Norma sets up a grueling cosmetic and dietary regime for herself in order to get “closeup ready”. The house becomes filled with cosmetologists and specialists. The focus on embodying the young and beautiful Salome character she believe she will soon be playing only adds to the obsession.
Meanwhile, Joe has taken an interest in a fellow editor, the lovely ingenuous Betty. While Norma skulks about the house, preoccupied with her rejuvenation treatments and beauty sleeps, Joe sneaks out nights to see Betty, as they work together on a script of their own. But, as if the house has eyes and ears, nothing eludes Norma. When she confronts Joe about his nightly outings, he makes up a lie.
Then one night, Joe drives the car back into the mansion’s garage, after spending another night working late and falling in love even harder with Betty, there is Norma’s butler, Max, awaiting him in the dark. He imparts a spooky truth to Joe…
Max was Norma’s first husband. A once famed director, Max is the man who discovered Norma and first put her in the pictures. Still caring deeply for Norma, even after having been dumped, Max has taken it upon himself to care for her and keep her self serving bubble intact. For years, serving under Norma as her butler, Max has catered to her every neurotic whim, even the fan-letters she so thrives on are written by him!
The whole revelation feels positively Frankensteinian. A fate Joe must seem to escape, unless he wants to fall prey to her perverse, narcissist grasp.
In light of the information that Max has just released upon him, Joe climbs the stairs to the sleeping quarters, only to hear Norma’s voice from the other side of the door, talking on the phone to Betty, slandering him. Angrily he bursts into Norma’s bedroom, snatches the telephone from her and tells Betty to come over and see the truth for herself.
By the time Betty makes it to the mansion, a mournful reality has crept into Joe’s heart: he has to let Betty go. Having succumbed to the decadent, soulless lifestyle of a kept man, performing the role of ass-kissing gigolo, complicit in the upkeep of a decrepit, conceited, childlike monster has done a number on him. We see Joe go from determined, fizzling, fresh faced puppy love to a tired, cynical old man who has realized his time with good fortune is up.
As he shows Betty around the mansion, he simultaneously reveals what his life there really has been like. Mocking himself, bragging without a hint of pride about the lifestyle, the suits, the gifted jewelry and the woman who made it all possible. He, even after she begs him to leave it al behind and start afresh with her, drives her off. Off to a better future, with a better man.
When Betty runs out of the front door, sobbing, we see Joe’s heart break. But there is no time for grieving… Because there she looms, over the bannisters, our Femme Fatale.
Decidedly, Joe mounts the staircase, moves past Norma, ignoring her, and walks into his bedroom. Norma creeps behind him, thanking him for letting Betty go. When he shits the door behind him, Norma begs to be let in. She at this point is at her most pathetic self she has ever shown. When she comes into his bedroom, she finds Joe packing his bags.
Screaming out for Max, throwing herself onto Joe’s suitcase, holding on for dear life, she offers him anything he wants. Alas, her pleading is to no avail, Joe is leaving.
The situation escalates beyond repair as Joe rattles off all the truths that nobody ever dares to tell Norma. Ruthlessly he tells about the studio wanting her car, not her or her script. About how the audience has left her twenty years ago, and, just as Max walks in, about the fan letters. “Tell her!”, he scowls at Max.
Norma, with a look of utter despair on her face and terror in her voice, shudders “that isn’t true!” and calls out “Max!” again, in great distress. Max replies calmly, in confirming manner, as if reassuring a mental patient: “Madame is the greatest star of them all.” and starts taking Joe’s bags to the car.
It is in this moment, when Max leaves the two of them behind in the bedroom that Norma turns inward. She clothes the gun she threatened suicide with earlier to her chest in a firm grip as she tells herself “I’m a star, no one leaves a star. That’s what makes one a star.”
Following those words and the severity of Norma’s insanity, we, the audience, at this point may realize that this would be a fatal choice of Joe, to walk out. But what has he got to lose? His honor? His love interest? His promising future?
And so he walks down the stairs, out the front door, onto the patio, not looking back. Norma haunts behind him, calling out his name. The third time she cries out his name she points her gun and shoots Joe once, twice, three times. He plunges face forward into the swimming pool, stone-dead.
The fatalistic nature of the Film Noir strikes again. It is as if Joe, by choosing the ignoble path has been securing his own downfall in the shape of Norma’s Salome script. Seducing Joe into her corrupt little comfortable world made up of luxury, denial and a whole lot of cash led them here. Norma Desmond, the great has-been manages to return, once more, to the public eye.
We return to that famous last scene.
Hours after Norma killed Joe, the house is crawling with detectives. Up in her bedroom, we see Norma at her vanity table. Surrounded by detectives, Norma is bombarded with questions. No words hit home, until one mentions the magic word “cameras”. A lightbulb switches on in Norma’s brain. Looking up from her handheld mirror, eyes beaming, she swoons: “cameras…”
Max walks up to her, “the cameras have arrived”, he announces. In a last act of devotion and kindness, Max manages to get Norma down the stairs on her own account. He stands in-between the cameras as we see Norma come for her beloved audience, she is ready.
© Barbara Timmers. Article Prepublication. All rights reserved.