Sunset Boulevard

25/02/2021

Impossible Images; Impossible Gestures

At the beginning of Sunset Boulevard, we have the famous shot of a man lying face down in a swimming pool, filmed from below. Originally Wilder and his cameraman John F Seitz wanted to put the camera in a waterproof box and film it from inside the pool. It proved impossible. Eventually, they found a solution: to shoot from above the water but with a mirror at the bottom of the pool which would reflect the face down figure. This figure turns out to be central character Joe Gillis (William Holden) as the film then moves into flashback. At the end of Sunset Boulevard, the woman who has just shot him, the silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), whose money Gillis has been living off in return for a little affection, goes down the stairs, completely deluded, thinking that instead of getting arrested by the police, she is preparing for a return to her youth and a career once again in cinema. A little earlier Gillis has told her there is nothing tragic about being fifty unless you are trying to be twenty-five. In these closing moments, she is trying to be half her age in a grotesque series of gestures that reveal the impossibility of the task. If the film opens on an impossible camera shot; it ends on an impossible gesture.

In Immortality, Milan Kundera opens on a woman at a swimming pool who makes a gesture suggesting she is more than half her age. “The woman might have been sixty or sixty-five…She walked around the pool towards the exit. she passed the lifeguard, and after she had gone some three or four steps beyond him she turned her head, smiled, and waved to him And that instant I felt a pang in my heart! That smile and that gesture belonged to a twenty-five-year-old girl.” Kundera then proposes not unproblematically “that smile and that gesture had charm and elegance, while the face and the body no longer had any charm. It was the charm of a gesture drowning in the charmlessness of the body.” Gloria Swanson may only have just turned fifty when she made Sunset Boulevard, but she hadn’t acted in a film for a decade and the harshness of Kundera’s narrator is no less present in a medium that demands from its women youth as well as grace. As Norma Desmond comes down the stairs about to be arrested for murder, while thinking she about to make a cinematic return, so we see the similarities between Kundera’s image of the woman at the pool and Wilder’s evocation of tragedy — the tragic assumption Desmond possesses thinking that she is twenty-five rather than fifty.  

In the details we offer about the film’s production history we have the impossible image; in Desmond’s attempt at youth, and Kundera’s description of it in Immortality, we have the impossible gesture. Wilder found a solution to the impossible image but it would take a lot more than ingenuity to turn back the hands of time as both Wilder and Kundera offer women who try to do so. Yet if Desmond is a ridiculous woman trying to return to her youth, Joe Gillis is an absurd figure too; a man who allows a woman close to twice his age to dress him and pamper him. The young woman who has fallen in love with him as they work on a script together arrives at Desmond’s house where Joe lives and Nancy says “now get your things together and get out of here”. “All my things” he says, “all my eighteen suits, all my custom made shoes, the six dozen shirts and the cufflinks…” He knows he is ridiculous but he has got used to the luxury and got used as well to hating himself. When she says that he will come if he loves her she may be missing the point. It isn’t that he doesn’t love her but that he doesn’t much like himself. If time has been unkind to Desmond, money has been unfairly distributed from Joe’s perspective. The only way he has been able to access it has been through becoming a love object that despises itself.

Twenty years later, Holden starred in Breezy opposite Kay Lenz. The age-gap between them was greater than between Gloria Swanson and Holden, and though the film creates a few problems for Holden and Lenz as he won’t accept the age difference between them, the film concludes on a happy ending as the age gap is seen as of little relevance next to the love Holden and Lenz have for each other. Seven years after Sunset Boulevard, Holden appeared in Sabrina, also by Billy Wilder, playing Humphrey Bogart’s younger brother and with Audrey Hepburn the young woman who has desired him for years. She is the daughter of the family chauffeur, and eventually she falls in love with Bogart instead. Holden would very much have been an older man in a relationship with Hepburn (eleven years her senior) but the difference between Hepburn and Bogart was twenty-seven years and the ending is a happy one. Can we propose that if an older woman desires a younger man we are in the realm of tragedy; if an older man desires a younger woman we are in a comedy? Let us not be too hasty: Holden plays a man 23 yrs older than Faye Dunaway in Network and it does not end well, but we can think of numerous romantic comedies where a man’s seniority needn’t encumber the path towards a happy ending. Hepburn made a habit of appearing in them: not just Sabrina, but Funny Face, Love in the Afternoon and Charade too.  

