Thursday, November 4, 2021

SUNSET BOULEVARD 1950

"If the monkey hadn't died, the show [movie] would be over."
Sign backstage during the L.A. run of the musical version of Sunset Blvd. 
"Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard" Sam Staggs 2002

Sunset Boulevard had its broadcast television premiere October 2, 1965, at 9 pm on NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies. Being just seven years old at the time, this event came and went without incident or notice by me. When I did get around to seeing Sunset Boulevard it was in the early '70s, when I was about 14-years-old and a budding film buff in the first flush of a newfound infatuation with old movies. 
Up until that time, my movie preferences leaned toward age-inappropriate contemporary films oozing with New Hollywood permissiveness. But in 1971 Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend was released, and that film---a visually stunning, spoofish tribute to the musicals of the '20 and '30s that took my breath away--single-handedly inspired me to seek out and discover old movies.  
A personal journey that happened to coincide with the then-peaking nostalgia craze. 
Ignited by the popularity and influence of Bonnie and Clyde in the late '60s, America grew increasingly enamored of its recent past. A rose-colored love affair of exploration and escapism (the '70s were no picnic) that found expression in every corner of pop culture from fashion to music. Classic films and their stars were especially popular with the younger generation, who responded enthusiastically to them for their artistry as well as their camp appeal.
1971 - Everything Old Was New Again
My own particular interest in nostalgia manifested itself in a fascination with movies headlined by former leading ladies of yesteryear. The more melodramatic, the better. I was especially taken with Grande Dame Guignol, which, if you're not familiar, are essentially monster movies for gay teens.

Grande Dame Guignol (or hagsploitation) are sensationalistic melodramas and horror thrillers centered around older actresses in roles that exploit or exaggeratedly play off the star's declined status and advanced age (by Hollywood standards, mind you, which is simply over 30) contrasted with their often over-the-top, prima donna behavior. Recognizable by their formula mix of deglamorization + histrionics + gerontophobia with a dash of kitsch and camp thrown in,  their plots tended to be baroque variations on familiar monster movie tropes. Only the "monster" in this instance is usually a middle-aged woman who behaves violently or becomes unhinged after suffering some kind of emotional breakdown or traumatizing social outcast rebuff (imagine Stephen King's Carrie for the AARP set). 
In its inability to imagine a fate more terrifying than aging for a woman, Hollywood channeled its misogyny and fear of "La femme vieillissante" into the creation of an entirely new horror genre - The Grande Dame Guignol. Aka: hagsploitation, hag-horror, or the psycho-biddy movie

Empathy always drew me to the "villains" in these films: these larger-than-life women who suffered or were driven mad by their unwillingness or inability to surrender their outré, outsized fabulousness to the conformist dictates of age, gender, marital status, childlessness, standards of beauty...or sanity. 
Even when they resorted to murder (which they always did), it was still kind of tough not to feel bad for them since their crimes were almost always pitiable acts of desperation and madness. Besides, from the film's point of view, the real crime these women were guilty of was growing old and ceasing to be desirable to the male gaze.  
Queer Identification in Sunset Boulevard - Approximating the Female Gaze
As written, the character of Norma Desmond is a direct assault on postwar cinema's reassertion of rigid gender roles. Her dominance, sexual agency, and solitary independence are presented as an appropriation of masculine power; ergo, she's a monster. Joe Gillis' dependent status and physical objectification render him "the male feminized," which, in the eyes of the film is an irredeemable sin.

Grand Dame Guignol movies were largely viewed as a comedown for the stars involved, but I credit them with introducing me to: Bette Davis (Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte), Joan Crawford (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?), Tallulah Bankhead (Die! Die! My Darling!), Olivia de Havilland (Lady in a Cage), Barbara Stanwyck (The Night Walker), and Eleanor Parker (Eye of the Cat).

I’d never even heard of Gloria Swanson at the time, but when my older sister circled the plot synopsis of Sunset Boulevard in that week’s TV Guide, it sounded exactly like a horror movie to me, so I was looking forward to seeing it. (A weekly ritual my sisters and I shared in rotation was to go through the entire TV Guide when it arrived and circle every “must-see” movie and special scheduled.)
Of course, the noirish Sunset Boulevard – a grim melodrama that has a struggling screenwriter meet a bad end after hoping to take advantage of the comeback delusions of a  fading silent screen star – is neither a horror movie nor an example of Grand Dame Guignol (at least not, to quote Norma, not “in the usual sense of the word”). But it shares enough similarities with those genres for me to have actually mistaken Sunset Boulevard for a hagsploitation horror movie the first time I saw it.
Crazy in Love
From Frankenstein to Dracula, the monsters of horror movies have always been the most vulnerable and fragile figures in the story.  Over the years, Norma's delusional grand passions ("I wrote that with my heart!") and emotional vulnerability strike me as saner than Joe's cold opportunism or Betty's pushful ambition.
Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond

