Top 11 Scariest Performances: #11 Gloria Swanson

norma-desmond1“We didn’t talk talk talk!  We didn’t need words; we had Faces!”

So says the faded silent movie star, Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson in the 1950 film, Sunset Boulevard, directed by the acerbic Billy Wilder.  Hiding out in her old mansion for decades, it becomes pretty obvious almost as soon as the hero gets a flat tire outside the driveway, that the actress inside has gone completely batty.  Yet she still has some of her allure from the glory days, and he is drawn to her (and her money, but ultimately to her).  It is a fatal mistake– and not only for Joe, her own ex-husband (Erich von Stroheim) loved her so much he chose to live as her butler rather than leave her for good(yes, he’s cuckoo, too).

The movie opens with the young man, Joe,’s voice over the police fishing his bullet-riddled body out of Norma’s pool, and it ends as she literally descends into total madness, imagining the police and reporters to be actors and film crew, while she assures an imaginary Cecil B. deMille that she is “ready for her close-up.” (

By the way, spoilers do not exist if a movie opens at the ending.

Anyway, as the icon of tragic craziness, Gloria Swanson is superb.  Her Norma is a living Expressionist relic from the 1920s– it’s in how she looks, moves, talks, and in how she holds her face. Swanson was an actress in the silent era, and knows how to do exactly what Norma needs to, and Norma, as an experienced actress, knows how to exact sympathy, which is what makes her dangerous.  When Joe tries to leave for the first time, she cuts her wrists, and he is guilted into staying.  But at the same time, she’s not evil, and one does feel sorry for her when she does venture out to Paramount Studios to see deMille and is “given the brush,” so to speak.

And for a character who despises “talk,” Swanson gets tremendous mileage out of her dialogue: pitiable, insane, venemous, confused, tragic.  The range is frankly fantastic.

The end result is incredibly unsettling.  No one else in the movie acts even remotely like Norma, not even the other faded silent movie stars, which emphasizes her instability and isolation.  She is an icon, up on a pedestal, and while she is beautiful, it doesn’t pay to get too close.


3 thoughts on “Top 11 Scariest Performances: #11 Gloria Swanson

  1. I love Gloria’s role though it doesn’t scare me, it makes me laugh! If you actually begin to think about the background of her character, it’s a bit sad. They could have at least given Norma a role again….She wasn’t as bad as they said.


    • You’re right; she is sad. I still found her incredibly creepy, though. And watching that movie is sort of uncomfortable for me for another reason… how many real Normas did we create and abandon?


      • Maila Nurmi, for example. All she ever wanted to be was an actress and Lauren Bacall stole her job. She got famous in television….and just stayed forgotten. It was really depressing. 😦


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