“The whole enterpise exudes decadence like a stale, exotic perfume. You might not want to smell it every day, but then in 1950 you didn’t get the chance: it was certainly a change from oceans of rosewater, lilies of the San Fernando Valley, and the scrubbed, healthy look.”
When I decided at age 30, much later in life than most traditional college-age students do, to seriously pursue a combination of cinema and gender studies, I wanted to commemorate the occasion by getting a tattoo. When I received news of my acceptance into an Ivy League film program, I knew the time was right to pay homage in ink to an image significant to both of my interests: to women and film. I seriously considered analyzing such classic images as Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara silhouetted in dusky orange twilight at the end of Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939), Bette Davis’ chillingly fixed, veiled close-up in The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941), and Lillian Gish being driven mad by the gusting Texas dirt storms in The Wind (Victor Sjostrom, 1928).
But finally, when I was hard-pressed to settle on what I believed to be the most truly iconic female image in the history of cinema, there was no other choice than to exalt, in black-, white-, grey-, and red-inked glory, Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in the final frame of director Billy Wilder’s classic 1950 film noir Sunset Boulevard. Since I was a child, I had been alternately horrified and captivated by this elusive cinematic image, the implications of it, the nuance of it, the horror of it. As someone a generation older than most of his classmates, seeking his own comeback of sorts, I could relate to the character’s tenacity, confusion, and anger at the parade of horribles her life had become, how it all just kind of got out of hand and made her crazy and slightly agoraphobic, yet still very chic. I found the image both compelling and inspiring, and, oddly enough, I identified with it. And so now, Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond is forever immortalized on the entirety of my upper right arm, looming large when I wear short sleeves, and gazing at me in the mirror when I step out of the shower, forever frozen in that haunting final frame in a moment of transcendence and delivery, eternally ready for Mr. DeMille to shoot her close-up.
To begin any proper conversation on Sunset Boulevard, the most logical starting point, aping Wilder’s own narrative structure, is the end of the film.
Former silent movie star Norma Desmond has gone mad, driven insane by jealousy and a black romantic obsession with captive screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden). Joe, after spending time as Norma’s kept boy/employee, has had enough of her outrageous, unreasonable whims, as well as her futile desire to make a grand Hollywood comeback, holding him prisoner while working on a dream script that will never be produced. Norma, too, has had enough of gigolo Joe, who tells her he is leaving. “No one leaves a star,” she croaks like a poison toad. The cracked actress shoots him, multiple times, and as we are shown in the film’s first scenes (in an expertly noirish flashback), Joe dies and his body ends up floating in the pool of Norma’s sprawling estate. In a brilliant echo of the film’s temporally adventurous structure, Wilder’s script, by the end, finds Norma lost in time as well, playing Salome to an audience of embarrassed newsreel reporters and policemen whom she believes to be the crew of her newest picture, her comeback. At the top of the stairs, Norma thanks them all from the bottom of her shriveled heart for coming to watch her play this important scene, and begins to gesture in haunting, antiquated ways that left the language of cinema many decades before, as her eyes go transparent, exposing her madness for both the newsreel cameras and the spectator.
“Yes! I was there,” exclaimed co-star Nancy Olson (who played ingenue Betty Schaefer) of the two-day shoot for the film’s final haunting sequence. Fifty years later, her recollections are as clear as the filtered, cold water Wilder had pumped into the Desmond pool that Joe would eventually find himself floating in face-down: “It was a mob scene, reporters and photographers, and Billy was directing everybody – but Erich von Stroheim was also directing Norma Desmond for the newsreel cameras” (Staggs, 123). Norma’s trusty butler Max (von Stroheim) instructs the “cast and crew” to all play along to get her out of the house, and as he calls “action” to Norma, who has been sequestered away in her room preparing for her big scene, the room falls silent, just as on a film set run by Cecil B. DeMille himself. The actress slowly descends a twisting marble staircase, dripping in sequins and baubles, as though she is descending straight into the inferno of Hell.
“The final mad scene raised problems,” wrote Swanson in her autobiography. “In a state of derangement, Billy wanted me to come down on the inside of the stairway where the steps were narrowest. On high heels, I would have tripped for sure, so I played the scene barefoot. I imagined a steel ramrod in me from head to toe holding me together, and descended as if in a trance” (Swanson, 501).
