Summary: "But there are conventions in love, and one is that this particular subclassification, older woman-younger man, should be desperate and romantic. Or, at least, tenderly painful." (Doris Lessing, "The Summer Before the Dark") Or: a retelling of "Sunset Boulevard" from the ever-shifting perspective of its main protagonist, including a misremembered New Year's Eve, a badly aimed revolver, and a whole lotta headcanon.
Setting: This is a retelling of "Sunset Boulevard" (mainly musical canon) from "The Greatest Star of All" through until the end. It's also an attempt to explain my various headcanons in the context of the story's actual events, and fill in a few "missing scenes" along the way. In terms of the timeline, I surmise that Joe arrives at the mansion instance around October, with the events of the ending occurring in April.
Disclaimer: Familiar characters/situations are not mine, belonging as they do to Billy Wilder. Most of the scenes here have been adapted from versions of the live show (Broadway 1995, the UK tour 2002, London 2009 and London 2016) as well as the movie, based on various different portrayals and incorporating some of my favourite interpretations.
Author's Notes: I had been intending for some time to re-write my first ever story for this fandom, "Tango Up On Sunset" (which can be found via my FFN profile). I was then lucky enough to see Glenn Close reprise the role of Norma Desmond in London on 14th April 2016, which gave me the kick I needed to get started. Today marks a year since seeing that production, and roughly 15 years since first discovering "Sunset Boulevard" at all, so for that reason I've finally plucked up the courage to share this with the world.
This is a four-part story, with updates being hopefully weekly.
I am still very fond of my original story, but it deserved a fresher outlook. This ended up being less a re-write and more a completely new story, though it does recycle some elements which I simply liked too much to throw away. At some point I also hope to re-write it's (unfinished) sequel and share a few missing scenes that didn't quite make the final cut…
For now, please enjoy.
"Once – you won't remember – if you said 'Hollywood', hers was the face you'd think of..."
Those words from Max, spoken with such reverence and respect, had stayed with him in the days since moving into the room above the garage. It was the first sign of real emotion he'd seen from the formidable older gentleman, who was clearly devoted to his mistress and honestly believed that Joe Gillis was too young to remember the great Norma Desmond from her glory days.
But Joe did remember her, just barely.
He'd seen his fair share of movies as a boy – after all, those gangster flicks he'd been so fond of during his teenage years were what prompted him to be a screenwriter. He had never been particularly interested in being in front of the camera, but the thought of seeing his name up there in the on-screen credits had spurred him to follow his instinct, back in the days when he thought ambition would be enough.
For the most part, Joe remembered the Talkies – the medium Norma so detested – but during his early childhood he had experienced a few of the old silent epics. He had been too young to really understand what was going on, but he vividly recalled how his mother had been staring enthralled at the screen, tears streaming down her face, as she gazed at the flickering images with a faraway expression.
In fact, Joe's mother had been a huge fan of the silver screen. She owned albums upon albums, crammed full of photographs, news clippings and ticket stubs, which once upon a time she had shown to him, telling him all about the movie stars and the pictures they'd made. Much of it went over his head, but it was a fond memory: curled up on the sofa by lamplight, flicking through the pages of those albums.
Her tastes changed over the years, the silent stars being replaced by newer faces – Judy Garland, Vivien Leigh, and countless others, all of them portrayed in glorious Technicolor. The old albums made way for the new, and were relegated to a disused bookcase in the attic.
Joe found them whilst trawling through the attic one summer afternoon, looking for his catcher's mitt – or rather, the albums found him, toppling off a shelf and falling open at his feet, scattering their contents from stiff pages where the glue had dried out with age. He gave them only a cursory glance before placing the album back on the shelf where it had come from, but another photograph became dislodged and fluttered to the floor.
It was an early publicity shot of Norma Desmond: pale and monochromatic and beautiful, staring longingly towards some invisible horizon. He could not help but be drawn to the photograph's subject, though he did not know who she was. Determined to find out, he flicked through the album to see where the picture had been displayed – his mother was fastidiously organised when it came to labelling the various items – but the earlier activity had jumbled everything, rendering her effectively anonymous.
Try as he might, he could not shift the image of her: at the age of eleven, he was already spellbound.
Until Max had inadvertently jogged his memory, Joe had cast that experience to some distant recess of his brain. "Once… you won't remember…" But heaven help him – he remembered.
The script was slow going – like driving his already-injured car through a tar-slick.
