Norma Desmond stands at the top of an extravagant staircase. The once-rapturous commotion from the barrage of policemen and gossipers that litter the actress’s mansion has ceased, leaving only Norma in an awkward silence as prepares to descend down the steps of her home and give one final, fabulous performance.
“What is the scene?” she asks the director, just before throwing out an even more troubling (and telling) question: “Where am I?”
“This is the staircase of the palace,” answers legendary filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille.
“Oh, yes…yes,” says Norma as a manic look cements itself on a face completely removed from reality. “Down below. They’re waiting for their princess.”
People watch in both amazement and horror as DeMille shouts “Action!” and Norma descends her Hollywood steps. As she slowly treds downwards, nobody in the room is quite sure what they’re watching—all they know is they can’t stop watching it. It’s hilarious, tragic, mesmerizing all at once. This once-adored actress who ran Hollywood for years…now lives in a fantasy world and sits on the brink of destruction. She is nothing but a mere shell of the respected thespian she once was.
And then she utters that famous, final line: “All right, Mr. DeMille. I’m ready for my close-up.”
Every cinephile knows this quote—it’s one of the most famous lines to ever close out a movie. Film historians have studied over and glorified that line. Entire filmmaking and acting careers are owed to that line. Gloria Swanson got a freaking Oscar nomination for that line. It’s a line that packs a punch, that says so much about Hollywood’s cynical system for actors, that’s tragic and soaring and satiric and horrifying all at the same time. That line deserves some goddamn respect.
A lot more respect than I gave it the first time I watched Sunset Boulevard.
To be fair, at the time, I was only 18 years old—aka a big ole dumbshit. And you can’t really trust what any 18-year-old thinks. Unless you’re Greta Thunberg and the whole world agrees that you deserve the Nobel Peace Prize way more than Donald fucking Trump, then there’s nothing your 18-year-old-or-younger-self could possibly say to make me go, “Huh, I never thought about it like that.”
So don’t hate me too much when I say that that final line from Sunset Boulevard—that legendary, majestic line—washed over my 18-year-old self’s blank-eyed stare as he laid on his disgusting dorm bed sheets that he didn’t wash once (not fucking once) during his freshman year at college. That line—much like the rest of Sunset Boulevard—didn’t mean jack to the 18-year-old version of Travis “Oh, We Just Call Him Bean”…uh, Bean.
Try to cut me some slack though. Yes: I was real fuckin’ stupid. But I was also scared, unsure of myself, tepid, void of confidence, meek, questioning of my each and every movement.
And, maybe worst of all: I was passionless.
College is a great time to break out of your shell, to force yourself to find a personality in a world that will chew you up and spit you out if you don’t. What’s strange is you’re not even really thinking about any of this while it’s happening. You simply have to grow. To evolve. To push yourself to be more than some post-pubescent teen whose only real worry in life is that the high school cafeteria will run out of chocolate milk or that you won’t have enough money to add fries to your lunch or that the nacho cheese machine will run out of nacho cheese before you can get there (I’m starting to think I coped with my anxiety through food?). You have to be more than that. You have to start thinking about the impact you’ll have on the world.
So when you graduate high school and step out into the real world, it truly does become survival of the fittest. You don’t know how or in what way you’ll evolve—but you will. And looking back on those days, I realize that what I really needed in my life was something to be passionate about. That kind of passion would unlock a part of me that was always scared to come out and take on the world; that kind of passion would be my gateway to becoming a real, complicated person.
And one day, I found that passion through a movie called Magnolia.
I don’t know how many people will be able to connect with that idea. “Really? You became a better person because of a movie?” But it’s true. Paul Thomas Anderson’s ensemble epic spoke to me in a way I had never experienced. For the first time, a piece of art moved me and shook me to my very core. I had never seen storytelling and emotion like this. This movie revealed a part of the world that was both foreign and uncomfortably relatable at the same time. Magnolia mixed the common and the profound to create something extraordinary—something that, up until that point, I didn’t realize movies were capable of doing.
