faintly, stands tall, raises her head and turns her left shoulder ever so marginally towards the camera.  Norma then proclaims, “I am big; it’s the pictures that got small.”  Her eyes widening as she speaks, staring intently at Joe as a subtle smirk is seen upon the conclusion of her statement.  The camera straight cuts and Norma continues to berate the state of the motion picture industry and the introduction of sound into film.  However, the viewer doesn’t need to hear Norma’s subsequent monologue to know her feelings about Joe or the state of the cinema.  Everything the viewer needs to know is self-contained in that one eleven second shot.

When we use the expressions of the face to gauge temperament it is known as physiognomy.  With physiognomy, facial expressions can exist by themselves without any further details given.  Balázs shares an example of a simple face in a crowd with a close-up of this same face pulling it out from the crowd.  Now this face exists on its own, in space and time, and can be studied without worrying what else is going on with the crowd.  In this way, Balázs relates that a good close-up is lyrical.  We recognize them as feelings not as visuals, or as he clearly put it, “it is the heart, not the eye, that has perceived them.”  In this way, close-up shots reveal much about the underlying emotions hidden beneath what can be readily seen on screen.  The isolation of a close-up allows the viewer to delve into the depths of the character’s psyche.  The face articulates without words, using only the most understated of expressions without appearing unnatural or exaggerated.  The lyrical meaning is that it echoes or gives expression to the subconscious.

With the three distinct faces of Norma, each one is denoted by a quick, nuanced change in expression; each one existing on its own in the aforementioned dimension of space and time.  As the close-up shot begins, we see her first face as Norma’s jaw has dropped slightly and her lips are separated.  Even if we did not know what she has heard, the viewer can perceive that she is in awe, shocked by what was said.  Then almost immediately her eyes squint.  Her initial shock has turned to anger.  Even without saying so, her face reveals this much to the viewer.  How can Joe insinuate that she “used to be big?”

When Norma transforms to her second face, she then raises her head in defiance, standing straight and tall, turning her left shoulder towards the camera, representing the point of view of Joe.  Her lips are separating even more now.  Her eyes are now widening with the whites easily visible.  Her gaze is set firmly upon Joe; she can’t believe his insolence.  How could he have the audacity to make such a claim about her?  She holds Joe in utter contempt as she replies, “I am big…”  Her body movement signifies confidence, boldness, and an air of incredulousness at what she has heard.

The transformation continues as her third face is revealed swiftly as Norma grows angry.  Her face is upturned; her eyebrows are arched, furrowing her forehead.  She finishes her affirmation, “…it’s the pictures that got small.”  As she says this, her forehead begins to relax, her eyes grow smaller, but a slight smirk can be seen every so faintly, depicting the self-satisfaction in her statement.  The smirk almost taunts Joe with her feelings of superiority.

To further understand how physiognomy plays such a large role in this shot, the viewer must remember that both Norma, and Swanson who portrays her, were huge stars of a bygone era.  An era where there was no dialogue to convey what the character was thinking or feeling.  The great silent film stars, such as Gloria Swanson, had to rely on their body movements and more importantly their facial expressions to convey a realistic performance.  According to Richard Dyer’s 1979 book, Stars, the actor’s facial expressions, their gestures, body posture and just about any bodily movement all contributed to a great performance.  An actor’s particular range of gestures having been established throughout their career carries the same meaning in any film appearance with just as much meaning as any other element of their performance.  A Gloria Swanson stare will always be a Swanson stare no matter what role she has undertaken.  Part of an enlightened film viewer’s role is to distinguish which aspects of a performance are recurring from role to role and what they imply with regards to the iconography of the film star.  In other words, how much of the role is performance and how much is just the star just being his or herself.

Some might argue that film as a genuine art form ceased with the arrival of sound.  Spoken dialogue replaced the key language of the face, what Balázs refers to as “the spiritual dimension of facial expression.”  As Norma Desmond so succinctly put it in Sunset Boulevard, “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces.”  The range of emotions delivered by a close-up shot still conveys all that it did all those years ago.  Whether today’s actors know it or not, their subconscious can still be perceived through a good close-up. Not many can deliver such a nuanced performance as Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, however the concept of physiognomy still applies.  The inspired use of the close-up and the myriad of emotions, feelings, and thoughts portrayed in just those three faces as examined in the aforementioned shot make Norma Desmond one of the most interesting characters in early cinematic history, and helped make Sunset Boulevard one of the best films of all time.