As Norma nears the foot of the stairs, in a medium shot, the camera closes in on her, and cinematographer John Seitz’s camera moves closer and closer to her painted, powdered mask of a face. Norma is now playing and speaking directly to the filmgoing audience, or “those wonderful people out there in the dark,” who by this point are both captivated and literally held captive by the confrontational shot. Is she coming for us next? Norma, eyes like pinwheels whose centers are fixed right at the viewer, moves her limbs like slow-motion snakes. Who doesn’t know the most infamous line by heart? “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” And then, the film simply fades away. It literally seems to disintegrate, echoing Norma’s rapidly deteriorating mental state, or as author Sam Staggs, an expert on the film, says, “dissolves into a fuzzy, overexposed image [where] light engulfs Norma, as if she were emerging from the tunnel in a near-death experience” (Staggs, 125). Wilder, unsure of where to cut the scene, simply left the camera running until she reached the foot of the staircase, the mouth of madness. “When Mr. Wilder called ‘print it!’ I burst into tears,” recalled Swanson. “Norma Desmond had taken her leave” (Swanson, 501).
That Norma’s twisted brand of suicidal, reckless female suffering and insanity would actually cement both the character’s and Swanson’s filmic immortality – more so than her acting career or her stardom – is ironic and eerily seems to predate the phenomenon of reality and tabloid television programs casting vain, mentally ill and disturbed women in the role of the ultimate entertainer. Without the cuckoo Norma, there would be no wannabes, no Anna Nicole Smiths, no Lindsay Lohans, no celebrations of the nutsy, failed actresses’ real lives providing ghoulish entertainment for the masses, more than their professional lives ever did. Swanson as Norma, who feminist film critic Molly Haskell refers to as having “all the grace and dignity of a weasel in heat” (243), became an instant phenomenon, a filmic archetype: the mad actress as the ultimate femme fatale, the fallen woman that everyone pities and can’t take their eyes off of. There is no subject more appropriate for the cynicism and sensibility of noir than Hollywood, particularly the ruthlessness of the industry towards women as they age and begin to defy conventional industry standards of beauty. It is surprising that more films don’t look at this subject in great depth, but Sunset Boulevard sets an impossibly high standard. In this article, I will look in depth at the history of the film, which was the birth of the forgotten submode of “Actress Noir,” and all of the movie’s fascinating, tragic descendants that find their roots in Wilder’s hideous, hilarious vision of Hollywood-as-destroyer. For the purposes of this article, I will only look at stories of American, Hollywood actresses, though certainly films by international auteurs such as R.W. Fassbinder’s Veronika Voss could be included if not for the focus on Hollywood’s ruthlessness, both towards women, and just in general. “You befouled your own nest,” roared studio magnate Louis B. Mayer at Wilder at the film’s Los Angeles premiere. “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood, you goddam foreigner son of a bitch.” To which Wilder replied, “I directed the picture. Why don’t you go fuck yourself?” (Staggs, 164). And so, a classic – popular with audiences and critics – was born.
From the opening shot from the pov of the gutter that moves swiftly through the slick, dirty streets of the crumbling, palm tree-lined remnants of old Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard establishes itself as a film about economy. Each frame propels the story forward in a muscular, authoritative way, while the story itself is literally about economy: Norma Desmond’s old movie money essentially buys her a sex slave in struggling, poverty-stricken writer Joe Gillis. Neither Joe nor Norma is immune to the monetary pressures and financial allure of movies. Joe must act the part of a doting fan, a competent writer, and a lover for Norma in order to stay fed and clothed and have a roof over his head, while the faded, forgotten silent movie queen dreams of a comeback that will see her back on top and (ostensibly) collecting a large paycheck as she commanded in her heyday. Every character in the film, for the sake of economy, is putting on an act or acting. Beginning with a seamless tracking shot, Seitz’s camera rises up from the gutter, and finally settles on a police homicide squad racing at five in the morning to the manse of an old-time movie star whose imbroglio in the above-described crime of passion sets things in motion for a classic Hollywood-on-Hollywood story.
Sunset Boulevard, the street, the film, and the very notions of shattered dreams and fame that the street conjures, is a mythical, deadly place, and this is a cautionary tale right from the start, especially given the film’s ominous, acidly funny opening scene of a dead body floating in a pool, with the dead Joe Gillis (William Holden) narrating a macabre flashback of his Hollywood failure from the great beyond. Hollywood will kill you (as it does for Joe) or make you insane (as it does for Norma). Gillis begins to spin a yarn about how he became just another dead, desperate screenwriter floating in a former silent movie queen’s pool on that legendary strip of road. The film begins in the dirty, gritty gutters of Hollywood, with block-stenciled letters that read: SUNSET BLVD. But what does this street name mean? What does Sunset Boulevard mean? Literally, the area covers 24 miles and is “a street in the western part of Los Angeles County, California, that stretches from Figueroa Street in downtown to the Pacific Coast Highway at the Pacific Ocean in the Palisades” (“Sunset Boulevard”).