However, Sunset Boulevard doesn’t only assume that it is tragic for a woman to lust after and pamper a man nineteen-years years her junior; it is preposterous as well. While a few years later in Some Like it Hot, Wilder could end the film on a joke about a gentleman falling for a guy in drag who says, even when Jack Lemmon admits to being a bloke, that nobody is perfect, what about the imperfections of an older woman that no feeling could counter? One needn’t attack Billy Wilder for showing Norma Desmond’s desire for Joe Gillis as ridiculously improbable; it is part of his wry wisdom as a filmmaker to see astutely Desmond’s delusions within the context of a society whose prejudices are much greater than merely that of Hollywood. “She must be a million years old” an assistant says to Cecil B. de Mille (playing himself), who replies “I hate to think where that puts me. I could be her father.” Yet it puts him in a perfectly acceptable place since many leading men played opposite women who were old enough to be their fathers, and where De Mille’s status as a director insulates him further from the ageing process. Not only were women rarely given the chance to play senior to younger men; they were rarely given the chance to make films themselves. The exceptions often proved the rule, the Dorothy Arzners, the Ida Lupinos, or more experimentally, the Maya Derens. In Conversations with Billy Wilder, the director Cameron Crowe asks “do you feel you were ever deserving of the label misogynist.” Wilder replies that he has no idea whether he is or not but from the next room his wife yells out “Yes!” He denies the claim. His wife is insistent and then Wilder admits that he is. It is an ambivalent exchange; the wife who has remained with him for many years literally calling him out and Wilder acquiescing to her greater judgement. 

Perhaps the ambivalence lies in Wilder’s personal decency at odds with socio-economic demand. While viewers were happy to see in Wilder films like Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon older men with much younger women and for a happy end to come out of the relationship; in Sunset Boulevard an older woman and a younger man ends (and begins) with the man dead in a swimming pool. Asked by Crowe whether the film is cynical or ironic, Wilder admits: “Ironic, maybe, yes.” Is Sunset Boulevard ironic or cynical? If Joe had stayed with Norma as he says he will to Nancy then we would have a cynical ending, a youngish man acknowledging that, unable to earn his bread and butter selling scripts to Hollywood, knows which side his bread is buttered by living with Norma in her mansion. But instead, after Nancy leaves he tells Norma what he thinks of her, what others think of her and that the mail she believes people have been sending her has all been written by her dutiful former lover and sometimes director who is now little more than her servant, Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). This leads to the film’s ironic ending after Joe is dead and Norma is arrested: she sees the lights and the cameras von Mayerling has set up as part of her great comeback and not her imminent incarceration. 

Wilder seems to suggest that such an ending is entirely likely given the structure of Hollywood and society more broadly. An actor can still play romantic leads and action men well into their fifties (as Adam Mars-Jones amusingly noted in a Guardian piece, 'Non Stop Action') yet Desmond is already written off as romantic material long before she is fifty. True, many silent stars failed to make the transition to sound, and the film casts both Erich von Stroheim and Cecil B. De Mille playing filmmakers. Von Stroheim’s last film was in the early thirties while De Mille was directing epics like The Ten Commandments into the mid-fifties. Hollywood could be harsh not only to actresses but actors too, and to directors as well, in von Stroheim's case. And yet let us return to the impossible gesture, to Kundera’s claim that the women momentarily had a charm the body didn’t possess. Kundera says that “there is a certain part of us that lives outside of time. Perhaps we become aware of our age only at exceptional moments and most of the time we are ageless.” (Immortality) Yet are men not allowed to live more outside time than women, or to extend their time of non-ageing more than women? The repertoire of femininity may be far more restricted than the repertoire of masculinity, with men capable of any number of youthful actions while women’s physical impressiveness is seen chiefly to reside in their physiognomic attributes and not their physical capabilities. When Wilder describes how Holden jumped over five steps and the railing in Sabrina, Holden would have been in his late thirties then, but Wilder could describe him as “physically first class.” (Conversations with Billy Wilder)There would be no sense that his gesture was contrary to his age, and now, as Mars-Jones and others note, numerous stars are in their fifties playing action heroes, from Robert Downey Jnr to Keanu Reeves, from Tom Cruise to Brad Pitt. The body language they are allowed to access indicates a temporal breadth women usually lack. Acting like they are 25 when they are 50 (even sixty and seventy) needn’t be a tragedy for them

