Sunset Boulevard

Comprehensive Storyform

The following analysis reveals a comprehensive look at the Storyform for Sunset Boulevard. Unlike most of the analysis found here—which simply lists the unique individual story appreciations—this in-depth study details the actual encoding for each structural item. This also means it has been incorporated into the Dramatica Story Expert application itself as an easily referenced contextual example.

Story Dynamics

8 of the 12 essential questions

Main Character Resolve

Joe wants to be a Hollywood screenwriter, so he accepts the expensive gifts and lavish lifestyle Norma offers him, hoping to continue his “career.”  Later, through Betty’s influence, he quits stringing Norma along and living high on her money.  He decides to give up his bid for Hollywood success.  Acting upon the little decency he has left, he packs only his old belongings, and takes off the gold watch Norma’s given him:
GILLIS:  The rest of the jewelry is in the top drawer.
NORMA:  It’s yours, Joe.  I gave it to you.
GILLIS:  And I’d take it in a second, Norma—only it’s a little too dressy for sitting behind the copy desk in Dayton, Ohio.

Main Character Growth

Joe must start to act with more integrity if he’s going to truly be a success.  He needs to start telling the truth to the finance men, to Norma about her script, to Artie and Betty about his relationship with Norma, if he hopes to set things straight in his life.  He needs to stop lying to himself about getting by on trite stories and concentrate on writing meaningful material instead.

Main Character Approach

Joe takes action to solve his problems:  When he needs money to make his car payments, he immediately hustles to raise the it; when the finance men chase him, he races up Sunset Blvd. and hides his car in Norma’s garage; when he’s offered the chance of a job, Joe grabs it, embellishing on his experience and pay rate; when Norma comes on too strong on New Year’s Eve, Joe leaves her house, hitches a ride, and finds people his own age to party with; when he discovers that Norma is harassing Betty, he takes charge of the situation, tells Betty to come see him, then tells her the truth.

Main Character Mental Sex

Joe tends to solve problems by using linear thinking:  When his car is about to be repossessed, Joe tries to sell a story to a producer, when that effort fails he asks for money from everyone he knows to make the payments; when he feels suffocated by Norma on New Year’s Eve, he leaves to find a happier party; when offered a chance to work on one of his stories that might sell, Joe sneaks out of Norma’s house to develop the idea; when he decides that he’s no good for Betty, he disgusts her into forgetting about him and marrying a better man.

Story Driver

The story is moved along by actions:  When the finance men try to repossess Joe’s car he runs from them, gets a flat tire, and hides in Norma’s driveway.  When he tells Norma that he’s a writer, she decides to hire him to rewrite her script.  Betty reads some of Joe’s work and decides there’s one story worth developing.  She begs Joe to work with her on it, and he decides to sneak out on Norma to write the story with her.  When Norma discovers that Joe is writing a script with Betty, she decides to break up the partnership.  Joe walks out on Norma, so she decides if she can’t have him, no-one else will.

Story Limit

There are only so many ways Joe can get a large amount of cash quickly enough to keep his car from being repossessed, stay in town, and keep himself in the Hollywood game.  Having tried every way she knows to achieve her comeback—and failing, Norma attempts to hold onto the man who makes her feel loved.  When this too fails, she succumbs to her ego and destroys him.  Betty does everything she can to get Joe to develop his story with her, then she tries to convince him to leave Norma and come away with her until he makes her believe that he’s a lost cause.

Story Outcome

Joe fails to make it as a Hollywood screenwriter and ends up murdered; Norma fails to return to the screen and goes completely mad; Betty doesn’t finish developing the story with Joe as she envisioned; Max doesn’t implement steps to stop Norma from destroying Joe and herself.

Story Judgment

Before Joe is murdered, he finds the strength and integrity to send Betty off to marry Artie for her own good; leaves Norma and returns the expensive clothes and jewelry with which she trapped him; decides to go back to Ohio where he can at least earn an honest living.

Overall Story Throughline

""Norma's . . . Ready For Her Closeup""

Overall Story Throughline

The objective characters have different ways of thinking:  Joe’s agent thinks his client’s desperate need for money and the chance that he’ll lose his car is a good thing:
MORINO:  Don’t you know that the finest things in the world have been written on an empty stomach?  [. . .]  Now you’ll have to sit behind that typewriter.  Now you’ll have to write.
Norma thinks that she belongs back in the limelight and can manipulate her way to her goal; Joe thinks that Norma’s strange, but he can get some quick cash from her then escape back into the “real” world; Betty believes that if she can convince Joe to co-write his story with her, she’ll launch her screenwriting career; Artie thinks that Betty and Joe should put action scenes in their picture so he can work on it as an assistant director; Max thinks that by sending Norma phony fan letters he can keep her happy and prevent more suicide attempts; Mr. DeMille thinks that by not telling Norma she’ll never do another picture with him, he’s keeping her from being hurt.

Overall Story Concern

The objective characters envision how Joe or themselves can make it in Hollywood.  Joe envisions milking Norma for five hundred a week, going back to writing his own stories, and eventually selling them to producers.  Betty wants to develop “Dark Windows” with Joe, pitch it to the producer, co-write it with Joe, and launch her writing career.  She sees the same path for Joe.  So does he for a while.  Norma envisions writing her script, getting it to DeMille, he jumping on it and directing her in a glorious comeback picture; Max envisions that by forging fan letters and mailing them to Norma, he’ll keep her happy.