In this respect, Sunset Boulevard’s geography cannily posits the film into a cinematic, noir borderland – a place bordering good and bad neighborhoods, water and earth — and Norma Desmond as a person living on the border of reality and insanity. As we know from Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil, “borders are irrelevant in film” and the casual crossing of these borders is a feature specific to the noir mode (Levine, 10/27). Noted for being dangerous to drive because of its “treacherous, winding, hairpin curves and blind crests,” the Boulevard’s very architecture can be compared to both Billy Wilder’s film, and the myth that has been built around the concept of a boulevard of broken dreams. Called “an icon of Hollywood celebrity culture,” the very name of this geographical location is an “enduring shorthand for the glamor associated with Tinseltown” (“Sunset Boulevard”). As it was in yesteryear, when Desmond’s “waxworks” – her gallery of similarly fallen movie idols including by-then-forgotten silent greats like Buster Keaton and Anna Q. Nilsson – ruled the town, Sunset Boulevard’s “Sunset Strip” remains a prime spot for celebrity-spotting, nightlife, tourism, and other assorted Hollywood gawking and stalking from paparazzi and visitors; and those who move there with a dream quickly find themselves waiting tables, becoming prostitutes, giving guided celebrity tours – or compromising in some way – in order to eke out a meager living in a town that eats dreamers for lunch.
“Sunset” could also be an apt description for the dimming careers of the film’s two lead characters. Joe Gillis is one such desperate character, a tertiary, hack screenwriter who can’t seem to get a foothold in the industry despite his raw natural talent for storytelling and his leading-man good looks. He is clearly a B-picture noir character who has fumbled his way into a prestige film by the time he happens onto Chez Desmond. As Sunset Boulevard opens, we find Joe on his last leg: repo men have come for his car, essential for navigating the bumper-to-bumper traffic in the area. Joe knows that without a means to get around, to at least attempt to shill out his half-baked scripts, he will be in trouble. So he does what any clever screenwriter would do in the situation, he makes up a story. Joe is confident, a survivor. “You say the cutest things,” he smart-mouths to the repo men who have come to take his car away for non-payment, as he tells them a fairy story about how a friend has borrowed the vehicle for the weekend. Joe goes out to try and sell a script for some quick cash, only to be met with resistance at every turn – his disinterested agent won’t even lend him money for the car payment. His prospects are grim as he speeds along the fabled street, infamous for awful traffic congestion, potholes and cracks, as the literal street again mirrors the motifs of Wilder’s cracked film and characters. Fatefully, Joe’s tire blows out as he evades the repo men who are after his car.
In a symmetrical act of melodramatic deus ex machina, as the car wobbles along literally on its last leg, Joe pulls the vehicle into the garage of the first place he sees: a crumbling, disheveled estate that feels more like a haunted house than a residence. As described by interior decorator Billy Haines, who worked with stars such as Pola Negri and Norma Shearer, this particular home “gave off the odor of milk and ashes” (Staggs, 162). Joe immediately thinks of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and “Miss Havisham and her rotting wedding dress and torn veil, taking it out on the world,” even before he meets the home’s owner, Norma Desmond, who exemplifies Dickens’ character. When they finally do come face to face, Norma mistakes Joe for the undertaker she has had her trusty butler Max call out. It seems death haunts Norma’s crumbling mansion: her companion, a monkey, has died and requires proper burial. Yes, Joe’s first glimpse into the life of the eccentric Norma is through a completely bizarre monkey funeral. As she whisks Joe through her home – replete with paintings, photos, and other assorted Norma Desmond-themed artwork and bric-a-brac (which was supplied by Swanson herself [Staggs, 86-87]), the home embodies Dickens’ phrase about the Havisham place in Great Expectations: “portable property” (86).
