Around 20 years ago, as a joke, on a Hollywood message board/proto-social network that no longer exists, I first adopted "Norma Desmond" as an online identity. I loved Billy Wilder and Sunset Boulevard, but at that point, I really didn't know that much about Gloria Swanson. I only knew that I admired her for even being willing to attempt the dramatic high-wire act that is Norma Desmond, much less having triumphed so resoundingly. She allowed her own life to be reflected in a fun-house mirror, allowed herself to be portrayed as unflatteringly as any middle-aged woman ever has, and if you imagine it without knowing what the result was, you can see that it could have been an utter debacle. Instead, it's one of the most complex and compelling portrayals in the history of cinema, simultaneously tragic and comic, disturbing and heartbreaking.
Since then, I've read up on Swanson herself, and only come to love and admire her more. Especially now that I'm in my 50s myself, her willingness to take on sexism and ageism in popular culture, at a time when these things were simply accepted without further reflection, seems incredibly brave. In preparing to make this post, I happened on two wonderful articles that appeared on The Hairpin a while back, and since I couldn't hope to improve on them, I'll just offer them up as Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Gloria Swanson.