For a writer, Joe Gillis is a singularly uncurious and unobservant creature. Norma shows him her old films for months, and he never realizes Max directed many of them, starred in several, until Max spells it out to him. Even then, there is never a question about any of the films, how they were produced, what the idea was, what the obstacles were, how a particularly tricky shot was accomplished, oh no. Joe Gillis has the chance to talk to the other giants of the silent age like Keaton every week when they come to visit Norma, but does he use it, ever? He does not. Instead, he pouts about the horrible fate of being Norma's lover, and when he does ask something, it's a silly question like "but if you were her husband, how can you bear letting her treat you like that, like a servant? What kind of man are you, Max?"
Max says nothing, rather pointedly, and Joe Gillis flushes and wanders off, undoubtedly mentally composing some self loathing quips about his own situation with Norma. You'd think Joe considers himself to be the first person ever paid for providing his body and company. How he gets that idea, living in Hollywood, is beyond Max. Norma at fifteen, rising from her knees at that producer's office and showing up the next day for work full of cheer and determination, showed more maturity than Gillis does at - what age is the man anyway? He has to be at least thirty.
But he is something new, and as opposed to the chimp, the last of Norma's pets, he can at least talk back. He renews Norma's hopes, which makes Gillis not completely useless, and as opposed to the Olympic medal winning swimmer from yesteryear, he doesn't give idiotic advice on matters he cannot possibly understand. Still, Max can't see it ending well, and end it will. He wishes Gillis would hurry things up and return to wherever he came from .
Of course, it's likely that some part of Gillis realises his current form of employment is the only one he actually has talent for. Max has taken the trouble to see what few films Gillis has scripted after the man entered Norma's life. They have the occasional witty moment, but are otherwise mediocre standard. In a way, Gillis reminds him of DeMille; both capable of producing entertainment, but nothing truly daring, nothing deep or revolutionary. Gillis is a third rate hack who presumes to pass judgment on the genius actress and genius director in whose company he is privileged to exist for a few months for the way they spend their lives, and Max never can decide whether he finds this presumptous or funny.
He should have known better. He should have remembered that mediocrities can still do great damage.
Still, by the time Joe Gillis ends up as a corpse in the swimming pool, Max doesn't have the energy to resent him anymore. All the willpower he has is focused on one thing, and one thing only. "You're on the stairs of the palace, Norma," he says, calling her "Norma" again instead of "Madame", and in the middle of policemen and reporters, she hears him. It is there again in her eyes, the belief, the utter faith in everything he is and can do, and with every inch of his old authority he commands the camera men who don't know him from Adam and haven't done a real movie, as opposed to newsreels, in their lives.
"Lights! Camera! Action!"
They obey. Norma doesn't get dragged out of her own house as a criminal. She descends the stairs of a film setting. No one can direct her like he does. No one can act for him like she can. This is their life. It always has been. At long last, it has been given back to them.