I went into this movie knowing that its protagonist (to which our narrator is an Ishmael-like observer) was a former movie star trapped in her glory days, but I was surprised and delighted to find it was a little more nuanced than that sentence implies. Norma Desmond is a sensualist; when she starts gifting Joe with nice suits and jewelry, it’s not because she cares so much for him specifically as it is she can’t bear the ugliness of the natty shirts and sports coats he’s been reduced to due to poverty. She surrounds herself with objects from her prime not because she cares (or even knows) about how fashionable they are, but because she loves them that much; indeed, she finds them so beautiful that she believes everyone else must find them beautiful as well. What’s especially interesting to me is that she’s specifically not trapped in memories. A memory is something you have filed away; I think of the archetype of the bitter has-been, hacking away at their current situation and seeing the present, differing images around them as a betrayal – like Bob Parr in The Incredibles, so immersed in his former glory that he can’t deal with the present or move forward in any meaningful way. Norma goes even further than that. She doesn’t stew on her memories, she forces them upon the world, as if keeping them a physical and tactile experience stops them from fading away.
She brings the same quality to emotion. It’s somewhat of a cliche, the diva that lives on the emotions of others, and Norma shows that at its purest. Again, compare her to Bob – he can draw on the feelings of his memories to push himself forward, looking at his triumphs and friendships and drawing strength and pride from them. Norma sucks up the energy of the room around her, feeding off admiration like a flower drawn to sunlight because she’s unable (or unwilling) to generate it within herself. Joe is initially drawn to her out of opportunism, seeing her as a quick buck, but he eventually comes to pity her. This is his tragic mistake, because Norma sucks up everything she can from him and has no way of building a larger support system; even Max, her former husband, simply buys her more time rather than really tries to get her help that she would probably turn down anyway. It’s easy to mistake kindness for the right thing to do; Norma is one of many people who will take kindness after kindness and kindness, fortify themselves with it, and never really return it. These people can be pitied, but it’s best to escape their orbit before they destroy you.