Art Director Hans Dreier, who notably had worked with Josef von Sternberg on The Scarlet Empress (and whose palatial interiors no doubt inspired and informed the mise-en-scene of Norma’s mansion), began his career at UFA, where German Expressionism, and therefore the Noir aesthetic, was born. Dreier was key in bringing the look to the United States, working on noir staples with Wilder on Double Indemnity (1944) and Robert Siodmak on The File on Thelma Jordon (1950). In Sunset Boulevard, for which he won the Oscar for Art Direction (Oscar Database), he ratchets up the aesthetic drama by bringing in the same decadent “mishmash Mediterranean Gothic Baroque” decor that he used for client Mae West. “The only difference was a matter of hue,” wrote Staggs in his assessment of the Desmond abode. “Norma Desmond lived in noir, Mae West in surroundings of kitschy gilded white and frilly pink” (136-137). Lit with flickering candles – just as in the scene from Queen Kelly that Norma shows Joe in her private screening room (a 1928 film in which von Stroheim legendarily directed Swanson) – Norma’s mansion is likened by Staggs to the “mausoleum” feeling of Beast’s castle in Jean Cocteau’s 1946 classic Beauty and the Beast, which features “sconces that are live human arms holding lighted candles” (195). In this version of the fairy tale, the genders are switched and it is Norma who is the Beast and Joe who is Beauty, in a startling reversal of the traditional masculine/feminine romantic lead dynamic.
Wilder takes the spooky funhouse milieu another step further by introducing the noise of a bleating pipe organ first non-diegetically, then by moving the sound into the diegesis of Norma’s living room, which is dominated by the instrument. The great room is filled with its mournful, tuneless noise which randomly whistles through the rusty pipes as Norma holds court in a place that Staggs asserts “reeks of sex and melancholy” (141). To the spectator, this music rising through the clogged instrument signals the menopausal Norma’s sexual arousal by the handsome young stranger. Freud said that desire is always excessive and that “What we desire is desire, desire simply to be in a state of desire, where one feels alive, wanted” (Lecture, 9/22). As Professor Don Levine, an authority on film and genres, says, “all organs bring pleasure, also displeasure,”(Lecture, 9/22) which can be taken literally or metaphorically in the case of Norma Desmond, her pipe organ, and her seedy sex. Norma’s desire for Joe, who has cast her as Dickens’ ghostly rich spinster aunt who was left at the altar and never recovered, will ultimately be her undoing.
While Norma does embody these attributes, insanity, wealth, and power begotten from a bygone era, she also is informed by the greatest mythological Greek female characters, some of whom, as echoed in the animal-printed fabrics used throughout the film, are part woman, part animal: the Sirens, the Gorgons, and the harpies. Staggs likens her animalistic nature and “needy curls” of hands to the paws of Cocteau’s Beast, again rendering her as inhuman. Norma has a prestigious, dangerous aura that renders her classical in form from the first second she is onscreen. That Norma’s grand plan, as she explains to Joe very early in the film, is to make a comeback playing Salome for her old crony, director Cecil B. DeMille, feels as fitting as it does delusional. The literal meaning of “harpy” in Greek is “that which snatches,” while “Gorgon” literally translated is “dread,” and the Sirens famously lured sailors to shipwreck on the shores of their remote island. Salome – whose name ironically means “peace” at the root — is best-known as the Bible’s ultimate femme fatale, in perfect keeping with both Sunset Boulevard‘s archetypal, innate noirishness, and the mythology of Norma Desmond as the screen’s ultimate femme fatale. Salome performed the Dance of the Seven Veils for King Herod, who in return granted her the head of John the Baptist on a platter. This has been depicted innumerable times throughout the history of art and literature, notably in paintings, theater, ballet, and music. Richard Strauss wrote a famous opera on the character, while Oscar Wilde gave the story an erotic, perverse twist that found the temptress kissing John’s decapitated head following his spurning of her advances (just as Norma will eventually “have” Joe’s head by shooting him when he tries to leave at the film’s end).
Norma, who, as we will learn over the course of Sunset Boulevard knows all about advances being spurned, is writing the script for her comeback vehicle herself, despite being decades too old to play the nubile, lithe young dancer. Her epic is written in an antiquated language, the filmic language that made her famous: silent movies. Filmgoer Miles Krueger was one of the first cineastes to see Sunset Boulevard in the theater, and he says that while there was a feeling of expectation from the audience to see a soft-focus, nostalgic look back at the silent era, there was equal excitement over the newness of the images presented in the film. It was a chilling experience because of those images, those “faces glowering down,” said Krueger. “In the few years that had transpired since the end of the silent era in the late twenties, silent movies had become as archaic as hieroglyphics” (Staggs, 155). This is an apt way to describe how Norma has written her Salome script. Joe, no stranger to sinking ships, immediately realizes the trap this siren has set for him: his car has almost literally been shipwrecked outside in the garage. To turn a quick buck and hide out from his creditors, he agrees to come into Ms. Desmond’s employ as a doctor for her terrible script, “the moment of accretion” in Sunset Boulevard that sets the piece up to be “a film of accretions [where the proverbial] snowball begins rolling, gathers snow,” and finally becomes a destructive avalanche (Levine lecture 11/3/2010).
