Norma Desmond: Priceless specter or aging ghoul?

Posted: Thursday, June 24, 2004

Step forward, young man, if you too have contemplated life as an aging spinster's towelboy - dashing and diligent amidst the smoky oak of her faded eight-bedroom mansion.

There's certainly nothing wrong with loving a ghost, unless your love, like your life, is merely vapid.

That's why Joe Gillis (William Holden), the opportunistic preying mantis wannabe from Dayton, is the true criminal in Billy Wilder's stolen-soul revelation, "Sunset Boulevard."

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) did nothing worse than play her role well. The tragedy is that no one bothered to tell her the camera stopped rolling more than two decades ago.

Getting back to Joe - the personification of Norma's dead chimpanzee - his ambitions, his ideas, the very words that come out of his mouth are schlock. They're the slick kind of jellybeans that came tumbling out of the Hit Factory, when you put in a dime and crank out three one-eyed hacks.

It's far from just to call Joe a kept man, when he's keeping himself quite cozy with a Vicuna overcoat and his best friend's girl. For once, the organ is cranking for him, and he's happy to dance, shill and return Norma's $28,000 touring car, headlights cut and secrets intact, to its place in the garage.

Feel true pity for Norma, a priceless specter, not an aging ghoul. She has been pumped and primped full of the silver screen's diabolical power to project and pulverize. Now she is nothing but a projector, a flickering light searching desperately for a screen.

Her megalomania, her delusions of entitlement, are at least accompanied by some semblance of humanity.

Joe, the self-absorbed zombie, floats by, a dry observer of his own death.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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