Young struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis attempts to hide from the repossession men seeking his car when he drives into a desolate mansion in Sunset Boulevard belonging to silent movie star Norma Desmond.
On May 10, the Pierce College Film club discussed Billy Wilder’s 1950s film “Sunset Boulevard” through a Zoom meeting as the last series of the semester regarding mental health. The movie concerns Gillis (William Holden), who becomes entwined in the dysfunctional world of Desmond (Gloria Swanson).
English professor Brad Saenz said through Zoom, “You stumble upon a house and these celebrities are barricading themselves from society and making themselves believe they’re still great stars.”
Saenz said what he likes about Desmond’s character is when you probe into her, you look at her psychologically. Not only does she have a lot of reasons for behaving the way that she does, she’s also a strong character for persevering the way that she has.
“What I like about this film is that it shows what happens to women in particular when they are discarded from the industry,” Saenz said.
Film club President Travis Raser said through Zoom, “It’s so easy to read Desmond as a villain, but you look at her life and everyone in her life is lying constantly – theoretically for her own good, but she’s not given a say in anything.”
Raser said Desmond’s made to believe that she’s more popular than she is and she’s prevented from ever coming to terms with reality.
“It’s not that she’s ignoring reality – it’s that everyone else around her is actively enabling that bubble she lives in,” Raser said. “Everybody seems to be helping her in a way that benefits them.”
Film club Treasurer Kamaal Walker said he was fascinated with people’s modern obsession with celebrities.
“What happens when your entire life is based on people praising you?” Walker said. “Based on people loving you? Being a center of attention? That’s all taken away from Desmond. She had her entire life that she built up taken away from her as soon as she’s out of the limelight.”
Windrum repeated a very wise thing regarding screenwriter Gillis’ statement that there’s nothing wrong being a middle aged woman.
“This idea that you can be a normal middle aged woman – our society is so unbelievable in that respect with its ageism and sexism combined into a deadly cocktail,” Windrum said.
Film club panelist Angelica Hymel said through Zoom, “I can empathize with Desmond, I cannot sympathize with her.”
Hymel said maybe Desmond could’ve continued her career had she been okay with taking a smaller part.
“The other side of it is sad that when women get older they have to say “well, I just have to go take a smaller role now” and I think that’s very unfortunate,” said Hymel. “The movie does a fantastic job showing the situation getting worse and does one of the favorite twists in a movie where there’s no happy ending at all.”
Film club guest speaker Justine Gurse said through Zoom that the film represents a different part of the film industry, but also can be taken a step further.
“This could be any industry in business that this happens to,” Gurse said. “Higher up CEOs who run out of ideas for their companies and toss that aside or the lower working people who try to make their way up like Betty Schaefer’s character who’s an aspiring writer.”
Gurse said she was interested that they used a real life silent-film actor to play Desmond who went on to play in a talkie doing what most silent era actors and actresses couldn’t do and made that shift.
“It shows that it was possible, but not for everybody,” Gurse said.
Hymel said a lot of the time silent actors couldn’t make the transition or are not wanted anymore, but a lot of people from the silent era didn’t want to.
“They thought speaking in a film was taking away the fact that film used to be a universal language because there was no dialogue,” Hymel said.
Walker said there’s an external factor, Gloria Swanson aka Norma Desmond being some form of older silent actor outside of the film.
“It really grounds it to where it could’ve been a parody due to how dramatic everything was, but then all those external elements help ground the film and bring to the fact that’s how it exists in Hollywood,” Walker said. “It took this film to give Paramount a little punch in the face and Hollywood in general with how they treat their actors.”
Vice president of the Film club Lizi Escobar said through Zoom, “At some point there’s a saying only you can really help yourself – you have to want to have that help.”
Escobar said even though Desmond had someone like her butler and ex-husband Max Von Mayerling or Gillis telling her she needs to get help, she would still need to make that decision for herself.
“It was sad to see that she didn’t really have someone to really talk to and accept the reality she’s living, find happiness, and also contentment within that,” Escobar said. “But it’s up to her to make that decision and want to be helped.”