Living with Norma Desmond

Gloria Swanson's greatest role is a warning to our own celebrity culture. Now, as 'Sunset Boulevard' is rereleased, the star's daughter, in her first interview, remembers her own fear of her mother's alter ego

Each night during the filming of Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson would return to the rented house on Mulholland Drive she shared with her mother, Addie and the youngest of her three children, Michelle, then 16. As the 50-year-old actress swept into the grounds, Addie would turn to her granddaughter and say, 'Oh, here comes Norma', a reference to Swanson's role as the half-insane former silent star in Billy Wilder's film. 'After each day's shooting, she carried on talking in the voice of Norma Desmond,' remembers Michelle Farmer-Amon, now 70, 'and she stayed in that personnage for the duration of work on the movie.'

It wasn't until principal photography had been completed on Sunset Boulevard - which tells the story of the tragic affair between a struggling Hollywood screenwriter, Joe Gillis (played by William Holden) and an ageing, forgotten star Norma Desmond (Swanson) - that Swanson stopped bringing her alter ego home for dinner. On the last day of filming, she drove back to her house and announced to her family that 'there were only three of us in it now, meaning that Norma Desmond had taken her leave'.

Not quite. Although Gloria Swanson appeared in nearly 70 films before Sunset Boulevard - which is being re-released in a stunning new print by the British Film Institute - she would always be remembered for her role as the faded legend. In 1951, during an Oscar-night party, movie insiders watched Swanson's face as it was announced that she had failed to win an Academy Award for best actress - the honour went to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday. She maintained that while she was not disappointed, 'people wanted me to care,' she said later. 'In fact they seemed to want more than that. They expected scenes from me, wild sarcastic tantrums. They wanted Norma Desmond.'

Michelle believes the real reason her mother did not win an Oscar had more to do with behind-the-scenes Hollywood machinations than the merits of her performance. 'Before making the film, she had left Hollywood feeling really angry with most of the studio heads and they in turn were still furious with her,' she says. ' Although I had great respect for her professionalism and willpower, I have to admit that she was not an easy person.'

On first impression, there is little to suggest that Michelle, with her greying hair swept back off her forehead, her large spectacles and her elegant, but understated style, is the daughter of the first movie star to make a million dollars. Swanson may have been famous for her elaborate turbans, her jewels, her reputed $10,000-a-year stockings bill, but there is nothing in the least flashy or vulgar about her last surviving child. Swanson wanted her daughter to be an actress, but Michelle rejected a career in front of the cameras for life as a translator and mother. 'I wasn't that interested and after the experience of Sunset Boulevard I didn't want that crazy life,' she says.

Michelle was born in England but since 1951 she has lived in France, where she met her husband, the film producer Robert Amon, who died in 1992. 'I wasn't really close to my mother, in fact I was terrified of her,' says Michelle, who lives in a cottage in Normandy. 'We had what you might call a love-hate relationship. Her idea of having lots of children was fine, but I question whether she should have confined us with a nanny and not seen us. Maybe she should have sacrificed a bit of her life to take care of us. It was, however, another era and in those days people did not kiss or cuddle their children. She would sort of kiss the air around my head.'

Michelle remembers accompanying her mother to the set of Sunset Boulevard , watching as Swanson transformed herself into the role of the former movie queen. From the beginning, the parallels between the star and Norma Desmond were only too apparent. 'It was a real comeback for her,' says Michelle. 'Before the film she was on the side of the road a little bit and had had to do summer stock to earn a living.'

Billy Wilder - who co-wrote the screenplay as well as directing the film - relished this blurring of fact and fiction. He knew that by casting an actress who had been famous before the advent of the talkies and giving her classic lines such as 'I am big. It's the pictures that got small', he would add a certain frisson to the movie-watching experience. 'She [Swanson] had already been abandoned, she was a death knell,' said Wilder. 'She had lost a lot of money on the Paramount lot [the same studio both Swanson and Desmond once worked for and the one featured in the film]. But I insisted on her.'

Even today, 20 years after Swanson's death, the resonances between the actress and her most famous character refuse to fade away. 'Norma Desmond is more famous than most famous actors,' says writer and director Cameron Crowe. Hilary Smith, programme planning manager and deputy head of the National Film Theatre, agrees. 'People still confuse the fictional role with the real actress,' she says. 'The film is incredibly potent because it is a powerful critique of Hollywood and the resonances of stardom. Watching it today it seems very modern and it still has a lot to say about the nature of celebrity.'

Gloria Swanson, born in 1899, started acting at the age of 15 but it wasn't until her mid-twenties (and 13 movies) that she realised her diva potential. 'I have gone through enough of being a nobody,' she said in 1922. 'I have decided that when I am a star I will be every inch and every moment the star! Everybody from the studio gateman to the highest executive will know it.'

Within a couple of years, while working alongside Cecil B. De Mille, she had turned her ambition into a reality. By the time she was 24, and working for Paramount, she was known by the public as the 'Queen of the Screen' and was receiving 10,000 fan letters a week. Meanwhile, the cinema bosses called Swanson the 'mortgage lifter' - all they had to do was put her name on the billing outside, they said, and the money would roll in. 'She was the Queen of Hollywood. The whole world imitated her and loved her,' says Betty Lasky, daughter of Jesse Lasky, boss of Paramount. Although Lasky was prepared to pay her $22,000 a week - over $1 million a year - in 1926 Swanson decided to join United Artists, formed in 1919 by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. Her plan was to produce her own films and release them through UA, but for this she needed money.

