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indeed, fifty-year-old Gloria Swanson was a very real relic of the silent screen, here portraying a rich, overdressed, out-of-date, ex-femme fatale who lives in a Beverly Hills mansion as faded as her movie career.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.

Relationship Warning Signs: Fighting the Last War

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Relationship choices are a little bit like the old military saying that generals are always preparing to fight the last war. Military men are apt to focus closely on past mistakes, without realizing the dangers of a new strategy, perhaps inadequate for whatever lies ahead.

In the same way, we try to avoid past relationship mistakes, without being aware our strategy might produce new, unfortunate problems in the future.

Let’s take an example. Suppose your last relationship was with an authoritarian, demanding, insensitive, maybe even somewhat abusive man. Now you want a lover who won’t be like him. Now you want someone who won’t push you around in any sense of the word — a companion less threatening and more accommodating. This might work well – for a while.

But, perhaps gradually, you will notice the same person who gives-in to you is also giving-in to others; not standing up for himself or for you; spending too much time away from you, instead doing favors for his parents or his friends. Perhaps you will conclude he is too passive and, that while he won’t often say “no” to you, you must push him to do the things you want.

Or maybe your last boyfriend wasn’t ambitious and industrious. You had to lend him money or serve as his source of financial support. You got tired of this of course. Now, you only choose to date someone who is hard-working and successful. You pick a workaholic mate and hardly ever see him, and you must do the job of raising the children pretty much on your own, even if the joint bank account is substantial

Or the discarded mate was easy with money and piled up debt. So now you select somebody with a dead-bolt lock on his wallet, cheap in the extreme, frugal to the point of wanting an accounting of every dollar spent by you, and nearly every small purchase the two of you make is treated with the gravity of buying a house.

Or your last companion didn’t pay much attention to you, seemed more interested in being with friends, playing football and computer games. So you target someone who wants to be with you nearly every minute and gets jealous when you even look at another man – a mate who requires an itinerary of your daily activities and seems interested in controlling you more than loving you.

Last but not least, the boring, by-the-book, ever-cautious man who you trade-in for a dashing, spontaneous, risk-taking, unpredictable, funny, charming, devil-may-care partner; later discovering he is reckless, unreliable, and inconsiderate.

The list goes on. The point is, as with so many of life’s offerings, the opposite of what you have is often as bad or worse, only in a different way.

Best to consider all sides of the human mating grab bag and not pick someone at either extreme of most any dimension.

Just like King Midas, who wished for the power to turn everything into gold, sometimes you must be careful about getting too much of what you thought would be a good thing.

Or, as Oscar Wilde said, “there are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”

The image above is Oscar Wilde in a photographic portrait by Napolean Sarony from about 1882, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Who are You to Judge?

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Judgment is problematic. We need it, but not too much of it. Sort of like food.

While I will say more of a secular nature, the most famous comment on judgment comes from the New Testament — the Christian Bible — and is attributed to Jesus:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

The point here is about the potential hypocrisy: for us to judge others by a standard that is harsher than the one that we apply to ourselves. It is akin to the famous late addition to the Christian Bible about Jesus turning away the men who were about to stone a woman who had committed adultery, with the comment “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” He later advises her to go and “sin no more.”

We judge lots of things. We need to judge the accused in the court room, lest wrong-doers do wrong with impunity. We judge ourselves and, one hopes that it improves our future behavior and helps us make good decisions.

We judge for self-protection, too; to comfort ourselves with the belief that the misfortune of others is due to their bad decision-making. By implication, if we make better decisions — display better judgment than they did — fate will be kinder to us. If we are careful, thoughtful, smart, do our homework, live by the Golden Rule, and so forth, good things will happen to us and we will avoid bad things.

This view seems to look at misfortune as some sort of anomaly, something that is outside of the normal course of events when, of course, it is not. All sorts of bad things happen to the innocent or unlucky. This is a troubling thought and our negative judgment of others — our attempt to make sense of their troubled lives or bad luck — makes it easier to sleep at night.

