Los Angeles, 1949. A ritzy mansion in Sunset Boulevard. From the bottom of a murky swimming pool, we see a fully clothed body floating above us. Over this scene, the voice of Joe Gillis becomes established as he tells the audience that a homicide had been reported and an old time movie star is involved.
The scene changes and we are transported back six months earlier to the busy Paramount Studios. As Joe wanders through the crowds he greets several acquaintances. Soon, however, he bumps into two men in hats and bad suits: Finance men who want the keys to his car because he?s way behind his payments. Desperate to keep his car, Joe slips away into the crowd where he meets Morino, his agent. Morino cannot help however; he is too busy with his new prodigy. Disappointed, Joe moves on to the offices of Paramount; he has an appointment with Sheldrake, a producer, to talk about a screenplay Joe has submitted. Sheldrake summons someone to bring in Joe's script. Betty Schaefer, a young staff member brings in the synopsis she has prepared, but she makes it clear she thinks Joe's screenplay is pretty awful: Suddenly she notices Joe in the room and is obviously embarrassed. Joe is annoyed and will not listen to her when she says insists really liked some of his other work; particularly a short story called "Blind Windows". Joe is still stubborn and insists that her idea to turn it into a movie is not worth the trouble. Suddenly the finance men reappear and Joe agrees to discuss the idea further if Betty will distract them while he escapes. They are only put off for a minute, however, and soon they catch up with Joe and a car chase ensues.
Turning onto Sunset Boulevard, Joe sees an empty garage and pulls into it whilst the finance men cruise on unaware. He is taken aback by the size of the garage and the huge luxurious car within. From the veranda of the great house a voice comes; "You there! Why are you so late?"
A solemn figure approaches Joe and leads him into the house, despite his objections. This is Max, the butler. He believes Joe to be the funeral director who has come to arrange a ceremony for their recently deceased chimp. Joe is left alone in the great hall of the house where, through the gloom, he makes out a veiled figure hunched over the body of the dead ape. Norma is singing a farewell lullaby to it. It soon becomes apparent that Joe has no right to be there, but as he turns to walk away, Joe calls back "Aren't you Norma Desmond? You used to be big!" Her curt reply comes: "I am big. It's the pictures that got small!". She lectures Joe on how the film industry has been ruined by the advent of talkies. Joe insists not to blame him for he is just a writer but there is no stopping Norma. She fully believes she can still be queen of the film industry. As Joe turns to leave once more, Norma calls him back: "Did you say you were a writer?". She hands Joe a think bundle of manuscripts she wrote (about the biblical character Salome) and insists that Joe reads it, despite his obvious objections. She decides Joe is the person to perfect her 'masterpiece' and that he should stay the night and start his work early tomorrow. Max leads him to the sparse guest room and there describes Norma's once glorious career.
The next day, Joe arrives at Schwab's Drugstore where he agreed to meet Betty. At the bar, he meets his friend Artie Green and learns that Betty is his bride-to-be. Joe and Betty discuss the possibility of filming Blind Windows, but Joe will not be persuaded. He tells her to write the script herself and call him if she has any problems. They bid each other goodnight and Joe drives back to the Norma's mansion. He meets Max on the patio who reveals he is greatly worried about Madame. He knows she has no hope of being a star again; her fans have deserted her leaving him to write fan mail to her so that she doesn't realize her once loyal followers have left her for the new stars of Hollywood. Joe, he says, must not leave the house to avoid upsetting Norma. In the days that follow, Joe hacks his way through the script which turns out to be a bigger task than he had thought. The only entertainment available is Norma's old silent movies, which they watch together as she relives her past triumphs. Joe is marooned in the house, and even when he completes the script he is unable to leave; his car has been towed away and he has not been paid for his work.
One morning, Norma marches into the room and instructs Max to take the script to Paramount and give it to Cecil B. DeMille in person. Joe thanks Norma for her faith in his abilities and prepares to leave since his work is through, the script is finished. Norma, however, has other plans. She pleads with Joe to stay, for "moral support". He agrees.
Joe's birthday comes and Norma arranges a special treat for Joe; tailors from the best men's shop in town. The oily manager attempts to kit out the reluctant Joe in the finest merchandise he has. Joe is left with a huge pile of boxes and packages ready for Norma's New Years Eve celebration which she insists he attends.