William Holden as Joe Gillis

Nancy Olson as Betty Schaefer

Erich von Stroheim as Max Von Mayerling

Everything about Sunset Boulevard's set-up (from a screenplay by Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman) is strictly Gothic Horror 101. The stranger-in-distress who happens upon a crumbling castle occupied by a mad scientist and henchman is a horror movie trope so timeworn it's parodied in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and countless Warner Bros. cartoons. Only in this instance, down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis is the stranger in need, a decaying Beverly Hills mansion plays stand-in for the castle, and of course, it doesn’t take much imagination to picture fading silent screen star Norma Desmond as Frank N. Furter and Max as Riff Raff. 
Gothic tradition gives us a mad scientist obsessed with regenerating dead human tissue, Sunset Boulevard has a mad actress obsessed with regenerating a dead career.
The horror indicators keep piling up in Sunset Boulevard as the Old Dark House trope morphs into The Villainous Crush device that always leads to the Domestic Incarceration machination from which our hero (antihero in this case) must escape. To my adolescent sensibilities, Sunset Boulevard was every bit as chilling as any horror movie I’d yet seen. More so, in fact. Well into Sunset Boulevard’s 110-minute running time…what with Franz Waxman’s ominous (Oscar-winning) score; John F. Seitz’s stark and shadowy Black-and-White cinematography; and the utterly unique strangeness of Swanson’s raptorial Norma Desmond…I was certain I was watching Creature Features: The Hollywood Edition. 

So well had an atmosphere of "anything's possible" bizarreness been established that I was convinced there was going to be some kind of 11th-hour “big reveal” moment…something like Joe discovering that the only room in the house with a lock on it contained the mummified remains of Norma’s ex-husbands. Or that the film’s climax would involve an ax-wielding Norma stalking Joe and Betty through the halls of her Addams Family-chic gothic mansion.
Norma Desmond, The Hollywood Chimera
Age isn't the only reason Hollywood banished Norma Desmond to the scrap heap. The subtleties of  Gloria Swanson's extravagantly operatic characterization (and Oscar-worthy performance...she was robbed!) suggest that Norma knows only one channel. Her gestures, manner of speech, & facial expressions are representative of an acting style that had long gone out of fashion.  


Despite thwarting my cliché-fed, B-movie horror expectations at every turn, Sunset Boulevard nevertheless proved sufficiently dark of theme and weird of story to give me a good case of the willies that evening and a sleep full of nightmares (Norma’s advance to the camera at the end really freaked me out). 
But numerous viewings over the years haven't truly altered my initial impression of Sunset Boulevard as a horror movie, only the syntax: I no longer see it as a horror movie, but it’s most definitely a horrific movie.  A nightmare vision of Hollywood that qualifies as a grim antecedent to The Day of the Locust and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Time Passages
Twenty-eight years later and Joe is still hustling to make a buck in Hollywood. Billy Wilder (then 74) and William Holden (59) had their 4th screen collaboration in 1978's Fedora. A movie unrelated to Sunset Boulevard that feebly sought to evoke memories of that superior film with its plot involving a down-on-his-luck movie producer (Holden) and a reclusive screen star (Marthe Keller). Critics felt Wilder would have been better off shooting Norma's Salome script.


"There's nothing tragic about being fifty -- not unless you try to be twenty-five."
In life, aging and the passing of time are so subtle they're almost imperceptible. When you’re young they’re measured in things acquired: experience, independence, wisdom; as you get older they’re measured in things lost: hair, agility, time. And matters aren’t helped any by the fact that one’s chronological age (how old one is) and biological age (how old one feels) are rarely--if ever--in sync. 
That's How Young I Feel 
Anyone thinking Norma's reaction to being a 50-year-old woman in Hollywood is hysterical would do well to remember when the James Bond film Spectre garnered global headlines in 2015 simply for casting 50-year-old Monica Bellucci as 46-year-old Daniel Craig's love interest. 

In Hollywood, where time is the enemy and aging is regarded as a bad career move, Sunset Boulevard sees the ironic tragedy in the story of a woman for whom time has stood still being overlooked by an industry that’s literally in the business of stopping time. The Dream Factory paradox is that Hollywood is only able to peddle the fantasy of eternal youth and beauty by callously discarding its manufactured idols the moment their images are tarnished by reality (i.e., age). 
That’s where the horrific part of the Hollywood nightmare comes in. Are the stars who mutilate and starve themselves in an effort to hold onto youth considered "sane" because doing so keeps them in the game and they understand that's how the game is played? Certainly, the public seems to think so. 
In 2015, social media drew the ire of the late Carrie Fisher when Star Wars fans deemed the then-59-year-old actor to have "aged badly" since her Princess Leia in a metal bikini days. Her response: "Youth and beauty are not accomplishments. They are the temporary happy by-products of time and/or DNA. Don't hold your breath for either."  
Is Norma's insanity that she can't distinguish fantasy from reality,
or simply that she learned Hollywood's lessons all too well?