Sense of Self
Overall Story Issue

The objective characters are motivated by how they see themselves.  The extreme example is, of course, Norma Desmond:  Norma perceives herself to be the greatest star of them all past, present, and future; she dedicates her life to convincing current movie producers that she’s still a star.
GILLIS:  [. . .] You used to be big.
NORMA:  I am big.  It’s the pictures that got small.
Joe sees himself as a talented writer having a dry spell.  He’s certain his luck will change if only he can scrape up some cash to get his creditors off his back so he can keep writing.  Betty knows she’ll never be a movie star, but she’s certain she can be a great scriptwriter; she pursues Joe to help her get established.  Cecil B. DeMille considers himself to be Norma’s kindly mentor even after twenty years; he lies about doing another picture with her so his dear “young fellow” won’t be hurt.

State of Being
Overall Story Counterpoint

“State of Being” is represented in the objective story by Max Von Mayerling:  He’s aware of his lowly station as Norma’s servant, whose main job is ensuring that she never finds out her career is truly over.
MAX:  [. . .] That is my job. . . You must understand I discovered her when she was eighteen.  I made her a star.  I cannot let her be destroyed. 
JOE:  And she’s turned you into a servant.
MAX:  It was I who asked to come back, humiliating as it may seem.  I could have gone on with my career, only I found everything unendurable after she divorced me.  You see, I was her first husband.

Overall Story Thematic Conflict
Sense of Self vs.State of Being

“State of Being” is given more weight in the objective story:  In his last voiceover, the conflict between “sense of self” and “state of being” is explored as Joe muses about the reality Norma will have to face after committing murder:
NORMA:  Stars are ageless, aren’t they?
JOE:  . . . What would they [ the media] do to Norma? . . . those headlines would kill her.  Forgotten star a slayer.  Aging actress, yesterday’s glamour queen.
Betty knows she’s a lowly script reader and will continue to stay one if she doesn’t promote herself with a good spec. story.  She reminds Joe of this when he rejects her idea that they work together:
BETTY:  It’s not your career—it’s mine.  I kind of hoped to get in on this deal.  I don’t want to be a reader all my life. . .
Joe knows that he has nothing to offer Betty and tells her how he’s been living.
BETTY:  Come on, Joe.
JOE:  Come on where?  Back to a one-room apartment that I can’t pay for?  Back to a story that may sell and very possibly will not?  [. . .]  Look, sweetie—be practical.  I’ve got a good thing here.  A long-term contract with no options. . .

Overall Story Problem

The character’s use of speculation causes problems:  Max deeply believes it’s possible to sustain Norma’s dream world forever, risking her loss of sanity if this dream world is shattered.  Even when Joe tells Norma the truth about her fan letters and the real reason for the call from Paramount, Max continues his speculative efforts on Norma’s behalf:
NORMA:  That isn’t true!  Max?
MAX:  Madame is the greatest star of them all. . .
NORMA:  You heard him.  I’m a star!
And being a star, Norma forbids Joe to leave her and shoots him.

Overall Story Solution

An example of how the objective characters use projection to solve the story problem is illustrated in the minor character of Cecil B. DeMille:  He allows Norma to continue to believe the calls from the studio were because he loved her script and wants to direct her in another picture.  He hopes his lie will allow Norma to live on the happy memories of her stardom indefinitely.

Overall Story Symptom

The objective characters focus on their abilities to achieve success in Hollywood.  Betty knows a good story when she reads one, and prepares notes on how to develop Joe’s story and sell it.  Using her writing talent in collaboration with Joe, she falls for him although she’s engaged to another man.  Artie’s so busy developing his talent as a director, he leaves Betty alone to fall in love with Joe.  Norma focuses exclusively on her acting talent and loses touch with reality.

Overall Story Response

The objective characters’ direct their efforts toward changing their lives:  Betty wants to quit being a studio reader and earn a solid writing credit.  Artie Green travels to Arizona as an assistant director to become a full-fledged director, and unwittingly gives Betty the chance to fall in love with Joe.  Norma, depressed by obscurity, longs to be a star again.

Overall Story Catalyst

The characters’ feelings about their environment accelerates the story:  Betty’s dissatisfied with being stuck in the readers’ department, and nags Joe into working with her on his story, which motivates him to sneak out of Norma’s house, nights.  Joe regrets being sequestered in Norma’s house as her lover, and attempts to free himself which provokes her to kill him.  Max loves Norma so much he lets her treat him like a servant, supporting her fantasy for so long that she feels justified to enslave Joe, and arrive on the Paramount lot as if she were a queen.

Overall Story Inhibitor

Betty fails to sense something wrong with Joe’s evasiveness about where he lives, his fancy clothes, and the gold cigarette case.  Max has stopped using his senses when it come to Norma.  He pretends not to hear or see anything that will embarrass or upset her.  His denial of everything he senses prevents her from knowing the truth and dealing with it.

Overall Story Benchmark

As the story progresses the characters come up with more ideas to achieve their goals:  Joe comes up with the idea to ask his friends for money to pay his car notes; Morino advances the idea that losing his car will be good for Joe, because he’ll have to write; Betty comes up with the notion to co-write Joe’s story idea so she can earn herself a writing credit; Max comes up with the idea not to tell Norma the truth about Paramount’s wanting her vintage car for a film, not her screenplay, so that she’ll be happy.