To begin with, it seemed an impossible task. Norma was so terrified of her vision being butchered that she seemed immune to any advice; Joe wondered, on more than one occasion, quite what she was actually paying him for if she wasn't going to allow him to edit it down. He removed page after page of silent exposition, then grudgingly put them back again, crumbling under her gaze.
Whilst he worked, she would regale him with anecdotes about her early career – reciting them as though they had happened only yesterday. During these moments, he found the work easier: he could easily distract her halfway through one of her stories, make a suggestion about whatever scene he was working on, and she would agree with a somewhat dismissive wave, eager to resume the tale. Before long, things were picking up speed.
Maybe it was the days – weeks? – of exposure to her scrawling, meandering opus, but Joe was finally starting to appreciate what Norma was trying to achieve with it. Parts of it – he hated to admit it – were almost decent; she certainly had an eye for setting the scene. That the story of Salome could have been told in ninety minutes – not the four hours she had envisaged – was a minor point to contend with.
The finish line began to approach, slowly but steadily. The multiple ribbon-bound parcels Joe had started out with had now dwindled into a much smaller and more manageable package, neatly typed and gathered into a tidy pile. Joe felt the light at the end of the tunnel growing brighter, and he tackled the remaining pages with a renewed enthusiasm.
Over time, there was a definite change to the atmosphere in the house. On Joe's arrival it had seemed a ghostly, melancholy place, shrouded in shadows and decidedly eerie. The circumstances into which he'd arrived had not helped: the undertaker turning up and that bizarre-yet-solemn funeral. With just the three of them rattling around, everywhere was deathly quiet – apart from that windy organ, of course – which meant that Joe found himself trying to fill the silence. Norma had no end of anecdotes, and was more than willing to share them; as the days passed, Joe began to ask her questions – trying to understand the past life she was still so desperately clinging to.
In truth, he had been a little star-struck at first; regardless of whether Norma was forgotten these days, she was nonetheless a once-great star of the Silver Screen, and Joe occasionally had to remind himself of that. If the lush surroundings were not enough of a clue, the sheer extent of her memorabilia collection was an occasionally-unwelcome jolt of reality. It didn't take long, however, as he was drawn closer into her world, for Joe to begin to feel more comfortable in her presence, and to see her not as some distant icon on a pedestal, but an actual person: a human being with hopes and fears, just like everyone else.
He was comfortable enough, in fact, that a discussion one evening around cutting a particularly verbose and needless scene from Salome turned into a full-scale argument. Max came rushing when he heard the raised voices, expecting to find Norma either distraught or furious – what he found instead was the two of them standing on either side of Joe's desk, their faces mere inches apart as they bickered. Neither of them was willing to back down, as they gesticulated at each other with increasing fervour, and Joe was unleashing the full range of his pent-up frustration with the script using as much sarcasm as he could muster.
In fact, the only victim of the scene was Norma's pared-down masterpiece, which got caught in the crossfire and cascaded to the floor. It was this which stopped the altercation in its tracks, both of them watching with dismay as the neatly-organised sheets scattered across the tiled floor. The fire beneath the cauldron fizzled out immediately, the two of them merely staring at each other in surprise at what had just elapsed. Then finally, the tension was dispelled, a rumble of laughter erupting from Joe as the ridiculousness of the situation dawned on him. It wasn't long before Norma was smiling, too. Max stood as still as a general, baffled beyond comprehension.
"I'm sorry," Joe managed to say eventually, "I don't know what came over me."
"So am I," admitted Norma, to his astonishment. "You were right, of course. I should know to trust your judgement by now. It's just so difficult, Joe: this is so important to me and—"
"I know. And I'm trying to be gentle with it. I promise."
With Max's assistance, they began to collect up the pages, which were by now completely muddled. Joe suggested taking them back to his room over the garage so he could reorganise them, ready for the next morning's efforts, which Norma was thankfully amenable to. With three pairs of hands, they made short work of the task. Then, both he and Norma reached for the final page simultaneously, their hands colliding and then hesitating.
Both of their gazes fixed on the point of contact, neither of them quite sure who should move away first. Max had also frozen in place, staring levelly at them, before finally straightening and placing the gathered sheets on Joe's makeshift desk. It was this movement which eventually distracted them. Their eyes met; Joe moved his hand away from Norma's; after another second or two she picked up the offending page, handed it over, announced that she was tired, and disappeared upstairs.
Joe's later task, re-reading the jumbled pages to put them back together, was ultimately prolonged by his thoughts constantly returning to their accidental touch – or more accurately, their hesitation – and Norma's sudden departure. He found himself oddly preoccupied by it, falling into a restless sleep merely one-third of the way into Salome.