"All cardboard, all hollow, all phony, all done with mirrors."
Sunset Boulevard’s allegorical use of Hollywood’s artificiality serves to underscore its themes related to our susceptibility to fantasy, the importance of maintaining one's authenticity, the easy corruptibility of our values, and the price of losing touch with reality. 
And indeed, between the film’s use of genuine, Hollywood locations (Schwab's Pharmacy), real movie industry personalities appearing as themselves (Cecil B DeMille, Hedda Hopper), and silent-era star Gloria Swanson and silent-era director Erich von Stroheim playing characters that are NOT themselves, but kinda are… Sunset Boulevard blurs the line between fantasy and reality as freely as Norma herself.
In the 70-plus years since Sunset Boulevard’s release, Hollywood really hasn’t changed all that much. But the world HAS become a bit more like Norma.
Norma's cocooned narcissism finds its contemporary corollary in the normalized self-absorption of social media selfie culture where delusions are allowed to run rampant in Instagram and Tik Tok accounts devoted exclusively to self-enchanted images of oneself. Norma would love it. 
The tortuous regimen Norma undergoes in the name of self-rejuvenation, once the somewhat loony but practical province of those whose livelihoods are predicated on their appearance, is child's play compared to what the average person today is willing to subject themselves to under the marketing-friendly brand of "self-esteem."
Perhaps most remarkable of all, fame-culture and its attendant wealth-worship has turned America's working poor into the frontline defenders and protectors of the rich. The quickest way to pick a fight on social media these days is to criticize ostentatiously wealthy celebrities or question whether obscenely rich wealth-hoarders should perhaps pay proportionately as much in taxes as disabled veterans living on Social Security. 
I've been told that when I go off on one of my windy jeremiads about what I deem to be the superiority of '70s films over the movies made today, my arguments can take on a tone not dissimilar to Norma Desmond lamenting post-silent-era cinema's lack of "faces" and bemoaning the smallness of "the pict-chas."


A Most Unusual Picture!  - Movie poster tagline for Sunset Boulevard
The quotation that headed this essay - "If the monkey hadn't died, the show would be over" - only partially relates to the narrative logic suggesting that had Norma not been anticipating the arrival of an animal mortician, Joe Gillis would have never made it past Max at the front door. 
I think the quote also speaks to the loneliness of Norma's life. Whether she considered the chimp to be a pet, a companion, or a child surrogate, it's easy to conjecture that if the monkey hadn't died, perhaps Norma wouldn't have been so desperately lonely. Arguably, Norma's loneliness is the source of much of her pain and madness. Certainly, loneliness and desperation are what prompt her to go full Grand Dame Guignol and all but kidnap and hold hostage a complete stranger. 

Although, when speaking of a complete stranger who looks like William Holden...




BONUS MATERIAL
This fuzzy screencap looks a bit like Dame Edna Everage is having a go at Norma Desmond (which sounds pretty fab, now that I think of it), but it's actually Mary Astor with Darren McGavin in a one-hour television adaptation of Sunset Boulevard. Broadcast in color on NBC December 3, 1956 as part of the anthology program "Robert Montgomery Presents," it was  2nd made-for-television version of the Paramount film. Available for viewing HERE.


Although Gloria Swanson herself had unsuccessfully tried to turn Sunset Boulevard into a musical for years, in 1993 Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black, and Christopher Hampton premiered their theatrical musical version of Sunset Boulevard in London's West End with Patti LuPone starring as Norma Desmond. The show had its pre-Broadway US opening December 1993 in Los Angeles at the now-defunct Shubert Theater in Century City with Oscar-nominated actress Glenn Close in the lead. I saw the production in January of 1994 and truly loved it. Especially the breathtakingly elaborate production and set design. 
As magnificent as Glenn Close was, I was in near hysterics when it was announced on June 15, 1994 that Oscar-winner and personal fave Faye Dunaway was set to don Norma Desmond's turban when Glenn Close took Sunset Blvd. to Broadway (with lots of attendant ugliness involving Webber giving the shiv to role-originator LuPone). It mattered not a whit to me that Dunaway had heretofore never evinced even a glimpse of singing ability. We fans of camp knew exactly what her casting in the role augered: "Mommie Dearest, Live!"
Alas, it wasn't to be.
In an 11th-hour twist worthy of Sunset Boulevard itself (screen star rejected!) on June 24th, word came out that Dunaway's services were no longer required and that Sunset Blvd. was to close. Cue the press circus reporting on the conflicting and litigious reasons for the decision. The trouble-plagued production moved on to Broadway where it was a great success, winning several Tony Awards, among them Best Musical and Best Actress. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2021

39 comments:

  1. What a great movie! I think I finally rented it when I was in my 30's. I had read about the film quite a bit and was familiar with Carol Burnett's funny deranged riffs on the Norma Desmond character (with Harvey Korman as "MAAAAAAXXXX!!!!") I also purchased the soundtrack to the Glenn Close musical (I really liked the song "With One Look"). So I knew a great deal about the film without every seeing it. When I finally did see it, I was actually a bit surprised to find Norma to be an extremely vulnerable character and that her tragic end (and Joe's) can be seen as a combination of Joe's somewhat reluctant exploitation of her delusions, Max's well-intentioned attempts to shelter her from reality and Norma's own Hollywood-fed vanity. I thought one of the saddest moments was when she meets with Cecil DeMille thinking that the meeting is to relaunch her career (when it comes about because a props man is interested in her car). I can see why an initial viewing would place the "horror" label on the film (her final scene and words are chilling) but I've always categorized the film as tragedy.