Norma, you see, has plenty of money to throw around. A sugar daddy at heart, who isn’t afraid to buy love because she can, it pleases her to throw cash at Joe, who seems to be a new variation on her beloved dead pet monkey (even dressing up in a “monkey” suit – a tuxedo with formal tails – for New Year’s Eve). “Women in noirs are offered to the male gaze, by male directors, almost always in quotation marks, representing something unconscious about men themselves,” lectured Professor Levine (9/08/2010), and in this respect, we can look at the uncompromising Norma as an extension of Billy Wilder’s eccentricity. “It was all very queer, but queer things were yet to come,” says Joe, observing the monkey funeral. In fact, what we think was supposed to be Norma’s pet monkey, at least according to Wilder was actually supposed to be her lover. “He always liked fires and poking at them with a stick,” cheekily eulogizes Norma at the chimp’s funeral. Wilder, directing Swanson in these scenes, took the theme of bestiality both as a joke and seriously: “Now one more time, Gloria, and show us what you feel. After all, Norma Desmond was fucking the monkey” (a bit of direction that allegedly made Swanson, who was very prim and proper in real life, very uncomfortable) (Staggs, 95-97). Other suggested sexual perversions that are contained in the film, whose script Staggs suggests “contains little that was overtly shocking,” range from voyeurism (is Max watching Norma and Joe make love through the hollowed-out keyholes?), sadomasochism (Max is happy, and indeed fulfilled by meeting Norma’s demands, like a slave would be to his sexual master), and necrophilia (when Norma hotly recounts Salome kissing the severed head of John the Baptist on his “cold, dead lips”) (Staggs, 95).
For all of the film’s grotesquerie, braggadoccio, and literateness, Sunset Boulevard’s greatest triumph is its rapaciously cynical, unrelenting wit. Skewering Hollywood in a biting way, Wilder’s fascination with American culture is expressed through cadaverous jokes about death and destitution brought on by the evil, oppressive empire of Hollywood, where studio heads make and break starlets and rookie writers every day. The way the director deconstructed idolatry and celebrity was unlike anything that had hit the industry before, breaking new ground in this particular brand of black-as-pitch humor. Not even Wilder’s own classic noir vision Double Indemnity – with its gloriously brusque, casual treatment of murder and feminine criminal guile – is as keenly self-aware of its own innate comedic properties as Sunset Boulevard (though the director would apply the same intense-focus formula to the media with a degree of success the following year in Ace in the Hole). As author Sam Staggs observes, the film remains “a glossary of visual, verbal, and film-history in-jokes [and] can be read as a 110-minute punch line” (Staggs, 136).
The pressures on actors are enormous. They must look perfect at all times. They must always be cordial and clever. They must deliver emotion on command, have a distinct lack of vanity, and take direction with aplomb. It takes a gifted performer to be able to navigate these demands that can lead to nervous breakdowns, bad reputations, and occasionally legendary performances. The spectator is told by director Billy Wilder that Norma Desmond is such an actor: revered, possessed of a mercurial artistic temperament, a consummate professional, and a complete lunatic who has been cruelly forgotten by the business that she helped build because of her age and innumerable eccentricities. Swanson as Norma embodies many of the characteristics of the typical femme fatale, but the performance has a commanding element to it that takes things just a step further by actually redefining the term “femme fatale” forever and casting the definitive version of this trope as a crazy actress. But is Norma truly a femme fatale? To properly answer this question, one must look at the history of this archetype, who is most closely associated, perhaps erroneously, with the hard-boiled world of film noir. It is not a surprise to discover that the first femmes fatale were initially depicted in Gothic literature, as are many classic film tropes. “The femme fatale is fatal for herself,” wrote Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton in “Towards a Definition of Film Noir.” “Frustrated and deviant, half-predator, half-prey, detached, yet ensnared, she falls victim to her own traps” (22). If “Norma Desmond” was defined in the dictionary, this would likely be the only accompanying text needed to describe her. The lineage of what most people think of as the femme fatale, though, is very misunderstood. Her legend stems from the popular fear of the power held by enchantresses or witches, and a writer for History Television argues the opposite, that the femme actually “remains an example of female independence and a threat to traditional female gender roles” (History Channel).
