When Gloria Swanson starred in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ in 1950, it was heralded as one of the greatest comebacks in cinema history. 25 years earlier, as a silent movie star, she had been one of the best known women in the world, not only treated like royalty but she had created a sensation by actually marrying the Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraye, part of the Hennessy drinks family, and a member of one of the noble families of France. When Gloria and her husband returned to America after their wedding they were given ticker-tape parades through New York and Los Angeles and were treated as genuine royalty. Gloria’s career was at its peak. She was the highest paid woman in movies and she was a fashion icon for women everywhere.
But her movies had not fared well with the advent of sound in 1929, and her extravagant lifestyle, once the envy of women the world over, grated on the sensibilities of a world undergoing the indignities and deprivations of the Great Depression. At the start of the 1930’s she made four Talkies in quick succession, ‘ What a Widow!’ in 1930, ‘Indiscreet’ the following year, ‘Perfect Understanding’ in 1933, and ‘Music in the Air’ in 1934 but they all flopped. Audiences were no longer flocking to her films and as her career went into decline, Gloria went into voluntary semi-retirement. In 1941, after 7 years off screen, she appeared in another movie, the musical comedy ‘Father Takes A Wife’ which was heavily promoted as her comeback film but it did not do well at the box office and was critically panned. Gloria returned to her self-imposed movie retirement although she continued to appear on stage and also began to try the new medium of television
So, by the late 1940’s, for twenty years little had been heard of Gloria Swanson. A complete generation of cinema-goers had grown up without seeing one of her movies or knowing the impact she had once had. All that was about to be changed by one man – director Billy Wilder and his masterly film ‘Sunset Boulevard’.
Gloria plays the silent movie star, Norma Desmond, whose career is over but who lives her life dreaming of a successful comeback. She meets a young screenwriter, Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, and falls in love with him but her delusions overtake her and she loses touch with reality. Swanson’s acting is quite brilliant and some of her lines have passed into show business legend, such as “I am big; it’s the pictures that got small,” “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces,” and “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
‘Sunset Boulevard’ is ranked at number 12 in the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 films of all time and it is widely considered by many critics to be one of the best movies ever made. Gloria Swanson’s powerful performance gained her a third Best Actress Oscar nomination and it is as Norma Desmond that we remember her today, not for her previous achievements and fame. She did what Norma Desmond was not able to do. Gloria Swanson came back.