Opportunism and Its Consequences: “Sunset Boulevard”

Swanson-Holden

Being a has-been can’t be much fun. They are like ghosts of their former selves; and worst of all when they do not know that their day is already done, that the time has come when the shade will not (once again) see the sun.

Those people who are identified by the adjective “former” risk the dissatisfaction that comes with knowing you are no longer who you once were. It is easy to sympathize if someone is out of a job necessary to make a living. But what of the CEO, musician, ballplayer, or actor with tons of money but nowhere to go when the new work week comes, no crowd of fawning acolytes to sing his praises?

The world usually has a short memory for such people, as can be seen in the classic 1950 movie Sunset Boulevard, 16th on the American Film Institute’s list of the Greatest American Movies. It was directed (and co-written) by Billy Wilder, and stars William Holden as Joe Gillis and Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond. Upon meeting Desmond, Joe, a failing screenwriter says “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big!” She answers back, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” And, indeed, fifty-year-old Gloria Swanson was a very real relic of the silent screen, here portraying a rich, overdressed, out-of-date, ex-femme fatale who lives in a Beverly Hills mansion as faded as her movie career.

The world has mostly forgotten Norma, but she has not forgotten the world. She is one of those people we read about on the Internet, in features like “Whatever happened to…?” And then we see that so-and-so is now well-worn and largely out of the public eye and we say to ourselves, “Gee, I thought she was dead.”

The movie provides an answer to the question, “What would you do to get your dream.” Maybe your dream is an estate with a swimming pool, maybe it is becoming a star again, maybe it is directing a movie.

The movie gives us some answers. Joe Gillis is willing to become the sexual plaything of a sad, deranged, controlling woman (Desmond) who is 20 years his senior; and prostitute his writing skills as a ghost-writer for her irredeemable script, one that she expects to be the vehicle for her return to the movie screen. Of all things, it is based on Salome, the biblical tale of a sex-crazed girl in her early teens who becomes obsessed with John the Baptist, to the point of kissing his decapitated head. It seems never to occur to Norma that, at age 50, she is at least 30 years too old for the role; or that she has found her obsession in the writer Joe Gillis and, even more, in her comeback.

Gloria Swanson in a frame from the movie. Not the exaggerated quality of her face and body, suggesting both a silent film style, but also her unhinged mental state.

Gloria Swanson in a frame from the movie. Note the exaggerated quality of her facial expression and gesture, suggesting both a silent film acting style and her unhinged mental state.

For his part, Joe Gillis is also desperate, but unlike Norma he is out of money and on the way out of Hollywood when he accidentally meets her. The movie community’s dismissal of the former star is similar to its indifference to Gillis’s own modest accomplishments. We meet other silent film greats now on the movie world’s discard pile, not coincidentally playing cards with Norma. And they are portrayed by real, but forgotten leading men (Buster Keaton and H.B. Warner) and an ex-leading lady (Anna Q. Nillson). Nor should I overlook Erich von Stroheim, once a famous director in real life, who is cast as Norma’s butler.

None of this is coincidental, as Billy Wilder apparently wished to make a movie about the cruelty of the flesh-market that is the motion picture industry, a place where the question “What have you done for me lately?” is the only one of importance regardless of what you might have accomplished in the past. Narcissism and opportunism are the watchwords for nearly every significant Hollywood character in the movie: self-involved people using people, just as Norma and Joe use each other.

There is much irony in this film, as when Joe Gillis says, “Funny how gentle people are with you when you’re dead,” by way of comparing that kindness to their treatment of you in Hollywood when you are alive. And then there is the movie’s title, Sunset Boulevard, referring to the street on which the mansion is located and the sunset of the careers of Norma and Joe.

Joe Gillis knows what he has become, but can’t free himself from his attachment to the fine things that Norma’s money will buy him, even if it requires the surrender of his independence and self-respect. He has become the consort of a ghost and her ghost-writer, both; a woman who dresses like Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, in a theatrical style as antiquated as the mansion she lives in and the overly dramatic way that she performs. As an actress she is a throw-back to something that literally went out when talking pictures came in and spoken words replaced, in part, facial expression and bodily movements that previously had been the only means of communicating. She remains stylized and “over the top,” despite the movie industry’s long-completed transition to a more natural way of acting.

This great picture is almost horror movie-like in its portrayal of Norma Desmond’s ultimate descent into madness — from trying to recapture the past to actually living in it — all in a house haunted by memories and photos of her former fame. It is also a film noir in the bleakness (however entertaining it is) of its vision of this segment of the human race. It is a morality tale too, a social commentary that extends beyond the movie industry to the mirror we might hold to our faces and ask, “What have I done to get what I’ve got; and what am I willing to do to get more and to keep it?” Dog-eat-dog behavior is not the exclusive property of a film studio.

The ultimate irony of this video production can be found in its stunning last scene, which I won’t give away here. I will only say that each of the main characters obtains some version of what he has been seeking, even though none of them can be thought of as fortunate in having obtained it.

Two famous quotes come to mind, one from the New Testament: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”

The second is one of my favorite all-around quotes, by the Irish writer and wit Oscar Wilde: “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, the other is getting it.” As I said, they all get something (Norma, Joe, and the butler), but not quite in the form that they expected it.

A Frame or Production Still Photo of Gloria Swanson in the 1919 Movie "Don’t Change Your Husbanda frame or production still of Gloria Swanson in the 1919 movie "Don’t Change Your Husband"

A frame or production still photo of Gloria Swanson from the 1919 movie “Don’t Change Your Husband.”

The top image is a studio publicity still from Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson and William Holden are featured in this photo, downloaded by Dr. Macro. The second picture comes from the movie itself; again Gloria Swanson is shown, as downloaded by hd-trailers.net/ All three images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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