Sunset Boulevard is of course first and foremost a place, a street running through the centre of Hollywood, but within the context of the film it can be seen just as much as a metaphor — the sun having long since set on the career of Norma Desmond. The address in the film may be 10086 Sunset Boulevard but the “glorious old Renaissance-style mansion could have been found in midtown Los Angeles. It stood, until 1957, at 641 South Irving Boulevard on the northwest corner of Wilshire Boulevard.” (Movie Locations). When Joe comes across the house looking for a place to hide his car, when he sees the repossessors looking for him, he finds an old ruin. “A neglected house gets an unhappy look, this one had it in spades” Joe says in voice-over, as the camera in medium-long shot travels up to the house as we see Joe going up the steps. Joe compares the house to “that old woman in Great Expectations, that Miss Havisham, in her rotting wedding dress and her torn veil, taking it out on the world because she’d been given the go by.” Norma Desmond has been given the go by as well, jilted by Hollywood and left to rot in a rotting house. When she returns to the studios believing that her career might once again be resurrected she turns up in her car wearing a veil, and the script she has been working on is a version of Salome, with its dance of the seven veils which Norma would herself no doubt perform. However, it isn’t Norma they want but her car, a 1929 Isotta Fraschini: the studio has been in contact reckoning the vehicle will be perfect for a picture they are working on. An old car is one thing; an old woman another. 

When in the film’s most famous line she insists after Joe says that she used to be big “I am big, it’s the picture’s that got small” the line isn’t just offered by a woman past her prime — there would be those who would insist films might have been also. After all, there Wilder is casting two directors best known for their silent work and a star from the era too, but creating a contrast not only by making inevitably a film with sound but going further and insisting on utilising a voice-over as well. Ironically, though, it will be the speaker of that voice-over (Joe) who will be dead in a pool at the end of the film while the three figures from silent cinema are still alive. Sound might have killed silent cinema but here Wilder kills the voice. 

It is an ironic ending to a film that could easily have been cynical. When the cops try and coax Norma down the stairs and into the police car, it is Max, always willing to accommodate her delusions, who tells her that the cameras are waiting. She will once again be front-page news, descending the stairs she sees before her the cameras acknowledging her presence. But Wilder doesn’t end the picture with Norma pushed into a police car; he ends it with Desmond saying she is ready for her close up as the film allows her to replicate her silent days. Wilder may more or less start the film with an impossible image of Joe face down in the pool but he ends on a more impossible one still: an older woman feeling she can once again become a star. Wilder allows her this delusion well aware that the films more generally wouldn’t be inclined to allow such an indulgence. It gives the film its irony but also a sensitivity that saves it from cynicism. Norma Desmond has become almost as synonymous with faded female cinematic glory as Miss Havisham has become a metonym for love’s labour's lost. Both, like Kundera’s older woman whose gesture belies her age, demand from men a sympathetic treatment the men can offer partly because of the societal structures that allow them to do so. But if Kundera’s comment about the graceless body is not without problems it rests on a sympathy, even pity, that a man offers but that a woman is expected to endure. Wilder continued to become one of Hollywood’s most important filmmakers; for Swanson, the pictures became ever smaller, and often on TV. Her final role nevertheless was in Airport 1975, with cameras clicking and a veil on her face, playing Gloria Swanson. She might not have performed the dance of the seven veils in Sunset Boulevard but she gets at least to wear one twenty fives years later playing none other than herself: a self of course that is clearly filtered through her earlier role in Wilder's film.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Sunset Boulevard