And that’s why I was watching Sunset Boulevard that fateful morning during my freshman year of college. Presumably I had spent the previous night pounding Keystone Lights and drinking jungle-fucking-juice. Seriously: at these college parties, there’d be tubs of this jungle juice—which was probably some combination of vodka, rum, fruit punch, and a second-string quarterback’s fresh saliva—and you would just dip your red Solo cup in that batch and drink it up like it was lemonade on a hot summer day.
Like I said: I was stupid. Which means I was in no position to fully understand the gravity of that famous final line from Gloria Swanson—and means I was certainly in no position to scoff.
I was busy looking for the next Magnolia. I was on a mission to watch each and every single movie I was supposed to watch. The legendary pictures, the revered classics, the kinds of movies that would reveal a brand new beautiful way of looking at the world. Back then, several other movies, Mulholland Drive and Jerry Maguire and Sideways, would speak to me. While others, like Citizen Kane and Vertigo and Sunset Boulevard, would not.
Maybe you can already tell, but it didn’t take long before I began to realize myself as a sort of contrarian—and, yes, that trend has persisted. If you want an example of how much of a contrarian I’ve become over the years, just know that one of my favorite films—if not my absolute favorite film—is Showgirls. These days, Showgirls speaks to me on the kind of profound level that Magnolia did all those years ago. The movie is the very definition of effort. Nomi Malone so desperately wants to make an impact on the world that she pushes herself (and those around her) to the very precipice of destruction. Thus, Showgirls becomes both a cautionary tale and a mantra. If you want to make it in this world, you’ve got to believe you can reach unreachable heights—but that doesn’t mean you should repel the people around you. Because what’s the point of rising to the top…if you’re going to be lonely at the top?
Maybe you can see some tension brewing already, because that’s practically the theme of Sunset Boulevard. Norma Desmond is the original Nomi Malone from Showgirls. Her journey feels like the unshakable backdrop of Magnolia. And do I really need to lay out the obvious correlation between Sunset Boulevard and another one of my favorite films: Mulholland Drive? A movie that’s quite literally about a woman’s disillusioned understanding of Hollywood?
So what happened all those years ago that I didn’t immediately fall for a movie like Sunset Boulevard?
Well, I think the damning evidence from Exhibit A has been well established: I was dumb. But I also don’t think I was ready for a movie like Sunset Boulevard. If film historians told me to love a movie? I would find every reason I possibly could in order to hate it.
When I say, “I wasn’t ready for Sunset Boulevard,” I don’t mean to say that I didn’t have the mental capacity to understand the complexity of that final line. There have been times where I hated a movie, then watched it again a month later and loved it. The human mind is complicated. And because it’s complicated, it’s also fickle. Which means, from moment to moment, you don’t know how your brain is going to react to a film.
So when I frame everything in that light, it’s not very surprising that I didn’t care for Sunset Boulevard. I now joke about being fat and dumb because self-deprecation has replaced food, is now my new way of combatting the inescapable anxiety that floods my everyday. But back then, none of this was very funny. I was lost and confused and, worst of all, really, really sad.
Sometimes that sadness manifested in vulnerability, which is when I would watch a movie like Magnolia. But sometimes that sadness resulted in anger and negativity and contention—which is when I would watch a movie like Sunset Boulevard.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to better fit together the pieces of my life. I used to look back on that doughy 18-year-old version of myself and cringe. But now? I feel for that kid. I mean…man. What a mess that dude was. He had spent the first quarter of his life morphing his personality from moment to moment so that he could fit into whatever clique presented an opportunity to escape the desolate, mentally-crippling landscape he had been stuck in for years. And now, removed from the inherent comfort of his childhood home and scared to make new friends, that kid was searching for a movie—a fucking movie, of all things—to fill that void he so desperately wanted to escape.