Additional Overall Story Information →
Overall Story Throughline Synopsis

Norma Desmond, at one time a famous star of silent films, lives in a luxurious Hollywood mansion on Sunset Boulevard attended to only by Max Von Mayerling, once her director now her servant.  She employs Joe Gillis, a disillusioned young writer, to work on the script with which she hopes to make a comeback, even though Cecil B. DeMille has turned it down.  Joe finds himself in servitude and a love affair, enmeshed in Norma’s fantasies of coming glory.  He tries to escape but she attempts suicide and he returns.  He sneaks out at night to write his own script with a girl he is in love with.  When he eventually tells Norma the truth about her own fantasies, she shoots him.  The shock tips the balance in her mind and she walks downstairs to be arrested, believing the cameras and crowds are to welcome her return to the screen.  (Sadoul, p. 362)

Overall Story Backstory

Hollywood is a great place if you’re a hot movie star or director.  But if your career is on the skids, or if you’re struggling to get established, Hollywood is a hard place to exist in.  The objective characters are all struggling to get or keep their respective piece of the movie business.  Norma schemes to return to the screen as the star she once was.  Joe tries to sell his story ideas so he can get studio work.  Betty’s a low-paid script reader who dreams of becoming a writer.  Artie Green struggles in his apprenticeship as a assistant director.  Producer Sheldrake searches for his next hit movie so he can keep his job and afford his fabulous home.

Main Character Throughline

Joe Gillis — Destitute Young Screenwriter

Main Character Throughline

Joe finds himself living in a one-room apartment, behind in his rent, and on the verge of losing his car.  His situation drives him to accept a rewrite job from Norma Desmond against his better judgment.  He finds himself virtually her prisoner, marooned without a car, money, or a place of his own.  He becomes her lover and kept man.  Embarrassed to confess the truth to his friends, he’s vague about how he’s living.
BETTY:  [. . .]  Where have you been keeping yourself?  I’ve got the most wonderful news for you.
GILLIS:  I haven’t been keeping myself at all.  Not lately.

Main Character Concern

Joe, recently murdered and floating in a swimming pool, wants everyone to know the chain of events leading up to his death. 
GILLIS:  Let’s go back about six months. . .  Things were tough at the moment. . .  I hadn’t worked for a studio for a long time.
Further, when he was alive, his concern was to avoid his past life as a lowly newspaper man.

Main Character Issue

Contrary to Joe’s belief, he’s not destined to become a successful script writer.  No matter how many stories he pumps out, they’ll always be inferior because of his cynical attitude.
BETTY:  I’m sorry, Mr. Gillis. . . I found it [“Bases Loaded”] flat and banal.
GILLIS:  Exactly what kind of material do you recommend?  James Joyce?  Dostoevsky?
BETTY:  I just think pictures should say a little something.
GILLIS:  Oh, you’re one of the message kids.  Just a story won’t do.  You’d have turned down “Gone with the Wind.”

Main Character Counterpoint

Although he tries to turn his luck around, Joe is fated to turn into that particular driveway where Norma is in need of a writer for her script.  He’s fated to run into Betty again at Artie’s party, only to discover that she’s his friend’s fiancee.  It’s fate that pulls him back to Norma after his first attempt to break free, sealing his doom.  It’s fate that he should land in dead in the swimming pool Norma had restored and filled especially for him.  Joe, floating in his watery grave, acknowledges that twisted bit of fate. 
GILLIS’S VOICE:  The poor dope!  He always wanted a pool.  Well, in the end, he got himself a pool. . . only the price turned out to be a little high.

Main Character Thematic Conflict
Destiny vs.Fate

Joe’s on the road to destruction and nothing he can do will prevent it.  In fact everything he does speeds him along the path to becoming another casualty of Hollywood.  His attempt to save his car causes him to turn into Norma’s driveway; accepting the job on her terms leads him into servitude and an immoral lifestyle; trying to break free from Norma by working with Betty causes him to fall in love with her; his love for Betty drives him to leave Norma which triggers his murder.

Main Character Problem

Joe’s use of speculation creates problems:  He expects to raise three hundred dollars in one day; risks associating with weird Norma to earn five hundred a week for the rewrite job; counts on selling his schoolteacher story to Sheldrake to become financially independent of Norma so he can start “keeping” himself.

Main Character Solution

Joe might have inferred that if he only wrote a couple B movies so far, and his present work isn’t any good, there’s a probability that he won’t be the hot writer he intended.  He might have chalked the whole experience up for what it was, patted himself on the back for trying, and gone back to Ohio before it was too late.

Main Character Symptom

Joe focuses on keeping Norma happy, and protecting the wholesome Artie and Betty from the truth about his unsavory lifestyle.

Main Character Response

After Betty declares her love for Joe, he directs his thoughts to himself and his future:
GILLIS:  Well, there it was, right in the palm of my hand—the future of Betty Schaefer, engaged to Artie Green, the nicest guy that ever lived.  Ready to give him up for me.  Me!  She was a fool, and I loved her and I’d been a heel not to tell her.  Maybe I could get away with it.  Away from Norma.  Maybe I could wipe the whole nasty mess right out of my life.

Main Character Unique Ability

Illustrations of how “interdiction” makes Joe uniquely able to achieve the goal are: Joe successfully postpones the seizure of his car; he manages to escape Norma long enough to achieve some good writing with Betty and see a future of dignity and financial independence.  Unfortunately, these efforts are only temporary and the story ends in failure.

