In 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond’s anachronistic glamour singes in its desperation. And still, we can’t get enough of her. She represents for us something awful: a monster choosing to reside in a delusion, trapped in a narcissistic painting of the past.
“I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.”
She is exquisitely awful, and we love her. When Gloria Swanson lost out on the 1951 Academy Award, Swanson said people were disappointed that she failed to raise a stir. “People wanted me to care,” she said later. “In fact they seemed to want more than that. They expected scenes from me, wild sarcastic tantrums. They wanted Norma Desmond.”
And we still want her, in all of her madness. We like her dripping, gaudy jewelry, her elaborate, cigarette holderher prewar Isotta Fraschini with the leopard-print interior. We are rapt by her fancy and fame. Her crazed audacity stirs within us a glittering taste of our own hunger and panic.
We also want from her the warning to not cling to illusions of our past. When we chose to live in the past, we are constructing something that was never there to begin with. Norma’s reality reflects inwardly through distorted mirrors, but when she is confronted with a glimpse of the world other people see, she collapses, crumbling into madness.
“The stars are ageless, aren’t they?”
At 50 years old, Norma was too young to be caught up in a dusty Haversham life, but age itself doesn’t matter so much when we build prisons for ourselves. Shuttering away reality and slipping into self is Norma’s problem. Still, it was tough to be an aging woman in early Hollywood. It seems to be getting a bit better now, women are starting to get permission to be older, look like a human, and still land arresting roles, but it’s still tough. Even outside the entertainment industry, the threat of aging means something a bit different for a woman than it does for a man. We can perceive our worth as wound up too tightly in a lineless face, a tight youthful glow. Aging can be a power if you let it be, if you seek to shape yourself like a sculpture; embracing the body as the animal it is, while letting the growth of your mind and heart emanate from your being. Masks and charade can be useful tools for revealing truth if they are used with awareness, but there is a difference between a mask that thinks it is a face, and a person who uses a mask to show an unseen part of themselves, to knowingly play with identity. Some of Norma’s distorted thinking is reflected in nostalgia we hear today about the evolution of our culture. “They took the idols and smashed them, the Fairbankses, the Gilberts, the Valentinos! And who’ve we got now? Some nobodies!” she says, sounding like a grumpy grandfather (or a 20-year-old hipster.) This thinking ignores, for one, that idols are just idols. Although they represent important things, things that help people communicate with each other and sort through their lives, the culture is free to let them come and go as they please. Many cultural icons actually grow more powerful as time flows on, because the popular consciousness still responds to them despite shifts in trends and technology. Icons like Cleopatra, or, say, Norma Desmond. Norma’s story isn’t a based on a single person, but she’s an amalgamation of the a bevy of silent film stars who went through identity crises when the movies picked up sound. Hollywood was just a baby then, still awkward on its quick-growing, but massive legs. Actors were experiencing staggering, unprecedented levels of fame. This type of celebrity has exploded now, but at least there is now some precedents to learn from. For people like Mae Murray, a major inspiration for Norma, the fame was quick and hot, and terribly hard to decipher when it suddenly faded. “Where are the cameras? Where are my flowers? I must be photographed with flowers! Get them before I’m surrounded by cameramen!” Murray is quoted as saying during an episode in her later years. She was unaware that she was surrounded by doctors and nurses at the hospital in the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, CA, retirement community where she spent her last years.
Although the narration holds disdain for her, sculpting in our minds a pre-ordained judgement, a moment of compassion for Norma is exhibited by director Cecille B. Demille, appearing as himself. He gives some perspective to both Norma and the young people who don’t know who she is. He regrets Norma’s obscurity, and their cruelty towards her age remembering her forgotten brightness and talent, but also asks of her to watch what they are doing on set, to accept things as they are now.
Sunset Boulevard isn’t only an ego circus, a parable of decadence and folly. It’s also a love affair with cinema. The shots are often breathtaking, the story construction is novel and fun, the character Norma herself is all flash and drama. Part of Norma’s final monologue speaks acutely to the magic of film. “Just us and the cameras and those wonderful people out there in the dark,” she says. She is utterly deranged and murderous, and yet that quote sums up exactly what is wonderful about the movies.
Watching a film, especially in a theater setting, is an experience like no other. It’s a bit of a social thing, but it is utterly private. When films deal with deep and difficult subjects, it draws everyone in the room into a deeper intimate, sometimes uncomfortably so. Enjoying films alone on your TV or computer (or even phone,) is a different experience, but bewitchingly intimate too. We are getting flashes of the inner worlds of other people, sideways glances that make us feel less alone.