While many feminist critics erroneously argue that this archetype is steeped in misogyny, the more interesting, less-explored path (which I always prefer to take in cinema studies) proposes the femme fatale can be the director’s succubus for his own wicked incubus point of view. Film critic Molly Haskell noted that “the actress becomes, for certain directors, not just the symbol of woman but the repository of certain repellent qualities which he would like to disavow. He projects onto her the narcissism, the vanity, the fear of growing old which he is horrified to find festering in himself” (244). Author Janey Place agrees that independence is the modus operandi of the femme fatale, but notes that the type is almost always sexualized and directed inward: “the independence which film noir women seek is often visually represented as self-absorbed narcissism,” Place notes. “The woman gazes at her own reflection in the mirror, ignoring the man she will use to achieve her goals, self-interest over devotion to a man is often the original sin of the film noir woman and metaphor for the threat her sexuality represents to him” (57).
A woman using sex, and using men as instruments to satisfy her own libido, remains a dangerous concept even now sixty years later, and once again proves that the femme fatale is fundamentally a masculine character and a representation and critique of masculinity, rather than an attack on femininity. Place insightfully points out that in Sunset Boulevard, Norma “insists [Joe] participate in her life rather than being interested in his” (57), and that Joe’s ideal partner Betty dreams of his career rather than her own, that she is content to be behind the camera rather than in front of it. Because narcissism is synonymous with the acting profession, and the submode of Actress Noir, it is important to consider the gendered implications of what Haskell refers to as a “basic and thoroughly healthy human impulse, among both sexes, to be other people, to experience other identities” (243). In her critique of Sunset Boulevard, Haskell attacks the male-dominated systems of power that made Norma, and points a finger of blame at those who consider acting to be a singularly female, therefore lesser, profession and those who believe that mature women don’t fit in past a certain due date. Haskell echoes the metaphor of the burnt-out candle when describing all that is left of Swanson’s Norma as “the vanity of woman” (243).
“The category of Noir is malleable, and there are ‘Noir Westerns’ and ‘Noir Musicals'” (Levine Lecture, 9/08/2010). Therefore, the notion of Actress Noirs (and neo-noirs) as a category seems like a natural submode of the genre, with significant iconography littered throughout film history. According to screenwriter Ben Hecht’s definition, an “actress is any woman under 30 who is not actively employed in a brothel, with many exceptions” (Staggs, 175). It could also be said that the femme fatale, whether it is her actual profession or not, must always be the ultimate actress, and the actress must always be a femme fatale in order to succeed. This kind of slinky mise-en-abyme is reflective of the classic “double bind of the post-war woman” that we find in studies of the noir genre (Renov) and that is “the very hallmark of postmodernism” (Levine lecture 9/22). That Wilder and Co. choose to depict Norma as a fading star, and that there are countless other examples littered throughout both the noir period of 1944-1956/58 (Levine lecture 9/08/2010) and far beyond in ensuing neo-noirs, suggests that in order to survive, every femme fatale – from Ava Gardner in The Killers to Rita Hayworth as Gilda – must know how to act in order to gain her independence. “Acting is role-playing, role-playing is lying, and lying is a woman’s game,” reasoned Haskell (243). Women of this period were required to play along with the “cultural amnesia” (Levine, 9/08/2010) that informed the popular consciousness of gender and the place of women post-WWII, and throughout the history of film noir, that dictated women, who had just been liberated in many ways by being forced into the breadwinner role when their men left to fight the war, pretend like nothing had happened, put on their pretty dresses, and head back into the kitchens.
However, there was one major problem with this: “Noir says we are not being told the right stories,” said Professor Don Levine. “A new world requires a new voice, new set of images” (Levine, 9/08), and so Norma Desmond helped a new generation of audiences understand a new type of cinematic woman: the insane actress as the ultimate femme fatale. Norma Desmond wasn’t going to be wearing any mask other than her own, so in Sunset Boulevard it is significant that Wilder and Swanson, in a truly post-modern fashion, deliver a Hollywood first by exposing the trope of the femme fatale to be the ultimate, albeit unraveling, actress, a staple that would be copied, parodied, awarded, and everything in quick succession of the film’s release. She became an unnamed cultural icon, a quiet spectre. This character type joins the already-expansive list of Noir players: the gumshoe, the patsy, the crime boss, the crooked policeman, the good girl and of course the traditional femme fatale. Norma Desmond, her iconicity and her place in the canon of great female characters in the history of cinema, is directly dependent on her character type, which would go on to influence a generation of meta-mind-fuck neo-noirs that feature actresses playing actresses who lose it and head over to the dark side.
