Growing older is a tightrope walk. Some people balance themselves well — light as a feather, making it look effortless. Others need to concentrate — scared of the fall, taking careful steps, wondering why it isn’t easier. And then there’s actresses. For them aging crossing the Grand Canyon with a million spotlights in their eyes. In Sunset Boulevard an actress tries to walk backwards on the tightrope.
This week’s film surprised my friend Stefanie again. She knows how much I love film noir, and one of my favorite film directors is Billy Wilder. But I’ve never seen Sunset Boulevard. So many uber film nerds gush over it. They call it “essential”. I bristle at watching anything “essential”. I prefer discovering films on my own. I admit it’s not the best policy.
Like Citizen Kane last week, I knew the general plot of the film: down on his luck screenwriter meets faded movie star, he’s dead from the beginning and we see the story of how he died in his flashbacks. A few minutes in, I realized that this film had more than I thought it did. It had my attention.
There’s a reason Wilder is considered an elite director and screenwriter. To me, it’s his attention to detail. When we first see the main character, Joe Gillis played by William Holden, he’s dead in a pool. When we first see him alive he’s living in a cramped Hollywood studio apartment clunking at a typewriter. The photographers around the pool take a picture then pop out their flashbulbs, toss them over their shoulders, put a new one in, and take another photo. In the apartment, Holden has a pencil in his mouth; when the people at his front door force him to answer it, he throws the pencil at the typewriter. These are just little things. Without them the scenes would still work, but with them there’s a believability which other Hollywood films of the time weren’t yet including.
Gloria Swanson, though… All I want to do is use cliches to praise her. She was a revelation! Her performance knocked me off my feet! She’s the cat’s meow!
Honestly, I didn’t expect Swanson to be a good actress. I figured Wilder pulled a stunt casting by using a silent film star. I enjoy silent film, but it wasn’t always the best way to show acting talent. Actors had to exaggerate body movement to tell stories, while facial expressions usually veered between mugging for a laugh and arms-over-eyes melodrama. When sound came in, the ability to hear dialogue meant actors could create subtler performances. Pantomime doesn’t do subtlety.
But Swanson is excellent because she knows the pantomime of silent film. She uses it to create Norma Desmond, an actress whose life is overcome by the pantomime. Every gesture Norma makes is made as if she were still in front of the camera, whether it’s showing Joe a dead chimpanzee or smoking a cigarette. Norma was young when she became a film star and seems to of had a long career before “words” displaced her. Hollywood turned her into a fragile egomaniac; to function after fame, Norma’s psyche insisted on continuing the illusion of stardom.
What is it about Hollywood that hurts actresses so much more than actors? Why is the tightrope so difficult for women than men? Because the source of Norma’s delusion isn’t just her thinking she’s still famous, it’s that she still thinks of herself as the ingenue. Joe comes into her life by accident, but it’s his good looks and writing credits that traps him in her mansion. Norma has written a film for which she’ll be the star; Joe is roped into becoming her editor. The part she’s written for herself, though, is Salome. Salome is the young princess who tries to seduce John the Baptist. Norma is fifty years old.
While Norma’s obsession with looking young for the part — and for Joe — isn’t unique for an actress, it’s sad all the same. Especially since Swanson is an attractive older woman. If she were fifty years old today, she would be considered a sex symbol on par with Helen Mirren. It’s heartbreaking to watch Joe cringe at her beauty and mock her for using makeup. Yes, he’s trapped by her manipulations, but his cruelty feels just as wrong.
There’s one aspect of the story, however, that I don’t think Wilder and his co-writers expected to become more important over time: the abusive relationship between Norma and Joe. Once Norma takes a liking to Joe she imprisons him in her home. She promises him money for his ghostwriting services; the salary never becomes finalized or paid. She offers the room above her garage for one night then has his belongings moved there without his knowledge or approval. She promises to pay off the debt on his car; it’s repossessed while still in her garage. Most damning — the worst abuse — is the way she manipulates him into staying. Joe finally tells her that he wants to leave; she attempts suicide. He comes back; her next pet chimp.
The depressing part of their relationship isn’t what’s shown onscreen, it’s when you think about context. A 1950 audience would look at them and see everything wrong with it: an older woman with a younger man; her control over him seen as a possessiveness only women show. The 50s equivalent of “bitches be crazy”. For a 21st century audience, it’s recognizable as the behavior seen in both female and male abusers. They use emotions to manipulate their victims into doing what they want. They threaten violence on themselves instead of their victim because the beatings they give are done with words and tears. It’s despicable and Norma is the perfect example of an emotional abuser.
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I’m going to end here, even though there are so many other things about this film that I find notable. This is a blog post, not a book, and it would be too long if I wrote about everything I enjoyed.
If you’re like me, and you haven’t seen Sunset Boulevard, then you should. Don’t be stubborn.