The party night arrives. The house looks fabulous, the drinks are ready and a String Quartet is discreetly playing. Joe enters the room, dressed in his new clothes; tails and black tie. The guests, however, are not visible. Norma struts in wearing an amazing creation, and gives Joe a present; a gold cigarette case engraved with "Mad about the boy". As the band start a tango, they move to the dance floor and the atmosphere is electric. They hold each other closely as they twirl round the tiles and Norma whispers in Joe's ear of her plans for their next year together. Joe seems contented with the notion for a few minutes, and they move to the sofa as the music ends. Joe enquires when the other guests are due to arrive and Norma answers that there are no other guests and she?s in love him. Joe objects, telling her that he?s the wrong guy for him. Norma slaps Joe and he storms out, taking a taxi to Artie's apartment where quite a crowd has gathered.
The young hopefuls are sharing their New Year's resolutions to succeed in Hollywood. Betty is still in need of Joe's help in the writing of Blind Windows, but Joe's opinion has not changed. Betty, however, is able to persuade him that hers is a good idea. Joe decides to stay with Artie until he can find somewhere to live and work on the screenplay. He rings Max and asks him to bring over his things. Max has no time for this, however, as he?s attending to Norma who cuts her wrists. Joe grabs his coat and rushes back to the house on Sunset.
He finds Norma lying on the sofa, her arms bandaged. Joe goes to leave, but then turns and faces Norma: "Happy New Year" he whispers to her. She replies and as the curtain falls, he embraces her and they kiss.
1950. Norma's swimming pool. Joe is lounging in a cane chaise-lounge, sipping a cocktail. He addresses the audience whilst smiling smugly. Norma rushes onto the terrace announcing that Paramount called. Joe is surprised. Paramount is interested in their script? But Norma says that it was just a fool assistant and no good at all. If they really want her, then Cecil B. DeMille himself must call.
He never does call, but after three days, Norma decides she is ready. She dresses up like a pharaoh and Max drives to Paramount. When Norma pulls up outside Stage 18, the director, who is currently filming "Samson and Delilah", is surprised to say the least. He avoids answering Norma's awkward questions about filming her script, instead rushing her into the film-set before she can persist any further. As she gazes around the crowded area, bustling with excitement and mystery, she is quite overwhelmed. She recalls her life as a star, and consoles herself by saying she will soon be back making a picture.
Outside the sound-stage, Joe bumps into Betty. She says that she needs his help to write Blind Windows but Joe makes excuses. Meanwhile, Sheldrake approaches Max. He recognizes him as Norma's butler, and asks why she hasn't returned his phone calls about hiring her car for use in a movie. Max suddenly realizes the implications of this and tells Joe: "It's not Madame they want; it's her car!"
Joe and Betty finally get to work on the script. He discovers that it's fun writing with a partner and they work productively. Norma is hard at work too. In the mansion, she is lying on a couch whilst a swathe of beauticians and dieticians work on her body. She is eager to get back into shape for her 'return' to show business. Joe soon returns from his script-writing session with Betty. Norma suspiciously enquires about his whereabouts.
After a few days of work, the script is finished. Joe and Betty celebrate with a trip to the water cooler. As they walk, Betty tells Joe about her childhood around the Paramount lot. Soon, the topic of Artie arises. He wants her to follow him to Tennessee to get married but she tells Joe she?s not in love with Artie anymore. It?s Joe she loves now. Joe realizes he feels the same way. They kiss.
Joe arrives back at the mansion late. Max is waiting. He warns Joe to be careful, he does not want Madame upset. He reiterates that he made her a star and he will never let her destroyed. He confesses to Joe that he was Norma?s first husband. Inside the house, Joe caught Norma on the phone talking to Betty. Norma pleads with him, but he is enraged. Outside, a storm is brewing and when Betty comes rushing across the patio from her car, she is soaked. She rings the chimes and Joe lets her in. Joe admits his relationship with Norma. Sadly, Betty leaves. Norma is pleased. However, Joe packs his things and makes to leave her. He then tells Norma that Paramount will never shoot her hopeless script; it?s only the car they wanted. Norma is shocked and enraged. She pulls the revolver from her robe as Joe turns to leave, and shoots. Joe jerks as the bullet hits him, but keeps on walking, down the steps, out the French doors and as the third shot hits him, he falls into the swimming pool. It was his dead body floating in the pool in the beginning of the play after all.
As dawn breaks, the lights come up on the hall of the house. It is filled with film crews and reporters. Norma emerges at the top of the staircase in a Salome-type costume. She descends the staircase slowly, singing fragmented lines of song. She is obviously distressed and bewildered. And as the cameras whirr, she gestures and begins an extraordinary slow dance. She fully believes she is being filmed for her movie, but suddenly breaks off: As darkness fills the stage for the finale, she mouths the infamous line "And now, Mr DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up!"
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