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The newly relevant relationship between Trump and ‘Sunset Blvd.’

As the former president’s misfortunes mount, comparisons to Norma Desmond and the movie he loves seem increasingly apt

Gloria Swanson as faded silent screen star Norma Desmond in “Sunset Blvd.” released in 1950. (Everett Collection)
8 min

“No one ever leaves a star. That’s what makes one a star.” — Norma Desmond

Former president Donald Trump adores the 1950 classic Sunset Blvd.,” the saga of a silent-screen legend eternally ready for her close-up and plotting a comeback long after her star has dulled. Trump has repeatedly praised the movie. He declared it “one of the greatest of all time” — on this, he will get little disagreement — and held screenings at the White House and Camp David. He lauded it during a 2020 speech, when he disparaged the Oscars for awarding “Parasite” Best Picture.

But as Trump mounts a third presidential run amid the lacerating Jan. 6 report recommending four criminal charges against him, multiple other investigations and lawsuits, his election-fraud-claiming endorsees losing in the midterms and a depleted inner circle, comparisons between his misfortunes and “Sunset’s” sunsetting Norma Desmond seem increasingly apt.

In a recent New York magazine story, Olivia Nuzzi draws parallels between Norma Desmond and her ardent fan at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s lavish Palm Beach club and winter redoubt: “A washed-up star locked away in a mansion from the 1920s, afraid of the world outside, afraid it will remind him that time has passed.”

(That comparison is timely for another reason. “Sunset Blvd.” — the title is officially abbreviated though it is often written out as Boulevard — includes one of the most horrifying New Year’s Eve fetes committed to film. It’s the “Halloween” of New Year’s movies.)

Norma’s baronial L.A. manor is a central character in the movie, “a big white elephant of a place” as Joe Gillis (William Holden) puts it, excessive, dated, dark and similar in style to Mar-a-Lago, whose main house is “an adaptation of the Hispano-Moresque style, long popular among the villas of the Mediterranean,” according to its website. Norma stuffs her rooms with images of herself. Trump favors a similar decorating scheme, framed photos and painted likenesses. He also views his likeness as a wise investment. This month, he began selling $99 digital trading cards featuring Barbie-like iterations of himself: Cowboy Trump, Astronaut Trump, “Top Gun” Trump.

Trump NFTs are not art. Unless you consider grifting an art form.

“The whole enterprise exudes decadence like a stale, exotic perfume,” wrote the late critic Pauline Kael of the Billy Wilder movie, listed as the 12th greatest on the American Film Institute registry. Trump, who has also cited “Citizen Kane” and “Gone With The Wind” among his favorites, did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump “could never sit still for anything,” former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham writes in her memoir, but he sat “enthralled” watching “Sunset Blvd.,” among other movies. Grisham, who had never seen the seminal classic before, was “shocked at all of the similarities” between Trump and Desmond, the latter “obsessed with her looks” and “convinced that everyone loved her and lived in a fantasy world of her own making.” Grisham notes, “I’m sure that Trump has no clue — like none — how similar to him she was.”

Nancy Olson Livingston, 94, is the movie’s last surviving lead cast member. She portrayed talented script reader Betty Schaefer, Norma’s romantic rival. “Trump is interested in Norma Desmond, the greatest star of all and how dare anyone throw her away,” says Livingston in a phone interview from Beverly Hills. “His focus is on being a celebrity, about being talked about and followed and worshiped.” In her new memoir, “A Front Row Seat,” she writes that the movies that “survive through time are those that tell a compelling truth.”

Hollywood loves movies about itself, even ones about a delusional, egotistical, murderous has-been. “Sunset Blvd.” was a commercial and critical success. It was nominated for 11 Oscars — all four leads snagged acting nods — and won three, including for the eminently quotable screenplay by Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr.

Norma blossoms before the cameras. Trump, too. He has a proclivity for wearing television pancake so he is always ready for his close-up. Before his dive into politics, Trump was a successful reality television host and racked up an impressive list of movie cameos, including “Zoolander,” “Sex and the City” and “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.” Invariably, his favorite role was as himself.

Norma has three husbands. Trump has three wives. Norma appreciates a younger, pulchritudinous partner in the dimple-chinned Joe, played by Holden, 19 years Swanson’s junior. Trump has a penchant for younger models, Melania nearly a quarter century his junior. Melania also cites “Sunset Blvd.” among her favorites, in “The Art of Her Deal: The Untold Story of Melania Trump” by The Washington Post’s Mary Jordan, along with “Gone With The Wind” and “An Affair to Remember.”

Norma puts a former family member to work. Trump’s children are among his favored lieutenants, first in real estate, then television and now politics.

Norma has a weakness for massive jewelry, and gifts Joe with gold bibelots. Trump has a taste for gilding everything from domiciles to escalators. Norma brands her 1929 Isotta Fraschini 8A with her initials. Trump also likes to leave a mark, stamping his name onto all his properties.

“Sunset Blvd.” is often viewed as a cynical take on the movie industry. Wilder perceived it as more than that. “It’s a valentine. But it is not just [about] the picture industry — it is every industry,” Wilder said in 1974 interview. “Every industry has this kind of slush that is underneath the whole thing.”

Norma is regal and resistant to all things casual. Relentlessly vain, she is in constant search of a mirror, an industrial spotlight or, preferably, both. As befitting a screen queen, Norma’s head is invariably crowned: turbans, peacock-feathered fur bands, jewel-encrusted veils. The hair is performance art, a palmier one day, a Medusa nest of towering curls the next. Trump, too, is known for his unwavering traditional style in attire as well as the architectural marvel that is his hair.

Norma believes she knows better than those who came after her. “Those idiot producers. Those imbeciles! Haven’t they got any eyes? Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I’ll show them. I’ll be up there again, so help me!” In a June column, Trump biographer Timothy L. O’Brien recalls watching the Billy Wilder movie almost 20 years ago with the real estate dealer aboard his private plane. “Is this an incredible scene or what? Just incredible,” Trump whispered to him. O’Brien writes: “Trump doesn’t want anyone questioning his star power or impeding his storylines. Like Norma Desmond, he plans to show any doubters what he’s made of. He’ll be up there in the White House again, so help him.”

Joseph McBride, author of the 2021 critical study “Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge,” says in an interview that “Trump is worried about being forgotten by the public. Norma is basically forgotten by the public.”

Norma is always serious, every utterance a pronouncement. “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small,” she boasts. “They took the idols and smashed them, the Fairbankses, the Gilberts, the Valentinos! And who’ve we got now? Some nobodies!” A natural showman, Trump is frequently funny but rarely laughs in public.

Both maintain complex relationships with the press. Norma dreams of being a boldface name again, yet gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, as herself, feasts on her misfortune, and breathlessly reports Norma’s ultimate downfall from the star’s bedroom. Trump simultaneously courts and filets the “fake news,” one of the greatest hits at his rallies.

And Norma becomes dead set, literally, on stopping Joe from returning to his previous life as a copy editor at the Dayton Evening Post. She insists on absolute loyalty, as does Trump, and turns on anyone who abandons her.

Grisham writes that Trump likes the classic film and others perhaps “because he saw the world as a movie, of which he was usually the star.” In “Sunset Blvd.,” Norma waits 20 years for a comeback. In Palm Beach, Trump hopes to wait only four.

Livingston remains mystified about Trump’s fascination with her film. “I’m surprised he likes it so much. He’s missing something in the movie, while he relates it to stardom,” she says. “Every character in ‘Sunset Blvd.’ is tragic.” Norma’s life is a lesson. “Movie stars did not have happy lives.”