From the grit and dishevelment of David Lynch’s Hollywood neo-noir trifecta Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006) to the glam deshabille of Jessica Lange’s tragic Frances Farmer in Frances (1982), the cracked actress provides the spectator with an insight into the dangers that face women who age in the industry through a distinctly dark lens. Pedro Almodóvar touches on this subject in noirish films such as his most recent Broken Embraces (2009), while Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, as sister-actresses, played the yin and the yang to Swanson’s Norma in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? It could also be argued that anytime an actress plays an actress – no matter the genre – the femme fatale infects her every move and each new performance tips its hat to Swanson’s archetype. Consider such examples as Gena Rowlands’ towering, diva-tastic turn in John Cassavetes’ Opening Night (1977), Faye Dunaway’s unhinged kabuki-influenced Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1981), or perhaps the most recognized femmes fatale outside of the world of film noir: Anne Baxter and Bette Davis as the titular sycophant Eve and Broadway legend Margo Channing in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, which competed against Wilder’s film for awards honors in 1950 (All About Eve beat Sunset Boulevard in all major categories, except Best Actress, which went to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, one of the all-time biggest upsets in the category [Oscar database]).
Each of these vituperative women must play her assigned role(s) to achieve a goal, and they are singular in their pursuits, just like the prototypical femme fatale of film noir. “The Actress,” as a character, and in reality, is the ultimate femme fatale. In Criss Cross (1949), Anna’s breakdown – she doesn’t want to go to the women’s prison, wear plain cotton or dig potatoes (i.e., become a lesbian, therefore losing her feminine appeal to the red-blooded American criminal whom she seeks to bilk) – ends with a melodramatic crying jag and hysteria. It feels like a bad actress giving a wildly unmodulated performance (despite the actress playing her, Yvonne DeCarlo, giving an assured performance). Anna proves, in a sense, that the femme fatale is in fact always giving a performance, always wearing a different mask for someone in her grand masquerade. Anna’s character, and the character type of the femme fatale, is by and large eerily similar to an actress as she is constantly fine-tuning her put-ons, and changing her face for everyone. For Burt Lancaster, she plays the victim, she plays nostalgic, and she plays at romance. For Dan Duryea, she acts the part of the trophy wife, a naif. Since women in noir, particularly the femme fatale, have little power or agency independent from men, they must manipulate the men around them to get their desired, lurid results, usually autonomy and/or money. Thinking the femme fatale is a bad actress giving a bad performance couldn’t be any more erroneous, though, as she is truly a great actress who must know how to instrumentally perform to get what she wants. When the femme fatale is literally an actress, it is likely that all hell will break loose at some point in the film. She is a master of her craft, and if they handed out Oscars for women like her, the femme fatale would definitely win Best Actress, and then likely go and pawn the little gold statuette for cold, hard cash the following morning. Then, as though nothing has happened, she would move on to the next big role.
“The next big role” is a concept for actresses that can, particularly as female actors age, be as elusive as the recurring “MacGuffin” (Levine lecture, 9/08/2010) motif across film noir’s “range of expression” (Schatz, 568). Sometimes there are the occasional supporting or ancillary parts for older female stars, but for most, the glory days of being an ingenue and romantic leading lady have long passed. Now, in their forties, fifties or even (gasp!) sixties, they play the new star’s mother, the grandmother of the spunky teenager while decked out in greying fright wigs, or simply the mean old bitch, crone, or hag who causes everyone one degree of strife or another. That is sadly still roughly the same range of characters a more mature actress has to look forward to playing in 2010, so more than sixty years ago in 1950, Norma Desmond’s predicament was even more agonizing given the dearth of good female performers over the age of 40. Swanson herself had not made a film in nine years by the time she began shooting Sunset Boulevard (Swanson, 270), and she felt as though her once-scorching film career was finished. Ironically, the pragmatic Swanson would be cast as Norma Desmond, who was so preoccupied with reclaiming her past glories that it warped her completely, when in reality the actress was content with regional theater gigs and resigned to the fact that movies had so changed since she was at the height of her own popularity, that there was no longer a place for her at the table. It could even be said that she was gracious about being degraded in this way.
“It was a chilling thought, yet most of the scripts I had been offered since finishing Sunset Boulevard dealt with aging, eccentric actresses,” wrote Swanson in her autobiography, Swanson on Swanson. “It was Hollywood’s old trick: repeat a successful formula until it dies. I could obviously go on playing it in its many variations for decades to come, until at last I became some sort of creepy parody of myself, or rather, of Norma Desmond – a shadow of a shadow (270-271).”