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    1. Hi Ron -
      I think the final words in your comment "I've always categorized the film as tragedy" precisely describe what makes certain horror films great. King Kong, Carrie, Frankenstein, Nosferatu, and The Stepford Wives are just a few of my favorite horror films that are so effective because their narratives have an element of tragedy.

      I like your insightful take on Norma and the characters in her deluded orbit. It’s also very interesting that you saw the film after being so familiar with it in other forms. Especially posing as it does the chance that seeing the original might have been a letdown after hearing the Broadway adaptation, or seeing the character of Norma parodied so successfully by Burnett.

      But in many ways, the original film is kind of inimitable and so very unique, I would guess that seeing it perhaps felt very different and apart from the other versions. It’s certainly a film that has held up.
      Nice to hear that you liked the film so much, Ron. And thank you very much for sharing your considered and perceptive thoughts on it.

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    2. Speaking of Burnett, over the years I've lost count of the people that have referred to Ms Desmond as Nora, letting me know that they haven't really seen the film or really didn't pay that much attention.

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  2. Yes, this was a great read, thank you!

    I wrote a paper for a college class on SB (which I wish had been as good as this!). I began my paper referring to your first posted photo, the title, the storied boulevard . . . the gutter.

    And no, I didn't change my screen name for your post! Actually, my email address is simply the dear girl's name.

    Cannot recall the first time I saw the film, but I know it was while I was still living at home. My mother insisted we watch it together & now it's surely my most ever watched movie.

    AND, since I'm spilling all my tea, over the years, geniuses have scolded me about the photo accompanying my screen name. I've laughed when they wrote, "what could you even know, that isn't even Norma Desmond!"

    It seemed redundant to put a photo of Norma/Gloria so I simply chose to use an ridiculously haggy shot of our dearest Elizabeth.

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    1. Hi
      I love that your email address is Normadeamond! And what kind of literal-minded nonsense would inspire anyone to ALSO need to see Swanson's picture as an avatar? Your selection of La Liz is faultless.

      I'm gratified you enjoyed this post, especially given how you've clearly had a long history with the film. Your college paper using the gutter of Sunset Boulevard as a kickoff sounds good!
      Nice, too, that you were introduced to the film by your mom. I know I certainly would have benefitted from an adult being present.
      Appreciate your reading this and taking the time to comment. I know it's not your first time, but I'm glad my post and your "name" at last coincided.

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  3. One of the great films of yesteryear - thanks for your thoughtful essay. I saw this many years ago and usually catch it whenever TCM airs it. Norma's desperation and descent into madness is tragic. Norma's got one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel when Joe shows up. He pushes her the rest of the way into the abyss which even loyal Max can't stop. Watching her attempts to look youthful, I can't help comparing Norma to the insanity of actors in Hollyweird today: the plastic surgery that alters people so much that they all end up resembling one another in the alien category. I wonder in 25 years time what the current crop will look like?

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    1. Hello Bella
      Thanks for your evocative and wonderfully descriptive observations! Yes, Sunset Blvd is really one of the greats, Not the least owing to it having a kind of prescience that keeps it from feeling dated despite its age.
      Given the armies of surgery enhanced, botox-addicted actors filling the screen today, Norma's boast "We had faces!" has gone from figurative to literal.
      Thank you very much for reading and commenting!

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  4. Just when I was thinking "What more can be said about "Sunset Boulevard"?" you managed to add and build considerably more!

    I very much like your referencing the 70's nostalgia revival on the way to the rather disturbing here-and-now. And I'm reminded of the 1970 gateway book "Four Fabulous Faces" which brought back Swanson, Crawford, Dietrich and Garbo. Both Crawford and Dietrich became versions of Norma Desmond, while Garbo (according to a biographer) was furious with Wilder about "Sunset Boulevard".

    The broad tragi-comedy which is of "old actresses" (as well as the prescience of "Sunset"… Miss Swanson looked quite contemporary & not old / ridiculous / dated) makes me wonder how complicit Hollywood is in making the socio-political statement that old male actors are entitled to be around forever, and are around forever by virtue of compounding empowerment and employment. I mean seriously...de Niro being CGI "youthified"???

    For my part of course I’ll just go on seeing Mr. Wilder’s fine picture as a cautionary tale, and come to terms with my fading allure while (hopefully) not pumping a few slugs into the next Joe Gillis who comes my way!

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    1. Hi Rick
      Thank you! You’re so right. One of the main reasons I’ve yet to write about a number of my favorite “classic” movies is because some have been written about so often and for so long there’s nothing new to add.
      I don’t think I’ve covered any new ground with "Sunset Boulevard," but it does strike me that the only things that make films our own are our personal experience/perspective (what we bring to the movies and what we extract) and that’s valuable to look at. I’m pleased my personal take on it was enjoyable to you.

