not in our stars, but in ourselves
Yes, of course I followed Queen Kelly with Billy Wilder’s wickedly sardonic Sunset Boulevard (1950). From a failed attempt at the grandest epic of silent cinema to what happened to that failed attempt twenty years later, after everyone had forgotten about it/her, but she still thought every camera was rolling. Just a bit of contrapasso on my part; I hope you don’t mind, dear reader.
For those of us sitting comfortably in the 21st century, with our various devices and clouds and converged media, it can be easy to forget that, even given its relatively short history compared to other art forms, there are distinct differences in cinema from one year to the next. It may be that current consumers think of 1950 and 1929 as about equally old and uninteresting, but those two years were light years apart in terms of style, stars, culture, society, audience tastes, etc., etc…. From the years just before the Depression struck America to the years just after the planet endured World War II, there was a massive series of changes; naturally, they had an effect on the movies.
Not if you ask Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), however. She lives in a massive mansion at 10086 Sunset Blvd., hermetically sealed off from the passage of time, from the bothersome interference of reality. While trying to escape repo men who are after his car, Joe Gillis (William Holden) pulls into her driveway – thinking that the property, with its overgrown front yard and decaying garage, is abandoned. No, not abandoned: just utterly indifferent to the outside world. He compares the house to Miss Havisham, and he is entirely correct. Norma lives inside, never daring to venture out. She is attended by her butler/ex-husband and -director, Max (Erich von Stroheim), who was once considered as talented as D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, and who now writes her dozens of fan letters every week so that she thinks she’s still famous and beloved. Joe, who is desperately hard-up for money and work, agrees to help her with a script she has written for herself. It’s all downhill from there.
It is an extraordinarily dark film. At one point, Norma insists on visiting Cecil B. DeMille while he’s shooting a movie on the Paramount lot. As she hasn’t been seen out in public in years, there is quite a bit of commotion around her. She mistakes morbid curiosity for avid worship, and leans back in DeMille’s chair as a queen holding court. DeMille, for his part, shakes his head sadly and remarks to a colleague, “A dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to a human spirit.” Especially when they abandon her as soon as the talkies come in. Even now, it’s rare that Hollywood films turn that kind of scrutiny on themselves, whether in past or present tense. The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) does to a degree, but that’s really more about one person; and besides, it has a happy-ish ending. Singin’ in the Rain (also 1952) takes a decidedly sunny look at the transition from silent film to sound: the only loser is Lina Lamont, who’s a snake and gets what’s coming to her. A Star is Born (pick any year; it’s been done about a half dozen times) isn’t about the system itself – just rising and falling stars. 8 1/2 (1963) is a fairly cool appraisal of movie-making…but not in Hollywood. I’m missing plenty of great examples, no doubt, but the point is that Sunset Boulevard is very nearly the only one of its kind – the only film I can think of, off the top of my head, that dares to point out how utterly dirty and vicious Hollywood was/is.
It’s not just that Norma used to be famous and now she’s not. She used to be an idol, an icon, a goddess. Now she’s a nobody, or at the very least an anachronism. She used to live in a dream world, and she is clinging to it desperately. Joe hits the nail on the head when he says, “You don’t yell at a sleepwalker – he may fall and break his neck. That’s it: she was still sleepwalking along the giddy heights of a lost career.” And nobody cares. Nobody cares, except Max (who knew Stroheim could look pathetic? from the man you love to hate to the man who just needs a hug), and even he is an enabler rather than a help. No one has bothered to help her in the transition from divinity to mortality, and no one wants to. It’s not exactly King Lear, but it is awfully sad if you think about it. The closest equivalent to Norma Desmond we’ve seen in the real world, I think, is probably Michael Jackson: from unimaginable superstardom to being the butt of jokes, still locked in his Neverland, still a boy king in his own mind.
It used to be, in the 1920s, that the stars really were idols and gods. Distant, beautiful, silent vessels onto which adoring millions could project all their wishes and dreams. Sound changed all of that. Rather than grandiose icons, there were fast-talking boys and girls next-door. Mystique was, with very few exceptions (Norma concedes that the possible exception to her dismissal of sound-era stars as “a bunch of nobodies” is Garbo), no longer in fashion. And all those old stars who couldn’t keep up, who couldn’t talk their way back into the public’s heart, simply crashed and burned.