Gloria Swanson. Which actress would have dared to take such risks to completely reinvent herself and afford a rebirth of such magnitude? Any.
Silent cinema quickly became infatuated with this beauty, which fitted perfectly into the aesthetic canons of the time, and made her a superstar, having her play in countless films between 1915 and 1934.
Alas, comes this devil of talking cinema. The passage is delicate for the stars of the silent: understand me well, it is not so much a question of knowing how to speak, but rather of expressing oneself clearly and spontaneously, forgetting the overlay of the expressions made necessary by a cinema without words. A new cinematic grammar is being invented.
With the talkies, Gloria Swanson slowly fell into oblivion and did not shoot for fifteen years.
Until 1948, when Billy Wilder offered him a vitriolic script, a Hollywood fable about Hollywood: “Sunset Boulevard”. She accepts the role of Norma Desmond.
The story, which takes place in 1950, is a Hollywood nightmare: Joe Gillis, a penniless Hollywood screenwriter accidentally lands in a manor he believes abandoned, but which turns out occupied by two people: Norma Desmond, a former glory of the silent era of fifty years and her butler Max, who live reclusive in this house which is falling into ruins.
Norma Desmond, who hasn’t filmed in years and is obsessed with only one thing – her return to the big screen – asks Gillis to settle in permanently in order to take the time to correct the script that she wrote for her comeback, “Salomé”.
From a writer-proofreader, Gillis slowly slides into the role of a caged gigolo, under the sway of a vampirizing Norma who can only evoke Dracula. This woman is locked in her madness and no one dares to speak the truth. The film is masterful and obviously ends badly.
The premiere of “Sunset Boulevard” is, well, a scandal. But some actresses are not mistaken: the performance of Gloria Swanson – who manages to play this role so outraged without ever being caricature – is outstanding: Barbara Stanwyck even comes to bow before her and kiss the bottom of her dress at the end of the screening. Gloria Swanson had guts to ultimately embody herself in all of her professional decline. Greta Garbo, Mae West, Pola Negri or Mary Pickford – approached for the part, had all turned down the part because they quickly saw the huge risk coming with the role.
Guts again, to decorate the film set with her own photos reflecting her triumphant beauty from the 1920’s.
Guts again, to reinvent herself from the ashes of her very own public personality, in a dizzying game of mirrors.
The film is a resounding success. “Sunset Boulevard” allows a young audience to discover Gloria Swanson and a more mature audience to salute her incredible performance. Her play in “Sunset Boulevard” is regularly hailed as one of the greatest performances of all time, and this movie is now a classic considered “culturally significant” by the US Library of Congress.
If Gloria Swanson is still remembered, it is probably for this role. She is reborn forever from her ashes, a marvelous Phoenix with clear eyes.
The entire article is in Faust Magazine, and it’s over here.