So for whatever reason in that undoubtedly trying moment while I laid in my filthy dorm room bed, I simply didn’t connect with Sunset Boulevard. But now as I watch Billy Wilder’s famous film for a second time, Sunset Boulevard clicks. And it hits hard. Because only now—15 years later when I’m able to look back at the younger version of Travis Bean with empathy and care—do I realize how important Sunset Boulevard was to my growth as a human being.
That rebellious cinephile in me still exists in some form today. I mean, I still love Showgirls to death—that, I’m confident, will never change. But I’ve also relaxed in my need for my favorite movies to define me. I’ve lost the desire to renounce these “oldhead” films I had resisted early on because I saw them as a threat to my already-fragile self.
In fact, if anything, I now feel a burning appetite to revisit those older movies. I don’t want to just consume all of the classics—I want them to become part of my being. I want to recognize all of the beauty I begrudgingly chose to ignore all those years ago. I want to discover that a movie like Sunset Boulevard owns all of the beautiful traits that I cherish in my favorite modern films, like beautifully decorated sets and unabashed dramatic flair and a distinct auterial vision.
And if you’ve seen Sunset Boulevard, then you’re probably chuckling at that last sentence. Because the movie is all of those things—and so much more.
What now truly sticks out to me about Sunset Boulevard is that it’s anything but a “classic Hollywood film.” Yes: of course it’s a classic. But not in that sterile, formulaic way in which I remembered the movie being. If anything, Sunset Boulevard thrives on flamboyance, on black comedy, on an overwhelming desire to offer something outside of the cinematic norm.
The more I read about the film, the more I realize that Billy Wilder wanted to create something that made people uncomfortable, that disrupted the everyday. You’re never quite sure whether to laugh at the absurdity of what’s going on or to take each and every situation very, very seriously. I think Sunset Boulevard frustrated me years ago because the entire film was a seeming paradox. At various moments, the film felt like either a scathing indictment of Hollywood’s sawmill system for actors or a satiric look at how stupid and ridiculous the entire system is in the first place.
And the beauty of Sunset Boulevard is…well, it’s both of those things at the same time. It is a paradox—a beautifully campy melting pot; a cavalcade of thoughts and ideas that both challenge and condemn the land of Hollywood.
And that is how I learned to appreciate this movie. Yes, Sunset Boulevard owns all of the classic staples of a big-budget Hollywood affair that I scoffed at years ago: inventive camera work, endlessly quotable lines, noir-ish dialogue, a legendary lead performance (in the form of Gloria Swanson). But Sunset Boulevard is also a wild film that plays with the formula, that goes beyond what’s expected, that very much wants to be anything but an adored classic beloved by cinephiles around the world.
And that, right there, became my connection to Sunset Boulevard. This isn’t necessarily a movie that was destined to be adored by cinephiles from around the world—it’s a movie for me. It’s a movie that would go on to influence Showgirls, and Magnolia, and Mulholland Drive, and Paprika, and Barton Fink, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I mean, these are all movies I love. For years, I’ve had a vibrant connection with Sunset Boulevard.
I just didn’t realize it.
By rejecting Wilder’s film so early on, I unknowingly sent myself down an ironic path where I would come to love all of the movies that Sunset Boulevard would go on to inspire. So now when Norma Desmond utters that final line—“Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”—I’m not thinking about how it’s a classic quote I must remember to retain my cinephile card. Instead, I’m struck by the sadness of the situation. I feel for Norma Desmond, who just wants one fucking person in this world to recognize her pain. I’m moved by how the style, how the aesthetic, how the message of the film all works together to make the ending of Sunset Boulevard a profound, overwhelming experience—and an important step in my growth as a lover of film. In order to fall in love with a film, you must first give yourself over to it.
And that’s what I hope to accomplish by writing more about the movies I watch. I’m done laying out rules for myself and how I’m supposed to watch movies and what movies I’m allowed to love. Instead, I’m going to surrender to each and every cinematic experience. By doing that, I hope to learn and grow and change with each and every movie that I watch.