Main Character Critical Flaw

Joe fails to act on the evidence that his stories aren’t selling, probably because they aren’t very good.  But he keeps pounding out the same old material, “two a week” anyway.  Then he witnesses Norma’s bizarre ritual burial of her pet monkey in the dead of night, but fails to disassociate himself from her.
GILLIS:  It was all very queer, but queerer things were yet to come. . .!

Main Character Benchmark

Joe judges his progress by how things are going in his life.  First he’s been out of work for a while and is about to lose his car; is chased by the finance men into Norma’s driveway; wants the rewrite job, but hates Norma’s hovering while he works; is frustrated when Max pressures him to lie to Norma about her career; is angry to discover Norma harassing Betty over the phone, and decides that his relationship with Norma can’t possibly work.

Additional Main Character Information →
Main Character Description

JOE GILLIS, barefooted and wearing nothing except shorts and an old bathrobe, is sitting on the bed.  In front of him, on a straight chair, is a portable typewriter. (Thomas, p. 115)

Main Character Throughline Synopsis

Joe Gillis, a scriptwriter desperate to prevent his car from being repossessed, accepts a rewrite job from Norma Desmond for some quick cash.  Unfortunately, he falls victim to Norma’s money and iron will.  He allows her to buy him expensive clothes and jewelry, and install him in her mansion.  His first effort to leave her fails when she attempts suicide.  He returns and becomes her lover, a kept man totally dependent upon her for life’s necessities.  As Norma becomes more possessive of him, Joe secretly writes his own script with Betty, a young script reader.  He hopes the script will make him financially independent of Norma, but along the way he falls in love with Betty.  Norma discovers his secret and harasses Betty.  Joe, finally fed up with Norma and disgusted with what he’s become, leaves her for good.  As he exits the house Norma shoots him, and he lands dead in her swimming pool.

Main Character Backstory

Joe Gillis moved to Hollywood from Dayton, Ohio where he earned $35 a week working at a newspaper.  He’s had some minor success in Hollywood writing B movies, but it’s been a long time since he’s sold anything.  He’s living in a tiny apartment, and he’s behind in his rent and car payments.  After Joe fails to sell a story idea to a producer, he’s forced to flee finance agents who want to repossess his car.  He ducks into the driveway of a decaying mansion belonging to Norma Desmond.

Influence Character Throughline

Norma Desmond — Forgotten Silent Film Star

Influence Character Throughline

Norma thinks that she’s the greatest movie star that ever was; that she’ll returned to the screen and prove she’s still a great star.  Not even twenty years of obscurity convinces her that she’ll never be a screen queen again.  The only movies she watches are silent ones starring her younger self.  More than anything she wants to be a star again.
NORMA:  Those idiot producers!  [. . .] Have they forgotten what a star looks like?  I’ll show them.  I’ll be up there again.  So help me!

Influence Character Concern

Norma’s memories of her stardom and the adulation that went with it, drives her obsession to resurrect her acting career.  These recollections fill her with happiness and fuel her enormous ego.  When she’s expecting Mr. DeMille himself to call, and it’s instead an assistant, she bitterly recalls their relationship.
NORMA.  How do you like that?  We’ve made twelve pictures together.  His greatest successes.
GILLIS:  Maybe DeMille is shooting.
NORMA:  I know that trick!  He wants to belittle me.  He’s trying to get my price down. . .

Influence Character Issue

Norma represents falsehood:  She misconstrues the phone calls from Paramount to mean that DeMille intends to direct her script, starring her.  However, the studio just wants to rent her vintage car.  When DeMille reinforces her false belief, Norma locks onto it with a vengeance, working herself into a frenzy as she gets ready to face the cameras at age fifty.  Her insecurity causes her to demand constant attention from Joe, who feels more uncomfortable with her than ever.  Because she’s happy even in her torment, Max supports Norma in the falsehood, and warns Joe not to upset her:
MAX:  It’s just that I’m very worried about Madame.
GILLIS:  Sure you are.  And we’re not helping her any, feeding her lies and more lies.  Getting herself ready for a picture. . .  What happens when she finds out?
MAX:  She never will.  That is my job. . .

Influence Character Counterpoint

For one moment Norma acknowledges the truth about her age and her fears.
NORMA:  [. . .] Look at me.  Look at my hands, look at my face, look under my eyes.  How can I go back to work if I’m wasting away under this torment?  You don’t know what I’ve been through these last weeks. I got myself a revolver. . .
Later, Joe tells her the truth about her visit with DeMille.
GILLIS:  He was trying to spare your feelings.  The studio wanted to rent your car.  [. . .]  DeMille didn’t have the heart to tell you.  None of us had the heart.
Norma refuses to accept the true meaning of this.

Influence Character Thematic Conflict
Falsehood vs.Truth

The issue of “falsehood” dominates Norma’s actions:  After she kills Joe, Norma’s mind snaps, locking her permanently into her fabricated world.  She’s actually surrounded by police and reporters, but at the mention of cameras, believes herself on a movie set. 
NORMA:  Will you pardon me, gentlemen.  I have to get ready for my scene.
Norma pauses at the top of the stairs:
NORMA:  What is the scene?  Where am I?
MAX:  This is the staircase of the palace.
NORMA:  Oh yes, yes.  Down below they’re waiting for the princess.  [. . .] I can’t go on with the scene.  I’m too happy.  Do you mind, Mr. DeMille, if I say a few words [. . .]  All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.