      I remembered that book you mentioned "Four Fabulous Faces"- then it struck me that I actually own it, so you inspired me to take my first look at it in perhaps more than a decade. Good point you made about Crawford and Dietrich, and I had no idea Garbo was angry with Wilder about "Sunset Boulevard"!
      In thinking back to seeing the film as a kid and then later coming to live in Los Angeles as an adult, it amuses me to realize that the only “Norma Desmond” types I’ve ever met have been men! Maybe not so much in trying to make comebacks, but definitely in clinging to youth and finally keeping handsome opportunists.

      I recently watched that film with Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, and Diane Weist (can’t remember the name) and I liked how all the women look beautiful by looking their age. I can’t imagine it’s a trend or even a sign that Hollywood is evolving, but it’s certainly nice after (as you note) the industry feeding the whole thing about men being ageless (I still have a hard time with a lot of early Audrey Hepburn movies…she’s luminous but they kept giving her love interests old enough to be her dad).

      I’m thrilled you read this and responded so quickly, Rick. And I just now saw on Twitter that you will be rewatching it!
      With all the DVD extras there's so much more to take pleasure in. As they say...There's no future in living in the past, but just visiting there is sometimes a blast.

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  5. Dear Ken: What a wonderful and perceptive essay! Your blog maintains such a high standard for writing thoughtfully (and often hilariously) about film, that I generally find myself disappointed when I check out other film sites. They just don't compare!

    I was fascinated with your description of first experiencing "Blvd" as a horror film. I never thought about it, but you're right! "Blvd" contains all the tropes that are present in "Dracula," "The Old Dark House," "Hair-Raising Hare," etc. etc.

    When you wrote your post about director Robert Wise some months back, you and I exchanged messages about other unappreciated Hollywood auteurs. Now I wouldn't say that Billy Wilder is unappreciated exactly, but it sure seems like he doesn't get his due! Movies like "Sunset Blvd," "Double Indemnity," "The Lost Weekend" etc. are every bit as brilliant, complex (name your adjective) as anything by John Ford, for example.

    Back in my film book collecting days, I used to have the volumes in that series about the various Hollywood Studios: "The MGM Story," The RKO Story," etc. So when thinking about movies from before 1960, I tend to think of them in terms of "What studio made that?" I mention all this to point out what a tremendous run of brilliant movies Paramount had during the 1950s: "Sunset Blvd," the delirious Barbara Stanwyck noir "No Man of Her Own," "A Place in the Sun," "Carrie" (Olivier-Jones version), "Come Back, Little Sheba," "Rear Window," "The Country Girl," "Sabrina," "White Christmas," etc. etc. to merely scratch the surface. And that's just from the first half of the decade!

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    1. Hi David
      Wow! What an exceptionally nice compliment. You’re very kind, David. I’m sure you’ll understand when I tell you that I plan on screen-grabbing that first paragraph and saving it on my desktop so I can reread it any time I hit a bad case of writer’s block.

      I’m also impressed that you knew the actual name of the Warner Bros. cartoon that used the gothic horror movie trope I refer to!

      It’s funny how I was so certain of SUNSET BOULEVARD being a “scary” movie when I first saw it. It points to the level of dramatic intensity in a film and how a child processes it (I remember the pre-movie code posters warning “May be too intense for children!”) Not having learned the genre definitions - horror/melodrama/thriller – everything from THE BAD SEED to WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF I labeled a scary movie.

      I agree with you about Billy Wilder. He’s an appreciated name, especially among the TCM-type crowd. But you’re right that as a filmmaker other filmmakers refer to, or as a director whose name comes up in discussions on influence and talent, Wilder isn’t often one of them. (I took a quick look over to IMDB to realize I’ve seen only two John Ford films! I really DO avoid westerns!)

      During my film school years, I remember all those books devoted to the individual studios. I was even pretty good about knowing then what studio was known for its dominant genre releases (gangster pictures, musicals, comedies). I can’t recall any of them with any kind of accuracy now (I suspect you can!) but just looking over that roster of impressive films attributed to Paramount in the ‘50s is eye-opening. I don’t know what that means, but when I look around at the movie posters in my apartment (Barbarella, Rosemary’s Baby, The Day of the Locust) Paramount is obviously tops with with me!
      Thanks for reading this, David, and for the thoughtful and knowledgeable contribution of your comment.

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  6. Hi Ken-
    Another wonderfully written and informative post. While I've always admired the film more than wanted to relive the tragedy of it all very often (despite what a beautiful specimen Holden is), you've certainly inspired another viewing with my other half in tow, who I doubt has ever seen it...especially since we live here in the la-la-land of broken dreams and botox.
    Also thank you for continuing to post here. It's always a treasure.
    PS. I also just read your post on the Levine/Baker version of "Harlow" (from the "suffering in mink" series lol) and saw in a comment that you hadn't as of then seen "The Legend Of Lylah Clare". Have you since watched that? I'd love to read your take on that prime piece of camp.

