Monday, February 22, 2010
“I am big—its the pictures that got small!”
Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard
The best thing about Sunset Boulevard is that it's told by a dead man. The second best thing about it? Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond is the original Cougar...she’s got the money, the looks (granted she’s bizarre, but her arms, hips, and jaw line are to die for!), and she’s got Bill Holden right where she wants him...he's down and desperate.
Sunset Boulevard is a movie about letting go: letting go of your youth, letting go of your ambitions, letting go of the past, letting go of an object of desire and for Norma, its about letting go of your mind. I don’t think there is a soul in this movie who is capable of letting go...Norma can’t let go of Joe, Joe can’t let go of Betty, Max can’t let go of Norma! Well, Norma lets go of her sanity, but that is all so that she doesn’t have to let go of her youth, her sex appeal, her ambitions, her power, her fame and yes, by holding on to all that, she’s got this iron grip on Bill Holden’s character Joe. Norma's fantasy is so nuclear that she’s got everyone wrapped nearly as tight as those contraptions she uses to keep her face from falling while she sleeps.
Midway through the story we learn that Norma Desmond is planning her big screen comeback as Salome, to be directed by Cecil B. Demille, who plays himself brilliantly in the film. Salome is the ultimate female seductress, but Norma is more like Oscar Wilde’s depiction of the daughter of Herodias as a necrophiliac. Her insane vision is like Method Acting gone native—and her cohorts, Max and Joe, are her enablers. Max played by Eric von Stroheim is the real surprise here...you think poor Bill Holden's got it bad—his addiction to her money and inability to fend off her suicidal manipulations, but then comes Max’s apocolyptic confession that he was not only her movie director when silent movies were king, but he was her fu@*#&! first husband! And now he’s her fu@*#&! butler! This oddly redeems Joe and suddenly he and Max are just Norma's little playthings, her victims...like half dead mice between the paws of a house cat.
It hit me when I was watching Sunset Boulevard tonight, and let me tell you this is not the first time I have watched it because its one of my favorites, ANYway, it dawned on me that it shares just the slightest connection to Breakfast At Tiffany’s -- why is there an apostrophe in Tiffany’s in that title? Can someone tell me? Cookie to the reader who tells me this. But you will recall that Breakfast at Tiffany’s also depicts a young handsome on-the-skids writer named Paul Varjak played by George Peppard, who is kept quite stylishly by Cougar-extraordinaire Patricia Neal's Mrs. Failenson. What is it about starving young men writers that they can attract older female patrons? Peppard’s Paul has to actually sleep with Mrs. Failenson, but Bill Holden’s Joe seems to avoid the bedding of Norma Desmond altogether. And they both have younger women waiting in the wings, women who cannot fiscally support them -- Peppard has Holly Golightly and Holden has Betty. As a middle-aged chick, I am finding it hard to fight off the implications of these hard-faced controlling old bitches and these enterprising young male writers, hmmmm.
But Peppard gets off easy in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—Mrs. Failenson still has her mental faculties and an enormously practical tool box filled with cash and social aplomb. She can see when she is licked by the younger, more attractive Holly. She simply pays him off and walks away. But Bill Holden’s Joe is doomed. Norma is so far gone that the idea of Joe leaving her is preposterous. She shoots him down like a coyote, who only moments before stole hens from her hen house. And as if she hasn't already lost her mind, her realization that she’s killed Joe seems to cut her loose like an astronaut on a space walk gone bad...but that’s another movie isn’t it?