I’m not trying to justify all poor decisions here, many of which surely lead to disaster. Rather, it’s simply that not every bad thing is the result of some fatal flaw in the nature or conduct of a man or woman. Sometimes you can do everything right and have a bad result. Sometimes things just happen.

Judgment serves, too, as an attempt to guarantee immortality. Since most people see death as the worst possible outcome in any life, it shouldn’t be surprising that harsh judgment is often characteristic of religious fundamentalism. For the “by-the-book” parishioner, following all the rules of his or her particular religion guarantees a heavenly reward. And, for those who violate the doctrine, the faithful believe that there will usually be a trip to a darker place.

Judgment in this instance provides some comfort that death is not final; and perhaps the self-satisfaction of believing that in visiting judgment on the unfaithful, one is only trying to move them onto a path that will lead to heaven. For some of the religious fundamentalists I’m sure that it is; for others, however, it might only be a justification for venting angry condemnation of those who are different and who do not believe what the self-righteous might wish they did believe.

Judgment is often made by those who have no experience of the situation or circumstance in which the “judged” behavior occurred. To take a current example, consider Tiger Woods (or some other celebrity) reported to be unfaithful to his spouse. I am certainly not here to apologize for, or attempt to excuse Tiger Woods’ behavior. But I would say this: I suspect that non-celebrities have no idea of the temptation available to a man or woman in Woods’ position nearly every day of his life. And, as Oscar Wilde famously said, “I can resist anything but temptation.”

But, let us move away from the always controversial area of sex to give this idea a different look. I once asked the great Italian symphony conductor Carlo Maria Giulini about his judgment of the behavior of the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Furtwängler chose to stay in Germany during the period of the Third Reich, although he was not a Nazi. While he was helpful to some Jewish musicians, he also was used (and allowed himself to be used) as a propaganda tool by the Nazis.

Giulini , who began his career as an orchestral violist, had played under Furtwängler in Italy before the war. Moreover, during World War II, Giulini, never a fascist, had defected from the Italian army into which he had been conscripted and went into hiding for nine months, during which time he was a “wanted” man. But when I asked him about the controversy surrounding Furtwängler’s decision to stay in Germany and to allow himself to be a representative of a corrupt regime, Giulini was hesitant to judge:

It’s very, very difficult to judge the position of a man. It’s difficult for you in America to understand the problems we had in Europe. It’s difficult to put yourself in a position, in a special moment (in history), that is absolutely impossible to imagine if you didn’t live in that time. That last thing I should do is to express my opinion on this point. I had my personal political opinion, I took my position — very precise. I was not a fascist (laughs), and at the moment that I had to make a strong decision, I took it. But I am not in a position to do any criticism of another person.

We judge ourselves and others, to the extent that we do it, with the perfection of 20/20 vision that only comes in looking back, in hindsight, at what was done. We sometimes say “he should have known better than to” (make that business deal, marry that person, visit that neighborhood, smoke, drink — take your pick). Well, it is sometimes true. And, after all, I’m in the business of trying to help people to make better judgments. But mostly, that experience tells me that all people make mistakes and, assuming that they don’t mean to injure others, they mostly pay for those mistakes with their own blood, tears, and sweat.

As much as I recognize that judgment has its place, as a therapist, I try to meet people on their own terms, not coming from “on high” as a stern taskmaster or a fundamentalist-style religious figure “laying down the law.”

No, if you want that, you shouldn’t consult me. I am not here to condemn, although I don’t shy away from identifying right from wrong when it can be clearly seen.

Instead, I am here to help, to understand, to provide a bit of solace, to be a guide to a better way, if I can.

The gavel at the top of this essay is the work of Glentamara and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Cubs and Sox Fans: Be Careful What You Wish For

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Certain years ring bells for Cubs and Sox fans. For the South Siders, it’s 2005 and before that, 1959.