Influence Character Problem

Norma’s tendency to focus only on herself causes Joe problems:  She moves him out of his apartment without asking first because she’s lonely and wants to control his work on her script; buys him expensive clothes over his protests because she’s tired of his limited wardrobe; blinded by her happiness, she plans the next year of Joe’s life without considering he might have plans of his own.
NORMA:  [. . .] What fun we’re going to have.  I’ll fill the pool for you.  Or I’ll open my house in Malibu, and you can have the whole ocean.  Or I’ll buy a boat and we’ll sail to Hawaii.
GILLIS:  Stop it.  You aren’t going to buy me anything more.
NORMA:  Don’t be silly. . .

Influence Character Solution

Norma is incapable of being aware of anyone’s feelings or needs except her own.  If she were just a little aware of people and events outside of herself she might realize how much Max loves her and Joe does not.  She might realize that her career is over, and with her wealth and self-determination find another way to self-fulfillment.

Influence Character Symptom

Norma’s focus on “ability” causes problems for Joe:  Her vitality and flair for the dramatic overwhelms Joe.  There’s no denying she possesses an innate ability to captivate an audience.  Her talent to entertain distracts Joe from the boredom of living with her, and delays his escape.

Influence Character Response

Norma’s obsession to change from a forgotten actress to a star makes Joe’s life unbearable.  The closer Norma believes she is to getting back into pictures, the more demanding and possessive she is of Joe.
NORMA:  I need you as I never needed you.  Look at me. . . look at my face. . . How can I go back to work if I’m wasting away under this torment?  You don’t know what I’ve been through these last weeks.  I got myself a revolver.  You don’t believe me, but I did, I did!

Influence Character Unique Ability

Norma’s suspicious nature undermines Joe’s efforts to become financially independent of her and have the woman he loves.  Suspicious of Joe’s late night “drives to the beach,” Norma interrogates him as he sleeps:
NORMA:  You’re here, Joe. . . When did you come home?  Where were you?  Is it a woman”  I know it’s a woman. . . Who is she? . . .

Influence Character Critical Flaw

Once Norma foresees that her star will rise over Hollywood again, she wages an obsessive campaign to make it happen.  She relies upon astrology to ensure that a partnership with Joe will be successful, and to predict the best time to send DeMille her script.  But DeMille hates her script, and her association with Joe ends in murder and madness.

Influence Character Benchmark

As the story progresses Norma considers more ways to regain her stardom:  Knowing how popular biblical epics are, she contemplates using the epic story of Salome as a vehicle for her comeback; realizing the impact her presence makes, she arrives in the flesh at Paramount to get a commitment from DeMille to direct her picture.  In her murderous rampage, Norma contemplates her star status:
NORMA:  No one leaves a star.  That’s what makes one a star.  [. . .] Stars are ageless, aren’t they?

More Influence Character Information →
Influence Character Description

“She is a little woman.  There is a curious style, a great sense of high voltage about her.  She is dressed in black house pajamas and black high-heeled pumps.  Around her throat there is a leopard-patterned scarf, and wound about her head a turban of the same material.  Her skin is very pale, and she is wearing dark glasses.” (Thomas, p. 123)

Influence Character Throughline Synopsis

Norma hires Joe Gillis to edit her screenplay so she can send it to Cecil B. DeMille, and get back into the movies.  She falls in love with Joe and sets him up in her mansion.  When he rejects her on New Year’s Eve, she cuts her wrists.  He returns and they become lovers.  When she gets a call from Paramount Studios, she believes DeMille wants to make her picture, but they just want to rent her vintage car.  She goes to see DeMille, but he doesn’t tell her the truth.  Thinking she’s going to face the movie cameras again, Norma begins a strict beauty regime desperate to shed years from her fifty-year-old body.  She becomes more possessive of Joe, and snaps when she discovers that he’s sneaking out of her home to write a love story with a young woman.  She harasses the young woman and Joe finally leaves Norma for good.  She shoots him dead and goes totally mad.

Influence Character Backstory

Norma Desmond was discovered when she was eighteen and groomed into a great silent film star.  She made twelve pictures with Cecil B. DeMille which saved Paramount Studios.
MAX:  She was the greatest of them all.  In one week she received 17,000 fan letters.  There was a maharaja who came all the way from India to beg for one of her silk stockings.  Later he strangled himself with it.
When the sound era arrived, Norma’s career crashed.  It’s been twenty years since she’s made a picture.  She’s attempted suicide, and has been married three times.  She’s written a horrible movie script, hoping to star in it and make a glorious comeback.

Relationship Story Throughline

""What Price Hollywood?""

Relationship Story Throughline

Joe strives to make a living as a writer in Hollywood.  When Norma offers him the chance to make some money, pay his bills, and continue his efforts to sell his scripts, he accepts.  After trying to live with Norma as her lover, Joe enters into an enterprise that will earn him his independence from her.  Norma endeavors to resurrect her long dead acting career, partly by using Joe’s skills as a writer.  Having fallen in love with the younger Joe, Norma attempts to buy his affections, then fights to keep him from leaving her for another woman.

Relationship Story Concern

Joe understands Norma’s intentions when she gives him the gold cigarette case, and declares her love for him.  Norma comprehends the meaning of Joe’s protests:
GILLIS:  [. . .] I’m all wrong for you.  You want a Valentino. . .
NORMA:  What you’re trying to say is that you don’t want me to love you.  Say it!  Say it!

Relationship Story Issue

Norma conditions Joe to do what she wants by throwing temper tantrums and threatening suicide.  Paying his rent and buying him clothes helps condition Joe to be tolerant of her overbearing ways, as well.

