April 11, 2007

Sunset Boulevard: Love, Power and Eternal Youth

Sunset Boulevard is one of the most harrowing of the great Hollywood films of the 1940s. It chronicles the life and death of a young man who is ensnared within the hold of an older woman- a young man who effectively by the end of the film admits that he is a prostitute, sleeping for hire with his mistress in order to maintain his standard of living. The man, Joe Gillies, is tempted into this web, a web which invites him with luxury but revolts him at the same time. From the moment he enters the older woman's house (she is a faded Hollywood screen siren- Norma Desmond) he perceives everywhere a latent sweetness, a sickly sugary taste whether it is the champagne she serves him, the melodramatic script he is being invited to consult on or even the decor that he observes, he feels like he is entering a world of sticky overindulgence- a world of sweetness and cloying honeycoated reality.

Sunset Boulevard really focuses not upon this young man- who narrates the story and his own downfall but upon his mistress- the Hollywood starlet, now faded, Norma Desmond. Desmond (played excellently by Gloria Swanson) is literally over ripe. She dresses in clothes appropriate for a woman half her age, beleives in her own never ending attractiveness, behaves like a child with temper tantrums and like a young woman who senses her power over men. The problem is that Norma's attractiveness has faded, her tantrums prompt nothing in young Joe and her power has evaporated. She is dressed and dresses her house in monuments to a never ending youth- tributes from men she has loved, old pictures and old film reels of her at the cinema, all the parephenalia of success- but all these monuments are but lies, she thinks she can create youth but she can't, all she creates is a picture of a formidable and yet frightening tragedy.

Norma's early career, we are told, was one of the most successful in Hollywood. She beleives she is still in the films but moreover her life has become shaped by those films- she sees drama where there is only bathos. She has refused to accept the vissicitudes of life- and instead longs for the spotlight, for the endless attention. At one point in the film, in a quest which everyone but her knows is unrealistic and doomed, she drives to Paramount to reclaim her starring role and affectedly weeps to be back in the movie studios but then makes outrageous demands which her status don't merit. Living in a drama that she has created, she has become the very definition of insane. Towards the end of the film, she cannot even realise what is happening- everything now complies to her narrative, in her own head all the other lights have gone out and the only one that is on, follows her in an imaginery film.

Joe is faced in the last reels of the film with a choice between two women- on the one hand old yet rich Norma, lush yet infertile and on the other a young reader in Paramount Betty Schaefer. Betty is everything that Norma isn't and the contrast between the two women is deliberate. Whereas when Joe smells Norma all the metaphors are of lush, overripe sweetness, when he smells Betty just after they kiss for the first and only time, he smells a scent of freshly launded hankerchiefs, of a new car just off the driveway. Betty pretends to be ornate for comic effect but she never is ornate and the distinction between the two woman is a distinction that Wilder the director wants us to think about, its the distinction between someone who has created a simulcram of the world, an artful piece of failing deception, and someone who has accepted the place that they stand in inside the world. Betty is Norma's opposite not merely because she is young and Norma is old, but because she is not coated in exaggeration but accepts her role in life without regret- Joe at one point asks her does she wish she was not a reader but a star (she had tried at one point) but for Betty what she has is enough. Norma of course would never see it that way.

All the characters in the movie are manoeurvering around Norma- they are trying to accomodate her hopefully in the best way possible for her and for them. They humour her, as Joe says "You don't yell at a sleepwalker. He may fall and break his neck." Max her butler lives out his entire life sustaining a fantasy world in which Norma is still a star, in which everyone loves her, in which there are no problems for her. The other option is represented by Betty Schaefer- Betty right at the end of the movie walks into Norma's household, takes one look, realises the occupant is mad and then runs away. Joe though takes a different approach, initially he plays along with her fantasies for her own ends, then he plays along with them because he follows Max's advice, finally he in a series of scenes breaks from her fantasy and attempts to show her the reality that she lives in. The problem for all the characters is that none of the strategies work- Max leaves her in her madness, Betty leaves her mad but alone. Joe by presenting himself as outside the madness but sympathetic makes her want to claw him in, her failure to do so is a failure to convince him that her vision of him is the correct version of him to present to the world and to himself. Her failure to pull him in results in the possessiveness she feels for him- in Max's case she doesn't care because she knows that he will be there for her, Betty she sees as merely a competing female and not as someone who could share her vision, but Joe she senses is sympathetic and yet has rejected her.

So much to this film is deeper than this- it has interesting insights for any scholar of Hollywood into the process of ceasing to be a star. Impressively acted, the direction is wonderful as well. Swanson overacts partly to ressemble the silent movie stars, partly so that her madness is reflected in her charismatic over emotional persona and gesture. Joe underracts, demonstrating his fatalism through weak smiles and wan looks. A central point though to this movie is how we should deal with madness- when people see the world in a certain shape- should we confront them? Sunset Boulevard doesn't give easy answers. Should you exploit the mad for your own ends- to live off their money? Sunset Boulevard shows that Joe pays a high price for his early nonchalent attempt to exploit Norma. What is madness? Well there Sunset Boulevard does present some interesting answers- it shows a human being who is so solipsistic that the world and her own body have in her eyes become what she imagines them to be- the problem for her is that noone else sees it that way- that turns out both for her and them to be a fatal mistake!

(Incidentally I saw Sunset Boulevard today at the Brixton Ritzi, its well worth seeing this at a cinema if you can find it.)


MuseinMeltdown said...

Thanks for bringing this film to my attention - very relevant to today's celeb culture -

Best wishes Shani

Gracchi said...

Its a great film- definitely worth seeing.

Anonymous said...

I think Joe's character was his downfall. He was a cheat and a liar from the beginning of the movie until the end; not only to others, but to himslf. When he finally tried to redeem himself at the end,it was too late. He had to pay the consequences of his deceitful and irresponsible behavior.