The next day, the air was clearer; there was a tangible change between them. It took Joe another day or so to finally work out what that change was. Simply put, he was no longer having to remind himself of who Norma was, but rather that she was merely a person: a person who, despite himself, he was rapidly starting to consider a friend. From that point on, she accepted his advice with far less argument; and he allowed himself the luxury, on occasion, of indulging in a little amicable criticism.
Of course, it wasn't all business.
Once or twice a week, she would host their own private movie screening, right in the living room. This generally occurred without warning or ceremony: Max would cross the room, tug on the velvet rope which lifted the oil painting up into the ceiling to reveal the white screen beneath, and then wheel out the projector. On more than one occasion, Joe had been typing away only to have the lights turned out unexpectedly.
Norma had made a lot of movies in her heyday, but only four or five of them ever made an appearance in the house. The Ordeal of Joan of Arc, though quite obviously a masterpiece, was certainly not one of Joe's favourites. Nonetheless, he knew better than to argue: Max stood, stoic and silent, at the projector, but at the first sign of any potential escape by Joe, he would cross his arms in a vaguely threatening manner and shake his head. So Joe endured, for Norma's sake – helped along by a generous serving of a vintage single malt.
It was during these moments that he began to realise the extent of Norma's fragility. They could have the most productive of afternoons – Joe's editing progressing unhindered, perhaps even a shared joke or two – but as soon as the lights dimmed and the screen was flickering above them, Norma would fall into silent contemplation.
She would reach out to him, latching onto his arm or resting a hand on his knee; occasionally her head would drift slowly towards his shoulder. It made him uncomfortable, to start with. It didn't seem appropriate; no matter that they had managed to form a tentative friendship, Norma was his employer first and foremost. He did not want to encourage anything, nor did he have any desire to hurt her; it was a difficult balancing act.
Most of the time, there would be a brief pause where Norma would move away, reaching for a cigarette, and he could quietly angle himself in the other direction or get up to pour himself another drink. She would be lost in her own world, barely noticing his presence even when she sought him out, to the extent that he sometimes wondered who she thought he was – if anyone at all.
This evening's showing of Joan of Arc was proving much the same as the others; he'd seen it so often that he practically knew the title cards by heart, and instead he found his attention drawn to Norma. She seemed particularly melancholy as she watched the screen, occasionally mouthing the words to herself in silence. Then she half-turned to him, launching into a muted-yet-passionate diatribe about the Golden Era of cinema and her dream of a return. It culminated in her rising from the sofa to gesture dramatically at the screen, her figure blocking the light from the projector and casting a shadow across the image of her younger self.
At any other time, Joe would have been amused by the irony of that… but he did not feel much like laughing. Between the dimness and the flickering light, she made a striking vision, standing proud and determined against the black-and-white production. This was not Norma, his employer and unexpected acquaintance: this was Norma Desmond, famed star of yesteryear, the face that broke a million hearts. For the briefest of moments, she was lost in the illusion… and then, the façade suddenly cracked, revealing instead the very human woman beneath.
Her face reflected the barest flicker of realisation as she returned to the sofa. She did not acknowledge Joe at all, and seemed to have forgotten he was there. She said nothing else, merely fixed her gaze on the screen once more, staring up at the picture with a wistful, distant expression.
Joe experienced a pang of sadness as he watched her. He could not quite call it pity, because her plight was tangible enough that he almost felt it himself. He had grown fond of her, he realised with a sudden acknowledgement, and it was difficult to see her in such a state: lost and slightly far away. He would feel the same way for anyone in that position, especially someone he had come to think of as a friend.
He was overcome by the desire to comfort her, but she seemed so detached from reality that he didn't want to startle her. A measure of self-consciousness also prevented him from merely reaching out to wrap an arm around her shoulders. Instead, the best he could offer was to carefully untangle one of her hands from the other where they were clasped in her lap, and gently hold it in his own. He examined her face for any kind of reaction, but she remained fixated on the screen; nevertheless, when his fingers squeezed hers involuntarily, she tightened her grip on his hand.
When the next movie rolled around, and Norma customarily reached for his arm in the darkness, he did not try to move away.
He probably should have realised that it would never be as simple as just editing the script and going on his way. It had been nearly two months since he'd driven his limping car into her garage, and there was still no sign of the money he'd been promised – Norma assured him she was ferreting it away into a piggy bank somewhere, and he would receive it all once the job was finished, but in the meantime she was continuing to pay the rent on his old apartment for the duration of his stay. In real terms, he was paid in practical benefits: a roof over his head, occasionally good company, hearty meals and an endless supply of champagne.
