“All right Mr. DeMille. I’m ready for my close-up.” With that line, Gloria Swanson, in the role of fading star Norma Desmond, in Sunset Boulevard, forever earned a place in Hollywood history. It is ironic that the star famous for this line of dialogue got her start in silent pictures.
Born Gloria Josephine Mae Swanson on March 27, 1899, Swanson accidentally began a career in acting. While touring a studio in Chicago, she was noticed for her photogenic beauty and was asked to be an extra in the film “The Fable of Elvira and Farina and the Meal Ticket” (1915). Her appetite whetted by the experience, she began to pursue a career in silent films. By 1919, Swanson had landed a contract with famous director Cecil B. DeMille, who set out to transform her from an average Keystone Studio comedienne into a vibrant and provocative young star.
By the mid-1920’s, Swanson was among the highest paid actresses in Hollywood. Her success was largely due to her ability to adapt for the camera. In an age when film was still new, many actors and actresses had yet to learn the difference between performing for celluloid and performing for a live audience. Swanson’s subtle style set her apart from her contemporaries, and in 1928, earned her an Oscar® nod for her performance in “Sadie Thompson.”
Swanson was thirty when the era of silent pictures was put to rest by the new “Talkies.” While many actors found themselves out of work because of new advances in sound, Swanson again adapted to the new medium. Despite a lack of training, she possessed a clear, powerful voice that was perfect for the primitive sound technology of the time. ” I was born at the right time to fill a need for a new invention,” she once said. “If I’d come along ten years earlier or ten years later, I could have ended up selling ribbons in a five and dime or as a telephone operator.”
Despite her natural talent, Swanson began to appear in fewer film projects. After “Music in the Air” (1934), she wouldn’t be seen in motion pictures until 1941’s “Father Takes A Wife.” Swanson kept busy by pursuing her passion for men.
When it came to men, Swanson was nothing less than predatory. She was married seven times during her life with husbands ranging from producers to a French Marquis. Swanson was also known to have numerous lovers, including the Kennedy family patriarch Joseph Kennedy Sr. Asked once to sum up her attitude towards her marriages, she answered: “I’ve given my memoirs far more thought than any of my marriages. You can’t divorce a book.”
The year 1950 marked her comeback (or as Norma Desmond would have insisted, her return) to the silver screen with the classic film “Sunset Boulevard.” In a role not far from reality, Swanson captivated audiences with her portrayal of fading silent film actress Norma Desmond, a woman living on the memories of past glories. The film earned Swanson her final Oscar® nomination.
Gloria Swanson passed away on April 4th, 1983, in New York City, leaving Hollywood without one of its greatest legends. Despite her lack of projects later in her career, many agreed that Swanson never lost her stellar popularity. Or, as Norma Desmond would insist: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”