The Story: "I am big! It's the pictures that got small!" That opening salvo in the Norma Desmond tirade about what's wrong with Hollywood is one of the great lines in movie history (ranked #24 in the AFI's Top 100 movie lines). Reason enough to include this scene today.
But, it's the poor creature laid out on the slab of Norma Desmond's massage table that is the most disquieting thing about this exchange. For Joe Gillis, seeing the dead monkey is a shock (as it is for the audience!), but it's a fore-shadowing of things to come. Gillis can't know at this point (although we can, given how the picture begins) is that the evolutionary ancestor he stares at, is also his predecessor in the grasp of the aging silent movie diva. Soon, Gillis will become the kept pet of Norma, and his fate will be tied to that of the ape's, becoming one more decaying remnant of her possessions on the Estate. It is a singularly dark moment in this Grand Guignol of a movie, Wilder's poison pen letter to the sordid work environment in which he made his trade, a noir moment where our anti-hero (and humbled narrator) stares both at his past and his inevitable future.
The Set-Up: Wisenheimer Hollywood script-hack Joe Gillis (William Holden) has just fallen down a Hollywood version of Alice's rabbit-hole. In an attempt to evade his creditors chasing him down Sunset Boulevard, he's pulled into the drive-way to a seemingly abandoned house and hidden his car in the garage. He's started wandering the grounds to get some tenuous bearings when he's commanded to enter the house by a gruff servant (Erich Von Stroheim) as if he was expected. He's then instructed to go upstairs with the ominous words: "If you need help with the coffin, call me."
He's about to meet the Red Queen (Gloria Swanson).
Quiet, everybody! Lights! (Are you ready, Norma?) All right! Camera! Action!
The oddity of the situation has caught Gillis' imagination. He climbs the stairs with a kind of morbid fascination. At the top he stops, undecided, then turns to the right and is stopped by:
WOMAN'S VOICE: This way!
Gillis swings around. Norma Desmond stands down the corridor next to a doorway from which emerges a flickering light. She is a little woman. There is a curious style, a great sense of high voltage about her. She is dressed in black house pyjamas and black high-heeled pumps. Around her throat there is a leopard-patterned scarf, and wound around her head a turban of the same material. Her skin is very pale, and she is wearing dark glasses. NORMA: In here.
NORMA: I put him on my massage table in front of the fire.
NORMA: He always liked fires and poking at them with a stick.
Gillis enters the SHOT and she leads him into:
A-32 NORMA DESMOND'S BEDROOM It is a huge, gloomy room hung in white brocade which has become dirty over the years and even slightly torn in a few places. There's a great, unmade gilded bed in the shape of a swan, from which the gold had begun to peel. There is a disorder of clothes and negligees and faded photographs of old-time stars about.
In an imitation baroque fireplace some logs are burning. On the massage table before it lies a small form shrouded under a Spanish shawl. At each end on a baroque pedestal stands a three-branched candelabrum, the candles lighted.
NORMA: I've made up my mind we'll bury him in the garden. Any city laws against that?
GILLIS: I wouldn't know.
NORMA: I don't care anyway.
NORMA: I want the coffin to be white.
NORMA: And I want it specially lined with satin. White, or deep pink.
She picks up the shawl to make up her mind about the color. From under the shawl flops down a dead arm. Gillis stares and recoils a little. It is like a child's arm, only black and hairy.
NORMA: Maybe red. bright flaming red. Gay. Let's make it gay.
Gillis edges closer and glances down. Under the shawl he sees the sad, bearded face of a dead chimpanzee. Norma drops back the shawl.
NORMA: How much will it be? I warn you - don't give me a fancy price just because I'm rich.
GILLIS: Lady, you've got the wrong man.
For the first time. Norma really looks at him through her dark glasses. GILLIS: I had some trouble with my car. Flat tire. I pulled into your garage...
GILLIS: ...'til I could get a spare. I thought this was an empty house.
NORMA: It is not. Get out.
GILLIS: I'm sorry, and I'm sorry you lost your friend, and I don't think red is the right color.
NORMA: Get out.
GILLIS: Sure. Wait a minute -- haven't I seen you?
NORMA: Or shall I call my servant?
GILLIS: I know your face. You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in pictures. You used to be big.
NORMA: I am big. It's the pictures that got small.
GILLIS: I knew there was something wrong with them.
NORMA: They're dead. They're finished. There was a time when this business had the eyes of the whole wide world. But that wasn't good enough. Oh, no, They wanted the ears of the world, too. So they opened their big mouths, and out came talk, talk, talk...
GILLIS: That's where the popcorn business comes in. You buy yourself a bag and plug up your ears.
NORMA: Look at them in the front offices -- the master minds! They took the idols and smashed them. The Fairbankses and the Chaplins and the Gilberts and the Valentinos. And who have they got now? Some nobodies -- a lot of pale little frogs croaking pish-posh!
GILLIS: Don't get sore at me. I'm not an executive. I'm just a writer.
NORMA: You are! Writing words, words! You've made a rope of words and strangled this business! But there is a microphone right there to catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor to photograph the red, swollen tongue!
GILLIS: Ssh! You'll wake up that monkey.
NORMA: Get out!
Gillis starts down the stairs.
GILLIS: Next time I'll bring my autograph album along,
Gillis: ...or maybe a hunk of cement and ask for your footprints.
Words, Words by Charles Brackett, D.M. Marshman, Jr. and Billy Wilder
Pictures by John F. Seitz and Billy Wilder
"Sunset Boulevard" is available on DVD from Paramount Home Video.