Relationship Story Counterpoint

Even though his instincts tell him something is wrong with Norma that first night, Joe ignores this innate warning system.  He allows Norma to turn him into a replacement for her dead monkey with gifts and a lavish lifestyle; becomes an attendant who empties her ashtray and fetches cigarettes at the drug store.  When Joe finally acts upon his instincts and breaks off his relationship with Norma, it’s too late because she’s already fanatically possessive of him and can’t release him.

Relationship Story Thematic Conflict
Conditioning vs.Instinct

Instinct carries greater weight in the subjective story:  Joe belatedly acts on his instincts and attempts to gain financial independence from Norma by sneaking out at night to work on his script with Betty.  However, Norma’s instincts tell her that it’s not just a script that’s luring Joe out of her house nights.  Driven by the instinct to keep her man, Norma fights dirty with taunting phone calls to Betty, and loses Joe for good.

Relationship Story Problem

Norma’s use of speculation about her career dominates her life and entraps Joe in a nightmare that ultimately destroys him.  Joe’s affection becomes the cornerstone of Norma’s campaign to recapture her stardom.  As she begins to breakdown during her attempt to recapture her youth with quack beauty treatments, she surmises that Joe may be cheating on her.

Relationship Story Solution

If Norma was capable of rational thought she might have anticipated how a relationship with a much younger, independent-minded man like Joe would probably end up.  This may have prevented the violent breakup and saved Joe’s life.

Relationship Story Symptom

Norma focuses her efforts on keeping the relationship with Joe just as it is.  When he returns the jewelry she’s given him, Norma offers him more:
NORMA:  These are nothing.  You can have anything you want if you’ll only stay.  What is it you want—money?

Relationship Story Response

Joe demands that Norma accept a change in their relationship when he packs his belongings to leave.  Then he forces her to face up to the fact that she’s changed:
GILLIS:  There’s nothing tragic about being fifty—not unless you try to be twenty-five.

Relationship Story Catalyst

Norma interprets Joe’s nighttime prowls to mean he has another woman, and snoops until she finds Betty’s name, then makes the harassing calls.  This causes Joe to leave Norma which leads to his murder.

Relationship Story Inhibitor

Norma has made Joe financially dependent upon her and he’s unable to act on his free will—this stalls the subjective story.  Joe’s situation with Norma inhibits their conflict until the end when she’s already over the edge, and would rather kill him than be left alone.

Relationship Story Benchmark

As the subjective story progresses, Joe learns more and more about just how “big” Norma was as a silent film star; how obsessed she is to revive her stardom when she rages at the private film screening; how strong-willed and domineering she is when she interrogates him about where he goes after she’s asleep; how ruthless she is when he overhears her phone call to Betty; how crazy she is when she shoots him.

Additional Relationship Story Information →
Relationship Story Throughline Synopsis

Wealthy silent film queen Norma Desmond hires Joe Gillis to rewrite a script she hopes Cecil B. DeMille will make, starring herself.  Joe takes the job because he’s desperate for cash and is hiding from men who want to repossess his car.  Norma falls in love with Joe, and smothers him with clothes, jewelry, and her unwanted affections.  Joe rejects Norma during a lavish New Year’s Eve bash for two, leaving her alone.  She attempts suicide and he returns, becoming her lover and a kept man.  Joe sneaks out of her mansion at night to write a screenplay of his own with a pretty young script reader.  Norma discovers his secret and makes harassing phone calls to the girl.  Joe finds out and prepares to leave Norma for good, returning the clothes and trinkets.  Norma declares that “no-one leaves a star,” and shoots Joe as he leaves the house.  He lands dead in the swimming pool.

Relationship Story Backstory

Screenwriter Joe Gillis has had some minor success in Hollywood writing B film scripts, but it’s been a long time since he’s sold anything.  He’s behind in his rent and car payments and is forced to flee finance agents who want to repossess his car.  He ducks into the driveway of a decaying mansion belonging to Norma Desmond. Twenty years ago Norma Desmond was a silent film queen.  She lives secluded in her mansion with one servant, writing a horrible script she’s certain Cecil B. Mille will love and want to direct her in.  The moment Norma realizes that Joe is a writer she decides to use him to achieve an acting comeback.

Additional Story Points

Key Structural Appreciations

Overall Story Goal

The objective characters are concerned with how to realize their career objectives using Joe’s talent as a writer.  For example, Betty and Norma imagine ways to collaborate with Joe to advance their careers; agent Morino envisions Joe stuck in his room writing a great story that will earn him a commission.

Overall Story Consequence

Betty finally understands why Joe’s been lying to her and Artie about where he lives and is heartbroken; Joe finally understands just how desperate Norma was to hold onto him, as he floats face down in her pool.

Overall Story Cost

On the journey to the goal:  Norma tortures Joe with memories of her glorious past as a movie queen; Joe remembers how some of the guys back at the Ohio newspaper believed he would fail in Hollywood, and it galls him to consider returning to his old job; Betty remembers ten years of acting and dancing lessons, and her three-hundred-dollar nose job, all wasted, because she didn’t have the talent to be a movie star; While he’s waiting for Norma at Paramount studios Max, now a servant, remembers his life as a director:
MAX:  . . .  See where it says Readers’ Department?  I remember my walls were covered with black patent leather. . .