Impossible Images; Impossible Gestures

At the beginning of Sunset Boulevard, we have the famous shot of a man lying face down in a swimming pool, filmed from below. Originally Wilder and his cameraman John F Seitz wanted to put the camera in a waterproof box and film it from inside the pool. It proved impossible. Eventually, they found a solution: to shoot from above the water but with a mirror at the bottom of the pool which would reflect the face down figure. This figure turns out to be central character Joe Gillis (William Holden) as the film then moves into flashback. At the end of Sunset Boulevard, the woman who has just shot him, the silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), whose money Gillis has been living off in return for a little affection, goes down the stairs, completely deluded, thinking that instead of getting arrested by the police, she is preparing for a return to her youth and a career once again in cinema. A little earlier Gillis has told her there is nothing tragic about being fifty unless you are trying to be twenty-five. In these closing moments, she is trying to be half her age in a grotesque series of gestures that reveal the impossibility of the task. If the film opens on an impossible camera shot; it ends on an impossible gesture.

In Immortality, Milan Kundera opens on a woman at a swimming pool who makes a gesture suggesting she is more than half her age. "The woman might have been sixty or sixty-five...She walked around the pool towards the exit. she passed the lifeguard, and after she had gone some three or four steps beyond him she turned her head, smiled, and waved to him And that instant I felt a pang in my heart! That smile and that gesture belonged to a twenty-five-year-old girl." Kundera then proposes not unproblematically "that smile and that gesture had charm and elegance, while the face and the body no longer had any charm. It was the charm of a gesture drowning in the charmlessness of the body." Gloria Swanson may only have just turned fifty when she made Sunset Boulevard, but she hadn't acted in a film for a decade and the harshness of Kundera's narrator is no less present in a medium that demands from its women youth as well as grace. As Norma Desmond comes down the stairs about to be arrested for murder, while thinking she about to make a cinematic return, so we see the similarities between Kundera's image of the woman at the pool and Wilder's evocation of tragedy the tragic assumption Desmond possesses thinking that she is twenty-five rather than fifty.

In the details we offer about the film's production history we have the impossible image; in Desmond's attempt at youth, and Kundera's description of it in Immortality, we have the impossible gesture. Wilder found a solution to the impossible image but it would take a lot more than ingenuity to turn back the hands of time as both Wilder and Kundera offer women who try to do so. Yet if Desmond is a ridiculous woman trying to return to her youth, Joe Gillis is an absurd figure too; a man who allows a woman close to twice his age to dress him and pamper him. The young woman who has fallen in love with him as they work on a script together arrives at Desmond's house where Joe lives and Nancy says "now get your things together and get out of here". "All my things" he says, "all my eighteen suits, all my custom made shoes, the six dozen shirts and the cufflinks..." He knows he is ridiculous but he has got used to the luxury and got used as well to hating himself. When she says that he will come if he loves her she may be missing the point. It isn't that he doesn't love her but that he doesn't much like himself. If time has been unkind to Desmond, money has been unfairly distributed from Joe's perspective. The only way he has been able to access it has been through becoming a love object that despises itself.

Twenty years later, Holden starred in Breezy opposite Kay Lenz. The age-gap between them was greater than between Gloria Swanson and Holden, and though the film creates a few problems for Holden and Lenz as he won't accept the age difference between them, the film concludes on a happy ending as the age gap is seen as of little relevance next to the love Holden and Lenz have for each other. Seven years after Sunset Boulevard, Holden appeared in Sabrina, also by Billy Wilder, playing Humphrey Bogart's younger brother and with Audrey Hepburn the young woman who has desired him for years. She is the daughter of the family chauffeur, and eventually she falls in love with Bogart instead. Holden would very much have been an older man in a relationship with Hepburn (eleven years her senior) but the difference between Hepburn and Bogart was twenty-seven years and the ending is a happy one. Can we propose that if an older woman desires a younger man we are in the realm of tragedy; if an older man desires a younger woman we are in a comedy? Let us not be too hasty: Holden plays a man 23 yrs older than Faye Dunaway in Network and it does not end well, but we can think of numerous romantic comedies where a man's seniority needn't encumber the path towards a happy ending. Hepburn made a habit of appearing in them: not just Sabrina, but Funny Face, Love in the Afternoon and Charade too.