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    1. Hi Pete
      My partner is a bit like you in his reluctance to revisit films with tragic stories. He appreciates them for their artistry, but unlike me, he rarely wants to revisit these films with any frequency.
      However, if your husband hasn't ever seen it, a chance to watch this classic through fresh eyes by proxy seems a marvelous opportunity.
      And yes, I did finally get around to seeing "The Legend Of Lylah Clare" and I seriously don't know how I managed to go this long without encountering it. It's really a howler of awfulness. Enjoyably so. But I need to see it again. In my memory all the camp fun of Kim Novak's terrible performance and bizarre elements like Coral Browne have the wet blanket thrown over them by the name of Peter Finch. A very talented actor, but about as exciting as Efrem Zimbalist Jr (and that's loooooooow on the excite-o-meter).
      I thank you for always stopping by to check out new posts, and particularly for the kindness of your compliments. I sincerely take them to heart. Much appreciated!

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  7. Hi Ken - loved your essay on one of my favorite films, seen through the lens of the Guignol. I too have a fascination with the phenomenon and often enjoy some actresses’ mature performances even more than the ones that made them stars in the first place. I find myself watching Garland in I Could Go On Singing more often than as Dorothy or opposite Mickey Rooney. I love Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits and footage of Something’s Got To Give even more than Seven Year Itch or How to Marry a Millionaire. These days, I’m finding mature ladies showing up in interesting roles in Netflix horror films, most recently the amazing Barbara (Seagull) Hershey as a feisty assisted living resident who uncovers a deadly secret….I think I love these seasoned ladies who know how to grab and hold our focus and work so hard to entertain us. Proves that there is more to great actors than mere looks or glamour. Of course, now I need to pull out my blu ray of Sunset Boulevard and watch it again through your eyes!
    - Chris

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    1. Hi Chris
      This is the first I'm hearing of the Barbara Hershey movie on Amazon, so I'm excited to give it a look. Thanks!
      It's true that, when given good material, the work of many older actors can be equally as compelling as their earlier works. I found that to be true of the actors in Scorsese's THE IRISHMAN, which I've watched a couple of times and want to see again.
      Though Grande Dame Guignol gets a bad rap, I think it's a far less humiliating genre than those limp comedies about old friends getting together to prove they still have the ol' "stuff" (they usually star Diane Keaton or Morgan Freeman).
      Swanson was so fortunate with a vehicle like SUNSET BOULEVARD and her performance is so brave. I recently rewatched Miriam Hopkins in the dreadful but fascinating "Savage Intruder" and thought BOY does it make a difference what a aging star is offered and what they say yes to.
      Thanks so much for reading this post and commenting. Hope all is well with you! Take care and enjoy your revisit to Sunset Boulevard!

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  8. Hi, Ken--

    Good on you for having TV Guide in your home. My parents refused to pay for anything they could get for free, and they regarded the local paper’s TV listings as the same as TV Guide. But they weren’t…. Everyone is sharing their first viewing of this classic, and I’m just going to dive in. It was in a gay porno theater in the East Village circa 1994, the very moment Giuliani’s anti-fun ordinances went into effect. Seriously, at 11:59 p.m. they ripped out the Jeff Stryker marathon and at midnight the opening credits rolled for SB. I knew exactly what it was and I stayed and watched the whole thing. It seemed fitting as anything associated with Rudy Giuliani reeks of horror. And didn’t he have his own Norma Desmond moment when hair dye leaked down his temples during his closeup. A year after I saw the movie, the musical opened on Broadway and I saw it twice--first with the masterful Betty Buckley and later with the meh Elaine Paige, who seemed to be doing a parody of Carol Burnett’s parody. Of course, I had been more than a bit disappointed when Faye Dunaway was fired, but having Betty Buckley’s vocals available forever on “With One Look” does make it worth it. I am fascinated by that critical moment when actresses pass that Hollywood threshold into a totally unnecessary has been-dom (and at 52, you can bet I’m scanning my own face and behavior for signs of it.) But it’s not schadenfreude for me; it’s when I like these women the most. I think the joke is on Hollywood, because it gives us some of the actresses’ best and most powerful performances on and off screen (Do gay guys ever like an ingenue?) Joan Collins’s entire career in the 70s (a decade I am also rather obsessed with) is like a desperate, maniacal, ongoing SB with Hollywood itself playing the unwitting Joe Gillis. Of course, Joan’s unbridled belief in her somewhat limited talent eventually won out, and she briefly but successfully subverted Hollywood in her 50s. (Still, to me, Dynasty wasn’t quite as good as The Stud or even the Michael Parkinson interview of Joan simply putting on makeup.) I wonder if you follow TV? I’m a really huge Charlie’s Angels fan and there is a wonderful episode that takes on the SB tropes with Ida Lupino as a guest star. Thanks for your insight, Ken. I read more of your reviews than I respond to as my insight is limited--I’m actually more of a TV and theater fan than a movie fan, but I copy and paste your link to all of my film obsessed friends. Your blog is wonderful! Peter

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    1. Hi Peter
      Thanks for sharing your first SUNSET BLVD experience. Not only unique and practically circumstantial, but somewhat concentrated (what with the porno theater and the Broadway theater) within two years in your 30s by my guess. Wonderful that you got to see SUNSET BLVD on Broadway twice with 2 very different Normas.