Overall Story Dividend

On the way to the goal Norma finds happiness in her past as a film star, which included dancing with Rudolph Valentino; Max takes pride in telling Joe how he discovered Norma when he was a promising director; Betty tells Joe about her years of preparation to become an actress and how her failure lead to a more fulfilling career choice as a writer—a profession in which she shows much promise; Norma is able to show off her young paramour to the “waxworks,” the friends of her past.

Overall Story Requirements

The objective characters do not use good ideas as steps to achieve their goals:  Instead of getting a steady day job to support himself until his writing career is established, Joe hawks second-rate stories, and ends up dependent upon Norma to live; Norma’s idea to relaunch her career by starring in an expensive epic doesn’t have a chance to succeed; Betty’s idea to work with Joe when she doesn’t even know how to contact him is bound to be problematic; Max’s idea to shield Norma with lies indefinitely is impossible to achieve.

Overall Story Prerequisites

Norma must learn who is willing to give her another chance at acting; Betty must learn which established writer is willing to collaborate with her to earn her first screen credit; Joe must learn what kind of stories producers want to get his career back on track.

Overall Story Preconditions

If the goal of succeeding in Hollywood is to be reached:  Joe must consider why his stories aren’t selling and stop pumping out inferior work; Norma must be sensible about being a leading lady at her age and consider character roles if she’s going to act again; Betty has to contemplate other people’s motives and the darker side of human nature, or she’ll never succeed in a tough town like Hollywood.

Overall Story Forewarnings

Joe runs away from the finance men fearing that his car will be seized; it would be like losing his legs, he says.  He does lose his car, becoming totally dependent upon Norma, and this dependence eventually kills him.  Norma’s a forgotten woman living alone with her memories.  After shooting Joe, she’s more alone than ever, her mind permanently locked in the past.

Plot Progression

Dynamic Act Appreciations

Overall Story

Overall Story Signpost 1

Joe comes up with the idea to hide his car from the finance men, then hustle the producer, his agent, and his friends for the cash to make his payments; Betty advances the notion that Joe’s “Bases Loaded” came about because he’s desperate for a job; the agent, Morino, thinks it’s a good idea if Joe loses his car, then he’ll be forced to write; Norma hatches the plan to hire Joe to rewrite her script and move him into her home so she can control him.

Overall Story Journey 1 from Conceiving to Conceptualizing

Caught in a desperate situation that many struggling screen writers find themselves in, Joe comes up with ideas to score some quick cash from Sheldrake, his agent, and his friends.  When that fails he implements a plan to inflate his pay rate, do a quick rewrite on Norma’s script, and pay off his debts.

Overall Story Signpost 2

Max envisions that by removing all the locks from every door in Norma’s mansion, she won’t attempt suicide again; he envisions that by writing fake fan letters and mailing them from post offices around Los Angeles, Norma will be so happy not to have been forgotten she won’t get depressed over her forced retirement.  Betty imagines that if she can convince Joe to let her help him develop one of his stories, she can earn herself a screen credit and launch her writing career.

Overall Story Journey 2 from Conceptualizing to Becoming

Betty Schaefer envisions that by cornering Joe at Artie’s party she’ll convince him to develop his schoolteacher story with her so she can get a writing credit.  Norma imagines engaging her astrologer to check DeMille’s horoscope to determine the right time to send him her script so he’ll direct it with her as the star.  Both Betty and Norma passionately advance plans that will transform them into successful women.

Overall Story Signpost 3

Norma goes to see Mr. DeMille at Paramount to make a deal that will transform her from a rich recluse to a glorious screen star; Betty believes she’s going to become a script writer when she convinces Joe to develop his story with her.  Later, she’s prepared to become a heartbreaker by ending her engagement to Artie and marry Joe.

Overall Story Journey 3 from Becoming to Being

Concerned about Norma breaking under the pressure of preparing for her picture, Max explains his transformation from Norma’s director and husband to her servant and keeper.  Betty’s love for Joe makes her act like a teary-eyed romantic.

Overall Story Signpost 4

Joe pretends to be a heartless gigolo so Betty will stop loving him and marry Artie; Max pretends to be a film director to lure Norma downstairs to be arrested for killing Joe; Norma acts like the silent screen star she once was when she madly glides down the staircase to the newsreel cameras.

Main Character

Main Character Signpost 1

At the start of the story, Joe’s floating in a swimming pool, dead.  However, using movie magic, he tells the audience what has happened to bring him to his sorry end.
GILLIS’S VOICE:  Let’s go back about six months. . .  Things were tough at the moment.  I hadn’t worked at a studio for a long time.  So I sat grinding out original stories. . . two a week.  Only I seemed to have lost my touch. . .  All I know is, they didn’t sell.

Main Character Journey 1 from Past to Progress

Joe’s worried because he hasn’t written for a studio in months.  He feels defeated when he fails to sell “Bases Loaded” to Sheldrake, or to raise money for his car payments.  He’s so discouraged that he considers returning to his newspaper job in Ohio.  When he pulls into the Sunset Boulevard driveway, he’s relieved to lose the finance men chasing him and get hired to rewrite Norma’s script.  But he quickly becomes dissatisfied with the job and annoyed with Norma.

Main Character Signpost 2

Things appear to pick up for Joe when he’s hired to rewrite Norma’s script, but the job turns sour.
JOE:  . . . I wanted the dough, and I wanted to get out of there as quickly as I could.  I thought if I really got going I could toss it off in a couple of weeks.  But it wasn’t so simple, getting some coherence into those wild hallucinations of hers.  And what made it even worse was that she was around all the time, hovering over me. . .