Nevertheless, the walls of that house on Sunset were starting to close in on him. Apart from his one little excursion to Schwab's, he had barely left the place since his arrival. Max had made it quite clear that there were rules to be followed, unspoken but set in stone; Joe simply did not have the liberty to wander off whenever he felt like it. Those tiny cracks in Norma's façade were multiplying by the day; if she needed him for anything, he would have to be there.
His encounter at Schwab's had definitely been interesting. Artie's girl – Betty Schaefer, the "studio smart-ass" – was adamant that she could turn Blind Windows into something big, and her enthusiasm was contagious. Quite obviously, he did not have the freedom to write it with her, so he'd given her the story and some ground rules and sent her away again. She seemed a sweet kid – if she could make the story work, then good luck to her – but he had a feeling Norma would not appreciate him working on another script while he was still trudging through hers.
Finally, however, after seven long weeks, the editing job was completed. Joe had to admit to feeling a little proud of himself. The script was still hopeless – not a single line of dialogue to be found – but he'd managed to streamline it significantly, and the finished article gave the illusion of being a proper screenplay, at the very least.
He presented the final version for Norma in much the same manner as she had first introduced him to it: neatly bound in ribbon. He left it for her to find in pride of place on the mantelpiece, propped up between two of her old publicity shots, then went about his business for the evening: getting lost in a novel until he could slope off to bed.
When she wandered through into the living room an hour or so later, she spotted immediately that something was out of place, and headed over for a closer look.
"What's this, Joe?"
He peered up at her from behind the book. "What do you think it is?"
She reached for the bundle of papers, examining the front page with a hushed reverence as she traced one finger across the typed title. "Salome?"
"Yes," he clarified. "It's all finished."
"It's so small…"
"Don't worry. I haven't taken anything out without your knowledge. Everything's as we discussed."
He gave up on the novel as a lost cause, saving his place with a bookmark and placing it on the arm of the chair. He was starting to learn, after the weeks of working together, when Norma needed a little more time and patience than usual. He maintained a level of lightness to his tone, jovial without being sarcastic, and tried to be encouraging.
"I told you I'd be gentle with it."
"Yes… you did." She looked for a moment as though she wanted to untie the ribbon and flick through the pages, but she resisted, clearly deciding to read it in private later. Instead, she hugged the manuscript against her chest, battling valiantly against emotions which threatened to overwhelm her. "Thank you, Joe."
There were unshed tears glimmering in her eyes. Joe felt a familiar pang of sympathy and concern, strong enough to draw him out of the chair and approach her.
"Hey, now… What's wrong?"
She attempted a brave smile, for his sake. "Nothing. I'm just being silly."
"Norma, whatever it is, you can tell me."
She debated internally for several seconds, before eventually deciding to come out with it.
"All this time, I've wanted De Mille to make this picture... and now I'm one step closer to that dream. I couldn't have done it on my own, Joe… I couldn't have done it without you."
He didn't have the heart to tell her that De Mille directing her picture was a distant and unlikely ambition. He had occasionally attempted to make her see reason in that regard, but she would brush him off, still under the illusion that De Mille was idly waiting around for Norma Desmond to step out of the shadows again so they could make the greatest picture the world had ever seen. It didn't matter how far they had come in reducing her great saga into a manageable drama; there were certain things Norma was blindly, ignorantly stubborn about.
She seemed very small and fragile in that moment – clutching her precious screenplay to herself as though it were a lifeline. Joe knew that the illusion could not continue indefinitely – eventually, she would have to be made to understand that the world had moved on – but for now, his decency overruled his conscience. Norma was gazing at him with an unreadable expression, her eyes shining; that memory which Max had dredged up suddenly struck him again, the long-forgotten photograph of his childhood, and his heart constricted unexpectedly.
He reached for a handkerchief at the exact second she finally lost the battle against her emotions, her head dropping out of embarrassment as the tears she was trying so hard to hold back flowed silently down her face. She was too distracted to notice him offering the handkerchief to her, and he was momentarily at a loss as to what to do for the best. He did not want Max to stumble upon this scene and think the worst.
After a second's indecision, he reached out to touch her hand where it still held the manuscript, the contact drawing her back to him. She raised her head with a somewhat curious expression, looking with some befuddlement between Joe and the handkerchief but not making any move to take it. Before he knew what was happening, he was extending the handkerchief to gently dry her tears; it was only then that Norma regained some awareness and took it from him. She regarded him with surprise, at first, but something softened in her expression and a little alarm bell went off in his head.