      Funny you bring up Guliani’s “Norma Desmond moment” …if we were more honest as a society, I think we would find more male Norma Desmonds around than females in the public eye. The amount of orange-tanning, toupees, combovers, face-lifts, adult diapers, and girdles on parade among the nation's politicians, TV hack newsmen, and clinging-to-their-youth industrialists make Hollywood and Norma look like they’re barely trying.

      I also like your mention Joan Collins, an actress whose very long career never really ignited until she was nearly Norma’s age. I never cared for the show, but she’s good. TV has always been a bit more welcoming of the older star (thanks to the older viewing demographic).
      I’m with you in feeling that the ageist side of Hollywood ultimately shoots the industry in the foot. Once women age out of the age of being cast as “girlfriend,” “mistress,” “wife”…they have the experience and opportunity to tackle more interesting roles.
      I think the whole Norma Desmond phenomenon is more a reflection of the lack of imagination of male writers than the ability of older actresses to do good work.

      Fascinating question re: gays and ingenues! I think we do, but they aren’t usually bland, cookie-cutter types. I mean, Liza, Bette Midler and Cher were all young when I first discovered them, but I have no idea what young stars today (outside of recording stars) have gay followings.

      Lastly, I do like and follow TV (usually 60s 70s), but my partner is the Charlie’s Angel’s fan in the family. And one is enough.
      Thanks for the complimentary words, Peter. I’m glad you enjoyed this piece and I’m flattered you spread the word. Commenting is never a requirement. I’m just happy you revisit us once in a while. Take care!

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    2. I think we definitely like young stars, but young and girlish are not necessarily the same qualities. Bette always felt like she belonged to another era. Her first hit was a World War II cover. Liza's two most famous roles were period pieces, as were Faye Dunaway's two greatest roles. Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross were old souls that traded in nostalgia and the Great American Songbook as often as they did in contemporary music. Cher channeled various cultural characterizations. I wonder if it's more about the ingenue's connection to the earlier generation that we look for?

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    3. That's true. Youth seems less an aspect of interest than perhaps some quality of identification. Maybe gays don't really go for the girlishness in women so much as identify with the male-ish qualities of women who reflect gay aspirational goals: acceptance despite being difference, celebration of uniqueness, making one's mark, a strength and vulnerability.
      I wonder if the early generational thing is connected to style. From the days of the Warhol superstars, the attraction of the past has been the lost style and sense of sophistication/glamour/cosmopolitan values.
      Good questions you pose. Hard to land on a single answer.

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  9. Your film critiques and reminiscences are always a pleasure.
    Thanks for doing this just in general, but this one was especially enjoyable!
    But not even a mention of 'All About Eve'?
    Was Gloria robbed in 1950 or Bette?!
    (I still love Judy Holliday, though...)

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    1. Hi Mr.F
      I'm glad you enjoyed this piece on SUNSET BOULEVARD and I thank you for the compliment and comment.

      I sense you are a big fan of ALL ABOUT EVE and I appreciate your interest, but alas, both thematically and structurally ALL ABOUT EVE doesn’t belong in this essay. Its omission is intentional, not an oversight.
      Structurally because, as this is another entry in the film diary that is this blog, I hadn’t yet seen the Bette Davis film when SUNSET BLVD entered my life. Thematically, the essay concerns itself with my initial misinterpretation due to the similarities SUNSET BLVD. shares with gothic horror tropes and the "hag-horror" genre …which, no matter what one’s feelings are regarding Margot Channing…have no place in this piece.

      However, let me take this opportunity to alert readers that I devote some 2,500 words to ALL ABOUT EVE elsewhere on this blog. Please check it out.

      Your question about who was robbed that Oscar night is probably theoretical or at least designed to let me know your personal preference, but since all views on the topic are a matter of taste, and you put it out there -
      For me, Gloria Swanson's was hands down the best performance of those nominated that year. I contend that Bette's wonderful performance was more deserving than Holliday’s, but well within her wheelhouse. Swanson’s was a gamble and a naked risk that has shades and subtleties that reveal themselves with each rewatch. Judy Holiday is terrific, but that performance felt like a roadmap to a trip she’d taken a hundred times.

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    2. Oh, it was certainly only a theoretical question!
      I AM a big fan of EVE (and SUNSET), and in the reading I've done on EVE, it's often noted that Anne Baxter's Best Actress nomination in the '51 Oscars somehow spoiled the vote on obvious frontrunner Davis.
      True? Who knows.
      It IS a popularity contest in the end, rather than a vote on true merit. (In my opinion...)
      But yes, we can have a friendly difference of opinion!

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    3. PS - My mention of EVE was also meant as a comment on the fact that there were two films centered on aging actresses (one on stage, one on screen, and different ages) released in 1950 to critical and popular acclaim!

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    4. Yes, I'm glad you called attention to 1950 having two films released about aging actresses in the fields of entertainment. Especially since it's such an interesting factoid to share that falls outside the parameters of my essay.