However, Sunset Boulevard doesn't only assume that it is tragic for a woman to lust after and pamper a man nineteen-years years her junior; it is preposterous as well. While a few years later in Some Like it Hot, Wilder could end the film on a joke about a gentleman falling for a guy in drag who says, even when Jack Lemmon admits to being a bloke, that nobody is perfect, what about the imperfections of an older woman that no feeling could counter? One needn't attack Billy Wilder for showing Norma Desmond's desire for Joe Gillis as ridiculously improbable; it is part of his wry wisdom as a filmmaker to see astutely Desmond's delusions within the context of a society whose prejudices are much greater than merely that of Hollywood. "She must be a million years old" an assistant says to Cecil B. de Mille (playing himself), who replies "I hate to think where that puts me. I could be her father." Yet it puts him in a perfectly acceptable place since many leading men played opposite women who were old enough to be their fathers, and where De Mille's status as a director insulates him further from the ageing process. Not only were women rarely given the chance to play senior to younger men; they were rarely given the chance to make films themselves. The exceptions often proved the rule, the Dorothy Arzners, the Ida Lupinos, or more experimentally, the Maya Derens. In Conversations with Billy Wilder, the director Cameron Crowe asks "do you feel you were ever deserving of the label misogynist." Wilder replies that he has no idea whether he is or not but from the next room his wife yells out "Yes!" He denies the claim. His wife is insistent and then Wilder admits that he is. It is an ambivalent exchange; the wife who has remained with him for many years literally calling him out and Wilder acquiescing to her greater judgement.

Perhaps the ambivalence lies in Wilder's personal decency at odds with socio-economic demand. While viewers were happy to see in Wilder films like Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon older men with much younger women and for a happy end to come out of the relationship; in Sunset Boulevard an older woman and a younger man ends (and begins) with the man dead in a swimming pool. Asked by Crowe whether the film is cynical or ironic, Wilder admits: "Ironic, maybe, yes." Is Sunset Boulevard ironic or cynical? If Joe had stayed with Norma as he says he will to Nancy then we would have a cynical ending, a youngish man acknowledging that, unable to earn his bread and butter selling scripts to Hollywood, knows which side his bread is buttered by living with Norma in her mansion. But instead, after Nancy leaves he tells Norma what he thinks of her, what others think of her and that the mail she believes people have been sending her has all been written by her dutiful former lover and sometimes director who is now little more than her servant, Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). This leads to the film's ironic ending after Joe is dead and Norma is arrested: she sees the lights and the cameras von Mayerling has set up as part of her great comeback and not her imminent incarceration.

Wilder seems to suggest that such an ending is entirely likely given the structure of Hollywood and society more broadly. An actor can still play romantic leads and action men well into their fifties (as Adam Mars-Jones amusingly noted in a Guardian piece, 'Non Stop Action') yet Desmond is already written off as romantic material long before she is fifty. True, many silent stars failed to make the transition to sound, and the film casts both Erich von Stroheim and Cecil B. De Mille playing filmmakers. Von Stroheim's last film was in the early thirties while De Mille was directing epics like The Ten Commandments into the mid-fifties. Hollywood could be harsh not only to actresses but actors too, and to directors as well, in von Stroheim's case. And yet let us return to the impossible gesture, to Kundera's claim that the women momentarily had a charm the body didn't possess. Kundera says that "there is a certain part of us that lives outside of time. Perhaps we become aware of our age only at exceptional moments and most of the time we are ageless." (Immortality) Yet are men not allowed to live more outside time than women, or to extend their time of non-ageing more than women? The repertoire of femininity may be far more restricted than the repertoire of masculinity, with men capable of any number of youthful actions while women's physical impressiveness is seen chiefly to reside in their physiognomic attributes and not their physical capabilities. When Wilder describes how Holden jumped over five steps and the railing in Sabrina, Holden would have been in his late thirties then, but Wilder could describe him as "physically first class." (Conversations with Billy Wilder)There would be no sense that his gesture was contrary to his age, and now, as Mars-Jones and others note, numerous stars are in their fifties playing action heroes, from Robert Downey Jnr to Keanu Reeves, from Tom Cruise to Brad Pitt. The body language they are allowed to access indicates a temporal breadth women usually lack. Acting like they are 25 when they are 50 (even sixty and seventy) needn't be a tragedy for them.