Main Character Journey 2 from Progress to Future

Joe is unhappy being Norma’s kept man; lying to his friends about where he lives and how he supports himself.

Main Character Signpost 3

Joe attempts to get his writing career back on track by working with Betty to develop his story, “Dark Windows.”  Betty has already sold producer Sheldrake on the idea, so Joe has a good chance of a future with the studio.  He sneaks out of Norma’s house to work on the project, hoping to sell the story to support himself, and become independent of her.

Main Character Journey 3 from Future to Present

Joe’s hopes for a future with Betty are destroyed when he discovers that Norma has tainted their relationship with harassing phone calls.  He purposely disgusts Betty by flaunting his present arrangement with Norma.
GILLIS:  [. . .] A very simple setup.  An older woman who is well-to-do.  A younger man who is not doing too well. . . Can you figure it out yourself?

Main Character Signpost 4

Joe’s efforts to break free of Norma fail.  He’s shot by her three times and dies in her swimming pool.

Influence Character

Influence Character Signpost 1

Norma bitterly remembers the death of silent pictures and her career:
NORMA:  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. . .

influence Character Journey 1 from Memory to Preconscious

Norma submerges herself in memories of stardom by watching her old movies over and over. 
NORMA:  Still wonderful, isn’t it?  And no dialogue.  We didn’t need dialogue.  We had faces. . .
In front of a shocked Joe she suddenly erupts with frustration and anger:
NORMA:  Those idiot producers!  [. . .]  I’ll be up there again.  So help me!

Influence Character Signpost 2

At her private New Year’s Eve party, she’s so happy dancing in Joe’s arms she blurts out her feelings:
NORMA:  I’m in love with you.  Don’t you know that?  I’ve been in love with you all along.
When Joe rejects her declaration of love, Norma impulsively reacts by slashing her wrists with his razor.

Influence Character Journey 2 from Preconscious to Subconscious

At first embarrassed that Joe should see her bandaged wrists and her tears, Norma angrily orders him to leave.  She quickly recovers from her shame when he tenderly wishes her a Happy New Year; driven by her need to be loved, she accepts him back as her lover.

Influence Character Signpost 3

In the Paramount sound stage DeMille tells Norma how expensive her picture would be to make, but she only expresses her deepest desires.
NORMA:  Oh, I don’t care about the money.  I just want to work again.  I don’t care what it takes.  Just to know you want me.

Influence Character Journey 3 from Subconscious to Conscious

Norma’s so thrilled to be back at Paramount where she once was so happy, she takes Mr. DeMille’s kindness to mean that a deal for her to do another picture is “practically set.”  Believing this, she considers how her fifty-year-old face will look before the cameras, and subjects herself to torturous beauty treatments.

Influence Character Signpost 4

Norma, mad with rage, considers that she’s too important for Joe to leave her:
NORMA:  No one leaves a star.  That’s what makes one a star.
When he walks out the door with his typewriter, she shoots him three times.

Relationship Story

Relationship Story Signpost 1

Joe understands how a job working on Norma’s script can solve his problems:
GILLIS:  I thought I’d wangled myself a pretty good deal.  I’d do a little work, my car would be safe down below, until I got some money out of her. . .
Norma realizes she has the advantage over Joe when he demands to have his belongings returned to his apartment:
NORMA:  You can’t work from an apartment where you owe three month’s rent.  [. . .]  Suppose you make up your mind.  Do you want this job or don’t you?

Relationship Story Journey 1 from Understanding to ObtainingWhen Norma realizes that Joe isn't the pet mortician, but instead a writer, she hires him to rewrite the Salome script--the vehicle for her comeback. At first Norma gains control over Joe's life and talent to achieve her career goal. Later she wants to possess him so she'll have some love in her life.
Relationship Story Signpost 2

Joe wants to maintain control over his life, while Norma is determined to own Joe body and soul.  At her private New Year’s Eve party she announces her plans for the two of them.
JOE:  Has it ever occurred that I may have a life of my own?  That there may be some girl I’m crazy about?
NORMA:  Who?  Some carhop, or a dress extra?

Relationship Story Journey 2 from Obtaining to Learning

Joe’s frustrated when Norma refuses to have her card game interrupted while at that very moment his car is towed away by the finance men.  He learns that losing his only means of transportation and independence means nothing to Norma.
NORMA:  Now what is it?  Where’s the fire?
GILLIS:  I’ve lost my car.
NORMA:  Oh. . .  and I thought it was a matter of life and death.

Relationship Story Signpost 3

Norma tries to learn where Joe goes when he leaves her house at night.  Joe attempts to learn just how controlling Norma intends to be.
NORMA:  [. . .]  You weren’t here.  Where were you?
GILLIS:  I went for a walk.
NORMA:  No you didn’t.  You took the car.
GILLIS:  All right, I drove to the beach.  Norma, you don’t want me to feel I’m locked up in this house?

Relationship Story Journey 3 from Learning to Doing

Joe’s angered to learn just how far Norma will go to possess him when he overhears her nasty anonymous phone call to Betty.  Having experienced Norma’s unscrupulous behavior and her threats, Joe leaves her for good.

Relationship Story Signpost 4

Fed up with Norma’s obsession for a comeback and her possessiveness, Joe packs up his old belongings, returns her gifts, and leaves the house.  Norma, mad with jealousy and angry at being left alone, shoots him.

Plot Progression Visualizations

Dynamic Act Schematics


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