      And yes, Oscar wins and nominations are a field ripe for friendly differences of opinion, since there's not a shred of anything remotely objective about evaluating film performances.
      Indeed, I think any film fan even remotely familiar with how emotions and industry politics rule Oscar voting takes it as a given that conversations about who MIGHT have won (I academically think Baxter's insisted-upon Best Actress categorizing did indeed gum up the works for Davis, whose unthreatening performance was the kind Hollywood likes to award), and who SHOULD have won (for me, you-know-who) are two different things. Adding to the mix is the "Goldie Hawn" effect...when a star just happens to be a new, flavor of the month and winds up winning simply because she enchants everyone with her freshness and publicity overload (Judy Holliday).
      The best thing about 1950 is that no matter whose camp a person's "Shoulda" Best Actress choice is, it's one of those years where all are so deserving.

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  10. I so enjoyed your paean to Billy Wilder's masterpiece. And if Ken Russell's most mawkish film brought you to your appreciation of Hollywood's Golden Age, then I'm happy to have had to sit through it. The niggling thought I've always had watching Sunset Boulevard was, knowing that it was written for Mae West, what would that movie have turned out like?

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    1. Mae West in this sort of boggles the mind, doesn't it? As Wilder said after she turned them down " The idea of Mae West was idiotic because we only had to talk to her to find out she thought she was as great, as desirable, as sexy as she'd ever been." He guessed that she would have turned it into a Laurel and Hardy style comedy.

      With her penchant for writing her own dialogue, I can't imagine her ever allowing a hint of vulnerability or pathos coming though. The film would have become Norma's twisted self-perception presented as reality.
      So ironic since in so many ways West WAS Norma.
      Thank you for reading this post, which I'm glad you enjoyed. Taking the time to contribute to it with your comment is most appreciated.

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    2. Of course! Gotta love Mae, (as we do)
      but did she ever play anything but Mae?

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    3. Exactly. Mae West is a one-of-a-kind, genuine trailblazing icon, and I love her too. But the woman's antenna only picked up one channel.

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    4. In that way, Mae was closer to the classic comedians who played the same character over and over than she was to other actresses; think Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton, the Marxes, Laurel & Hardy, etc.

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    5. That's an excellent observation. One that puts West's career in a more appropriate context, I think.

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  11. Norma's relationship with Max is the one thing I can never figure out in this movie. He's her ex-husband and former director and now he's her chauffeur? Did she forget that part? That fact that Von Stroheim agreed to play this character is in many ways the most mind-boggling aspect of it. Swanson kinda ended his career when she fired him from directing QUEEN KELLY in 1927. He only directed two more fairly modest films and then worked as a character actor for the next 20 years until SUNSET BOULEVARD came along. Not only that, but he had to share the screen with Cecil B. DeMille, one of his peers, who was still a superstar director in the 50's! His legendary ego really must have taken a beating...

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    1. Hi Kip
      A lot of the things you bring up are mentioned (if not always explained in that terrific book on the making of SUNSET I reference at the start of the piece.
      It definitely speaks to how inscestuously odd it was for Swanson, DeMille, & von Stroheim to all have had a history and yet agree to work on a film that in some ways makes reference to the real circumstances.
      It all certainly adds to the film's psychological verisimilitude!
      I love the question about Max and Norma because I think the film leaves viewers to come up with their own twisted backstory narrative. Me, I see theirs as a co-dependent, sado-masochist arrangement. I envision Max as her first husband, wed in her teens when he was shaping her career, discarded (no one ever LEAVES a star) when she became a star. Weak and devoted to her still, I see him as wanting to be in her life and settling on being near her any way he can (after all, men have killed themselves over her) so he stays on in the demeaning role of Desmond's butler and chauffer through husbands 2 and 3. He feels lucky just to worship her, she thinks he's lucky too. I don't think she forgets, I think she understands very well that she is master of her her ex-director and ex-husband and that he is her slave. Like Mae West, Norman Desmond would like all man at her feet.
      I mean, there's certainly a masochistic streak in all of them participating in this film. The film just exaggerates it.

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  12. You're not wrong. The films of the 70s are vastly superior to anything produced today.

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    1. Right? I like the way you think.
      (And honest, folks...this isn't me writing to myself under an assumed name!)

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  13. Thank you for discussing one of my all-time faves.

    Your comment about Dame Edna Everage having a go at Norma Desmond made me think of a "fab casting" daydream of my own: I always though it would have been perfect if they had tapped Divine to play Endora on "Bewitched".

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    1. Thank you for visiting the blog -
      And I LOVE just the thought of Divine as Endora! They certainly share a penchant for eyeshadow excess.

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  14. Just finished writing up on this film yesterday, it's a fabulous movie and now want to see the Ken Anderson cut where the "11th-hour “big reveal” moment…something like Joe discovering that the only room in the house with a lock on it contained the mummified remains of Norma’s ex-husbands".

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    1. Ha! Thank goodness I never took up screenwriting. Although I suppose my familiarity with cliches would make me a shoo-in for Hallmark movies. Congrats on your new forthcoming piece on Sunset Blvd. It's such a favorite of mine and I look forward to readign what your thoughts on on the classic.
      Thank you very much for visiting my blog as you do and commenting. You're very kind. No wonder wyou're so well-regarded in the blogosphere.

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