Sunset Boulevard is of course first and foremost a place, a street running through the centre of Hollywood, but within the context of the film it can be seen just as much as a metaphor the sun having long since set on the career of Norma Desmond. The address in the film may be 10086 Sunset Boulevard but the "glorious old Renaissance-style mansion could have been found in midtown Los Angeles. It stood, until 1957, at 641 South Irving Boulevard on the northwest corner of Wilshire Boulevard." (Movie Locations). When Joe comes across the house looking for a place to hide his car, when he sees the repossessors looking for him, he finds an old ruin. "A neglected house gets an unhappy look, this one had it in spades" Joe says in voice-over, as the camera in medium-long shot travels up to the house as we see Joe going up the steps. Joe compares the house to "that old woman in Great Expectations, that Miss Havisham, in her rotting wedding dress and her torn veil, taking it out on the world because she'd been given the go by." Norma Desmond has been given the go by as well, jilted by Hollywood and left to rot in a rotting house. When she returns to the studios believing that her career might once again be resurrected she turns up in her car wearing a veil, and the script she has been working on is a version of Salome, with its dance of the seven veils which Norma would herself no doubt perform. However, it isn't Norma they want but her car, a 1929 Isotta Fraschini: the studio has been in contact reckoning the vehicle will be perfect for a picture they are working on. An old car is one thing; an old woman another.

When in the film's most famous line she insists after Joe says that she used to be big "I am big, it's the picture's that got small" the line isn't just offered by a woman past her prime there would be those who would insist films might have been also. After all, there Wilder is casting two directors best known for their silent work and a star from the era too, but creating a contrast not only by making inevitably a film with sound but going further and insisting on utilising a voice-over as well. Ironically, though, it will be the speaker of that voice-over (Joe) who will be dead in a pool at the end of the film while the three figures from silent cinema are still alive. Sound might have killed silent cinema but here Wilder kills the voice.

It is an ironic ending to a film that could easily have been cynical. When the cops try and coax Norma down the stairs and into the police car, it is Max, always willing to accommodate her delusions, who tells her that the cameras are waiting. She will once again be front-page news, descending the stairs she sees before her the cameras acknowledging her presence. But Wilder doesn't end the picture with Norma pushed into a police car; he ends it with Desmond saying she is ready for her close up as the film allows her to replicate her silent days. Wilder may more or less start the film with an impossible image of Joe face down in the pool but he ends on a more impossible one still: an older woman feeling she can once again become a star. Wilder allows her this delusion well aware that the films more generally wouldn't be inclined to allow such an indulgence. It gives the film its irony but also a sensitivity that saves it from cynicism. Norma Desmond has become almost as synonymous with faded female cinematic glory as Miss Havisham has become a metonym for love's labour's lost. Both, like Kundera's older woman whose gesture belies her age, demand from men a sympathetic treatment the men can offer partly because of the societal structures that allow them to do so. But if Kundera's comment about the graceless body is not without problems it rests on a sympathy, even pity, that a man offers but that a woman is expected to endure. Wilder continued to become one of Hollywood's most important filmmakers; for Swanson, the pictures became ever smaller, and often on TV. Her final role nevertheless was in Airport 1975, with cameras clicking and a veil on her face, playing Gloria Swanson. She might not have performed the dance of the seven veils in Sunset Boulevard but she gets at least to wear one twenty fives years later playing none other than herself: a self of course that is clearly filtered through her earlier role in Wilder's film.


© Tony McKibbin