She turned to Joseph Kennedy, father of JFK, for help and the couple soon began a three-year love affair. She later found out that her lover was swindling her. All the gifts Kennedy had bought Swanson were purchased through the film star's company.

'My mother's relations with men were mostly disastrous,' Michelle says. 'She was married six times and she wanted to be eternally in love. Her marriage to my father, Michael Farmer, an Irish playboy, an alcoholic, lasted just over two years. Ultimately, she was looking for men to dominate her, which never really happened. Men came into her life like machos and they left like poodles sitting up for a biscuit. She was incredibly feminine in appearance, but she had a masculine mind. She had a dominating personality. She wanted to do all the jobs [on the set] - the lighting, camerawork, everything. She made sure what she said was the law.'

Two years after Michelle's birth, following the completion of Billy Wilder's 1934 film Music in the Air, Swanson retired from the screen. Although she had made the transition from silent film to talkies, her early sound pictures were not big hits. She knew she was, as she said, a 'fading star the public had worshipped long enough'.

By the mid-forties, Billy Wilder had been thinking about making a critique of Hollywood for several years. Initially the story, codenamed 'A Can of Beans' - which he worked on with writing partner and producer Charles Brackett - was a comedy about an ageing silent star who wreaks revenge on her enemies. As they progressed, the emphasis of the story changed - helped, in part, by the involvement of one of their regular bridge partners, D.M. Marshman Jr, a reporter for Time-Life. 'He suggested a relationship between the silent movie star and a young man,' recalled Brackett. 'She, living in the past, refusing to believe her days as a star are gone.'

The team completed the narrative by the end of 1948, after which they started work on the screenplay. Wilder hired Montgomery Clift to play Joe Gillis, but the search for Norma Desmond proved tricky. Mae West, Mary Pickford, Pola Negri all rejected the role. It was then that Wilder remembered Swanson. He rang to ask if she would come in for a screen-test. 'Me? Test? I was revolted,' she said later. 'Never made a test in my life... I was rude to him. I said what the hell do you have to test me for? You want to see if I'm still alive, do you? Or do you doubt that I can act?' In the end Swanson relented and auditioned. 'When she got the part she was thrilled,' says Michelle. Wilder was mesmerised by Swanson's screen presence and it was decided to rewrite the story so that Norma Desmond would be the central character. 'Remember the line [in Sunset Boulevard ], "They had faces then"?' said Wilder. 'Well, she had a face that could not be duplicated... She knew how to act with gestures, something difficult to teach.'

Two weeks before filming was due to begin Montgomery Clift pulled out and the lead male role went to William Holden, who was under contract to Paramount. 'William Holden was really struggling before this film,' says Nancy Olson, who plays Betty Schaefer in the film and is the only surviving cast member. 'His career was in crisis, he was trapped in an unhappy marriage. He was Joe Gillis.

'As for Gloria Swanson, she knew that this was an opportunity of a lifetime. She gave an extremely daring performance and walked a very fine line as she knew it could have been ridiculous. But of all the people who truly believed in the project it was her. I thought it was an incredibly daring script, like nothing I had ever seen before.'

Some found the material too radical. Although Wilder wanted to open the film with a scene in the Los Angeles County morgue in which 36 corpses talk to one another about how they died - the movie is narrated by the dead Joe Gillis - the director was forced to scrap the sequence after poor results with test audiences. After one early screening for the movie industry, in the summer of 1950, Louis B. Mayer said, 'How dare this young man, Wilder, bite the hand that feeds him?' Wilder's response was, 'I am Mr Wilder and go fuck yourself.'

Many others, however, recognised the film's stark message, its warning of the dangers inherent in modern celebrity. During the same evening when Wilder clashed with Mayer, actress Barbara Stanwyck came up to Swanson in tears, knelt down before her and kissed the hem of her dress - a silent gesture which spoke of her admiration for the bravery of her performance and the truth of the film.

'I recently saw the new print and I realised then just how much the film influenced me,' says Nancy Olson, now in her seventies. 'It made me face up to the fact that there were dangers in being an 'enlarged' celebrity. I was struck by the isolation and loneliness of being a motion-picture actress. After making a couple more films, I stopped, moved to New York and had two children. I had much more fun outside the gates of Paramount than inside.'

After Sunset Boulevard Swanson's star faded once more. Immediately after the film the only scripts she received were those featuring ageing, eccentric actresses. She knew that if she accepted such parts she would become 'some sort of creepy parody of myself, or rather, of Norma Desmond - a shadow of a shadow'. Although she did appear in a couple of cult movies such as Killer Bees and Airport 1975, she devoted the rest of her life to pursuing a range of varied pursuits including sculpture and design.

Yet offscreen, she continued to play the celluloid goddess to perfection. After her death on 4 April 1983, the New York Times called her 'the last great star'. The ghost of Norma Desmond continues to haunt her even now. As she said herself of the role: 'I had played the part too well.'

· Sunset Boulevard is released on Friday. The DVD is out on 7 April, £15.99. To order a copy with free UK p&p, call the Observer Music Service on 0870 066 7813

Gloria Swanson: official website
More on Sunset Boulevard

Andrew Wilson

The GuardianTramp

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