The Long Shadow of ‘Sunset Boulevard’

In a world that fetishizes youth and beauty, the classic film continues to resonate

One of the most enduringly popular of all films, Sunset Boulevard, is about the ravages of time in an industry that fetishizes youth and beauty. The influence of Billy Wilder’s 1950 noir masterpiece makes itself felt around the world. On December 22, Curve, the Leicester, U.K.-based theater company, began streaming a filmed version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of the movie.

The original plan was to put on the musical, the reprise of a phenomenally successful 2017-18 production, before live audiences, but this is the time of COVID-19. Even though no one has convincingly established a link between theater and film attendance and the spread of the virus, cultural activities to which we’re accustomed are verboten. So viewers will watch from the comfort of their homes as the story of vanity and vengeance unfolds. Ria Jones plays Norma Desmond, Danny Mac plays screenwriter Joe Gillis, Adam Pearce plays Max Von Mayerling, Molly Lynch plays Joe’s young love interest Betty Schaefer, and Carl Sanderson plays Cecil B. DeMille. (Unfortunately, the streamed version is not available to viewers in North America.)

The popularity of the production attests to the resonance of Wilder’s vision. Here is a time to reflect on the continuing relevance of the 1950 film, in which William Holden and Gloria Swanson play, respectively, the broke screenwriter manqué on the lam from two men who want to repossess his car and the middle-aged former silent film star on whose property he hides out. Upon learning the identity of the estate’s owner, Joe comes up with a scheme: he’ll offer to touch up, for a fee, the screenplays that Norma hopes will turn into blockbuster films that will once again catapult her to superstardom.

But that isn’t quite the way to put it, for Norma Desmond lives in the delusion that she still has hundreds of thousands of fans who send her letters from far and wide. In Norma’s mind, her star has never really fallen. As she puts it to Joe, in a famous scene, “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.” She doesn’t look too closely at the return addresses or postmarks on the envelopes, and, during her nostalgia-fueled visit to a studio lot where DeMille is shooting a movie, doesn’t overhear DeMille’s pitiless comment about the “awful” screenplay she wants him to adapt.

Norma cannot adjust her vanity to the realities of an industry that fetishizes beauty and confers fleeting adulation and fame on performers in the flower of their youth, and Joe’s half-hearted efforts to shake her out of her delusions trigger anger, denial, and finally a homicidal reaction. Though she’s clearly egotistical and more than a bit pathological, the realities of the industry are what they are. The New Year’s Eve scene in Sunset Boulevard is doubly poignant, reminding us as it does of the huge face-to-face gatherings and festivities in which we cannot indulge in the midst of the current epidemic as well as of the contrast between whatever gaiety we might have enjoyed last year and might still enjoy next year, and the quiet despair of former stars who feel used and spat out by the studio system.

At our vantage point seven decades later, it’s remarkable how very little has changed. While some may sneer at the hypersensitivity that stars are known to feel about their age and public image, to them the issue isn’t funny. It can prove lethal to their livelihood. In one high-profile case, actress Junie Hoang sued IMDb for revealing her age on its website, information that she claimed led to producers firing her from a movie, with all the attendant emotional distress and loss of revenue one could expect. (In the end, IMDb won.)

Renee Zellweger has reportedly struggled with depression over media scrutiny of her changing appearance and the disclosure of her plastic surgery. The growing use of de-aging CGI technology, on stars like Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s mob drama The Irishman, has reportedly led to a whole new spate of problems, namely that de-aged characters’ faces can look unnatural and older stars artificially made to look younger do not move before the camera quite the way that the people they are portraying would move.

When Zellweger won 2020’s Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Judy Garland in the 2019 biopic about the troubled star, it was a welcome affirmation that some valued the contribution of an older performer. Yet what gave her performance such power and verisimilitude was, partly, her ability to convey the unpleasant reality of a washed-up star whose best days, in conventional Hollywood terms, were far behind her. The performance could not have been what it was if it did not communicate truths not just about Garland’s tragic life but about Hollywood then and now. This is not to say that the present-day careers of Sharon Stone, Tara Reid, Winona Ryder, Lindsay Lohan, Lisa Kudrow, Katherine Heigl, and others are bad, but some of us can remember days in decades past when their names seemed to be on almost everyone’s tongue.

Perhaps it is naïve to yearn for a fundamental shift in values in favor of the dramatic arts as the Greeks once understood them. Maybe one might as well wish for the moon as pine for the days when we’ll see many more performances like the one Judi Dench, a literate performer with a theater background, gives in Skyfall, the best-written entry so far in the reimagined James Bond franchise, and hope for a time when moviegoers, critics, and studio execs will cherish an actress’s impeccable recital of “Ulysses” as a mark of a fine performer.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020).

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