The reaction by Hollywood to her turn as Norma was similar to the adoration the character feels when she visits DeMille’s film set in Sunset Boulevard decked out in regal white peacock feathers. At the film’s premiere, the actress noted that she “could read in all their eyes a single message of elation: if she can do it, why should we be terrified?” (Staggs, 161) Swanson wanted to make it very clear that she was far from a Norma Desmond type in real life, though by page four of her autobiography, she was already recounting, with sublime dramatic flair, a back-alley abortion she had at age 25 that left her sterile, performed one day after her wedding to a European aristocrat, in order to further her film acting career – which sounds very much like a Norma Desmond maneuver. But this is where the lurid similarities end. Swanson’s early days and magnificent success in silent pictures ensured her a place at the canonical table, a spot in the history books. Before Sunset Boulevard, Swanson might not have worked in nine years, but everyone knew who she was because of her huge fame. But following the exhaustive press campaign, hullabaloo surrounding the film’s release, the constant comparisons to her character, and memorable nature of the film and the character, Gloria Swanson was not in danger of going out of business any time soon, though most people expected her to be Norma Desmond. Many of her close collaborators, including composer Dickson Hughes – who unsuccessfully attempted to turn the film into a Broadway musical vehicle for Swanson called, simply, hilariously, Boulevard! — humorously referred to her tough side as “Gloria in retrograde, Norma Desmond ascendant” (Staggs, 222). In later years, when she worked in theater and television, the actress would instruct directors to tell her – or smack her – if they saw any of Norma’s mannerisms or intonations come creeping out (Staggs, 199). “I had said at my peak in pictures that I could take them or leave them alone,” wrote Swanson in her autobiography. “Maybe it was time to say it again, while I was close to the top?” (Swanson, 271). Though she owed her post-Sunset Boulevard fame almost exclusively to her characterization of Norma Desmond, Swanson struggled in vain to distance herself from that madwoman on the staircase, that vampiress who withers into dust in the morning’s hot white light.
Which brings us back to where we started: the crumbling end of the film. What exactly happens to the murderous actress once she’s lost her mind and the cameras stop rolling? Does Norma get carted off against her will to the loony bin, a la Lange’s Frances, for electric shock therapies, midnight rape, and finally lobotomy? Does she pull out the gun she shot Joe with and blow her brains out like the wasted Betty/Diane (Naomi Watts) at the end of Lynch’s Mulholland Drive? Bleeding and rolling around in the filthy Hollywood streets as Laura Dern does by Inland Empire’s conclusion? Does she simply become even more famous for committing a murder like O.J. Simpson did and enjoy a career resurgence? Co-star William Holden offered his own more rosy theory to a reporter in 1978, which he pitched to a reporter as a sequel: “Norma Desmond has been sentenced to life for the murder of Joe Gillis and she is now eligible for parole. She gets out of prison, rehabilitated in society again. Of course, she would still be seeking a career” (Staggs, 227). Any continuation of this legend, to me, would depend on one factor: would it be a discordant vision of humanism, as Holden suggests, or would it be one of true noir nihilism, which is the preferred choice of those who direct contemporary Actress neo-noirs, and is a more realistic, gritty, and logical approach?
Film scholars Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni argue, in their landmark essay for the Cahiers du Cinéma, Cinema/Ideology/Criticism, that “cinema is one of the languages through which the world communicates itself to itself,” (689), which means they prefer a realist, reflexive, and perhaps even nihilistic approach to attack the conventions of cinema, as the highly original Sunset Boulevard does. To expect film to deliver absolute reality is ludicrous, they contend, for the cinema is far from reality, just as the dead-eyed Norma Desmond is by the end of Sunset Boulevard. Film is not reality, but “a refraction through its ideology” (689), which means that the end of Sunset Boulevard is simply the end, or “an attack on the motivated happy ending” that David Bordwell wrote about in “The Case of Film Noir” section of The Classical Hollywood Cinema (76). And by “happy ending” I think they mean an ending that gives any definitive answer as to where Norma’s next stop will be.
In the end, it is irrelevant what happens to Norma Desmond after she descends the staircase because the image – and the cinematic size of the character – so completely drowned in the black pools of noir convention, has ensured that the submode of Actress Noir will always be trying to measure up to Norma’s filmic queenliness to no avail. The end suggests that nihilism, one of Noir’s most notable stylistic conventions (Place and Peterson, 328), will triumph over cinematic humanism and manifest itself in all possible outcomes. There is not a happy ending or a comeback for Norma Desmond or any other Hollywood actress film character who appears across Actress Noir, and there can’t be. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be noir. And who cares about happy actresses, after all? They don’t make for very exciting tattoos…
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