Make a note of the year: 1959. I’ll get back to it shortly.

For the Cubbie faithful, the remembered years cause pain: the twin failures of the last two, 2003, 1998, 1989, 1984 and too many others to mention. Years when the balloon of faith and hope got punctured in the playoffs by grim reality; years that brought tears and anger and much gnashing of teeth.

As Chicagoans know, but outsiders might not, you are not supposed to be able to be both a Cubs and a Sox fan. It is essential to make a choice, usually early in life; this is done by some combination of parental persuasion, family example, and geography. Most locals don’t want to break faith with family tradition and root for a different team than their neighbors root for.

And so, not surprisingly, I was a Cubs fan. So was my dad, so was his dad, etc. And for most of the aforementioned lives, I and my recent ancestors have been living on the North Side of the city or in the northern suburbs. You’ve heard the story before, how you get imprinted on the team when your dad first takes you to see them in a tender moment of your youth. After that, no amount of pain inflicted by the ball club’s failures can separate you from the attachment. Like certain wild animals, you have mated for life.

Thus it was in 1959, the year of the first White Sox pennant in 40 summers, that I discovered the meaning of the phrase “Be careful what you wish for.”

I was a little boy, of course, but not so little that I didn’t want the White Sox to fail. Like nearly all my friends, I hated the White Sox. It was something like a religious obligation, almost an 11th commandment: “Thou shalt hate the Chicago White Sox.” Just as religion required me to honor my father and my mother, so did it ask that I root for the Cubbies only: “Thou shalt have no team before the Cubs.”

My Uncle Sam was an exception to the family allegiance to the Cubs. He was my mother’s brother, was raised on the South Side, and breathed the air of other Sox loyalists. He also had a friend who was a White Sox scout and minor league manager, Frank Parenti. Frank would get Sam tickets for some of the games and occasionally I got to see American League contests played in old Comiskey Park as a result. But that didn’t mean that I had to like them or like the White Sox! No, I went out of curiosity, as a sort of scientific observer, and to see what the draw of the Sox was to my uncle; not to mention getting to watch Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Ted Williams, and other American League greats close up.

Thanks to Mr. Parenti, both my uncle and my dad got to see the second game of the 1959 World Series. Back in those days, the games were all played in natural light, so school required that I miss seeing most of the weekday action on TV. But I was more than happy when the Sox returned to Chicago for the sixth game down 3 games to 2. Only one more loss and the World Series would be over! The sooner, the better, I felt.

I came home after school on the afternoon of the 6th game, October 8th, to find the White Sox down by a score of  8 to 3 in the 7th inning. It was clear to me, as it must have been to every other Chicago baseball fan, that the World Series was effectively over. The Sox had a relatively weak hitting team staffed by the likes of Luis Aparicio, Nelson Fox, Sherman Lollar, and Al Smith; and had won the American League Championship by dint of excellent pitching and defense, and a surprising off-year from the Yankees. The South Siders would have needed a miracle to reverse their fortunes. I was feeling good!

Along about the 8th inning, still 8-3, my mom strolled into the living room where I was parked in front of a large Muntz TV. “What’s the score,” she asked?

“Eight to three,” I replied, “the World Series is pretty much over.”

Then the words I have not forgotten, will never forget; more indelible than a tattoo on the heart they were about to break:

“Oh, that’s too bad. Your dad had a World Series ticket for you tomorrow.”

I don’t have much recall after the trauma of those words. I think I started rooting feverishly for the White Sox, but I can’t really remember any detail. All I know is that my life changed forever. I had learned a hard lesson.

As Oscar Wilde put it many years before: “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants; the other is getting it.”

In the succeeding 50 years, I have yet to see a World Series game except on TV. And I have become that rare Chicago sports fan who hopes for the best for both the Cubs and the Sox.

I know, all too well, the danger of doing otherwise.

The above image is by Kalel2007, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.