What was he doing?
Joe took a step back, away from Norma, out of the spell she was slowly casting. She did not follow, and in the subsequent pause Joe took a second to clear his head.
"Well, I'll… I'll let you give it a read-through," he managed to say.
Norma nodded, but did not answer.
He made an excuse to vacate the room, heading as quickly as he could to the front door and the garage room beyond. The air felt damp and cool, foretelling the oncoming rain of the next few weeks; he took a deep breath and then exhaled slowly, listening to the singing of the crickets and the distant cars passing on the road – reminders that there was life outside the confines of Norma's shadowy mansion.
He didn't know what had come over him; the surge of protectiveness towards Norma was not unfamiliar, but it had never hit him quite so intensely as that before. Her face had been completely unreadable – or maybe he just wasn't paying enough attention – but he hoped she hadn't gotten the wrong impression from his unexpectedly tender gesture.
Joe had not expected to fall into friendship with Norma, and he suspected she hadn't either – and yet, it had grown naturally out of their somewhat unnatural living arrangements. Regardless, he could not stay on indefinitely. The script was finished and he needed to be on his way. Breaking that news would have to wait until a better day.
Feeling somewhat saner, Joe made his way towards the garage stairs; along the way, he was sure he caught a glimpse of Norma, watching him silently from an upstairs room, behind a curtain.
A few days later, the first of many changes occurred. December rolled in on the tide of a downpour, destroying the roof of Joe's garage room and resulting in him being moved, possessions and all, into the main house. If he'd anticipated it, he could have used the incident as an excuse to return to his apartment… as it transpired, events moved so quickly that he barely had time to think.
He tried to protest about the room Norma chose for him, especially when he learned its official title. It was far too grandiose, in his opinion, and there were plenty of other, smaller, less elaborate guest rooms he could have made use of, with far less terrifying connotations attached. But Max had quietly explained that Norma wanted him close to her: she was experiencing night terrors, he said, when she would call out for Joe in the darkness or even start to wander the house, searching for him.
On the proviso that he might only be resident at the house for another week or so, Joe had eventually, reluctantly agreed. At least the room was dry, with a comfortable bed and no rising damp.
Oddly, in all of Norma's anecdotes about her earlier life, she had never mentioned being married even once, let alone three times. Joe would have thought that an important detail to raise, but Norma seemed to have dismissed it entirely. Max was infuriatingly unforthcoming with any further information when questioned. Joe made a mental note to do some research at a later date, if he ever managed to get out of the place.
Soon enough, she announced that she would be sending the script to De Mille. Joe took the opportunity this news provided as a means of escape – Norma seemed in high spirits that morning, buoyed by her excitement about the script finally being where it needed to be. Surely she would be amenable to him getting back to his own life, now that his work was finished.
It turned out he had horribly misjudged the situation. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he saw the panic descend. Norma froze in place, wringing her hands in anguish, as she pleaded with him to stay a little longer. It was just the first draft, she said; she needed his support; of course he could stay on with full salary.
"Norma, it's not the money—"
He couldn't finish the sentence. Norma had lost the ability to speak and had started hyperventilating, unable to catch her breath properly, the panic taking over completely. He had no idea what to do for the best and he briefly considered running to fetch Max, before acknowledging that leaving her alone at a time like this would only make things worse.
Even as he made his next decision, he wondered if he might regret it.
Joe took a step forward, watching intently; some of the panic in Norma's expression dissipated when she noticed him approach. He reached out tentatively with one hand, resting it against her own before carefully unravelling her entwined fingers enough that he could properly grasp her hand. His other came to rest against her upper arm, and he realised she was shaking.
"I guess I can stay until we get some sort of news from Paramount."
Within a few moments, her breathing returned to normal, the terror leaving her face. She held tightly to him, not wanting to let go; the hand against her arm rubbed gently, comfortingly, until she eventually stopped trembling.
"Thank you, Joe…"
He gave a small nod, his expression thoughtful, and made to walk away. He found himself halted by Norma's grip on his hand, and paused, turning to look at her.
"Thank you," she repeated, more softly, meeting his gaze. Something flashed briefly in her eyes, too fast for him to identify before she managed to suppress it again. She regarded him silently, challenging him to comment on it… and then she released him. A second later, she swept off in the opposite direction to find Max, almost as though nothing had happened.
Joe felt the quicksand begin to pull him down.
To be continued…