Monday, May 9, 2011

The Sexual Politics of Sunset Boulevard

As a corollary of my Lynch kick, I watched Sunset Boulevard last night for the first time since I was a teenager. Wilder's celebrated film is a Lynch favourite, invoked in both Muholland Dr. and INLAND EMPIRE, where Norma Desmond's pet monkey and Joe's early quip, "They'll love it in Pomona," contribute to the Asian street girl's absurdist speech about her friend while Laura Dern expires from a screwdriver stabbing. I had remembered the movie as one I never wanted to watch again, although I may have tried it a second time in my early 20s, the most intensive period of my cinephilia. Watching it last night, though, I felt like I'd taken a Proustian shortcut straight back to the emotions of that first teenage viewing, and then I knew why this film that was widely regarded as a Hollywood masterpiece had never been a favourite of mine.

It has little to do with the flaws I perceived on this viewing: Wilder's occasional overkill with the voice-over narration, which often intrudes on Swanson's performance by stating the obvious; and Swanson's overacting and/or Wilder's misconceived direction in the final mad scene. The latter may have made Norma Desmond a camp icon, but it now feels dated and borders on the risible (I still cried). No, what makes the film such painful viewing is that Wilder has created an unlikely doomed, hopeless love story. One of the characteristic features of the screwball comedy (and it goes back to Jane Austen) is the author's unanalyzable skill in making us believe that the romantic couple are meant to be together despite their conflict and wildly different personalities. In ways even more unanalyzable, Wilder does this with Norma and Joe, but somehow in the context of tragic satire instead of romantic comedy.

Why this is painful has little to do with feminist objections that, except when Wilder's forcing her to look or act grotesque, Swanson is an attractive 50-year-old, while Holden, clearly 30, is given the green light to lust after a 22-year-old who's engaged to another man. On top of the age difference, Wilder loads on another reversal of cultural expectations about gender by having Norma keep Joe; and of course the insuperable barrier to any happiness an audience might imagine for them is Norma's madness.

And yet, somehow they're perfect for each other - which is the real reason that their affair is doomed. The typical noir hero, Joe is weak, passive, fatalistic, quasi-suicidal. You just don't believe that he really wants to escape Norma and try to have a normal life where he'd have to support himself and make his way in the cold world (shades of Oedipus?). You don't believe his lust for bland Betty (the source of the heroine's name in Mulholland Dr.?), even though she's set up to be a perfect "healthy partner" for him: a female version of himself, in fact, a clever aspiring writer who lacks the self-belief to write her story without him, as he lacks the self-belief to break away from Norma. You don't believe it in part because Joe doesn't seem to have a spark of virility within him, and also because the viewer can't help but notice that Norma is so much more fascinating than Betty. Her tragedy, her eccentricity, even her narcissism have a grandeur that pulls in Joe as it does the viewer. She's still big; it's life that got small.

Like Edgar G. Ulmer in Detour, then, Wilder creates the perfect doomed noir couple, a twisted version of the ideally suited (although mutually destructive) screwball couple: not an "average Joe" and a seductive femme fatale at all, but an effectively suicidal man and woman drawn together in co-dependency by their worst traits, where the man's conscious resistance is matched by his unconscious accord. There are shades of Wings of the Dove in this story, where Merton Densher is torn between a fascinatingly tragic heroine for whom he feels no conscious physical attraction and the woman he apparently really wants to be with. James amps up the tension by making the latter the obvious femme fatale, fascinating in her own right, sexy, and manipulative; but in the end it's the same story: the noir protagonist doesn't want the sexy woman, so Densher finds a reason to reject Kate and suicidally devote himself to the memory of Milly (with a touch of Jamesian necrophilia). There's little sense in Wings, though, that Densher is "meant to be" with either woman; like all James protagonists, he's meant to be alone. Wilder, on the other hand (like Lynch), is an old-fashioned Hollywood romantic underneath it all. (Norma Desmond - c'est Wilder!)

There are shades of Vertigo, too, in the way that Norma takes over Joe and tries to transform him into her musty, mothball-smelling idea of silent-era glamour: buying him new suits and letting his car get taken away to increase his dependency on her but also because she wants to ride around with him in her own wheels and relive the past. And so there should be a parallel: like Norma, Scottie Ferguson is perma-frozen in the past due to a trauma he can't overcome. (Critics have pointed out that Marnie is the film where the late Hitchcock protagonist finally asserts his virility and gets the girl. True enough, but he only does so by literally imprisoning her and committing rape, and when she agrees to stay with him at the end, after he helps her overcome her childhood trauma, it's hardly an ideal romantic ending: she tells him she prefers him to her only alternative, jail. I would compare the place of Marnie in the Hitchcock oeuvre to The Golden Bowl in James's: James scholars have noted that after several novels of romantic renunciation, in this one, the pure James heroine at last asserts her will and gets her man. Yes indeed, but at the cost of romantic maneuvering that includes "sacrificing" her friend/rival Charlotte to a fate worse than death in the wilderness of America and, a more terrible deed, "sacrificing" her father by separating him from herself. Can innocence compromise itself this much under the Jamesian moral microscope and remain innocent? The ending, too, is ominous, with Maggie reclaiming her husband, who smoothly denies all her fears, at the probable cost of living a life of lies; the greatest sacrifice of all in late James, where the worst fate a character can suffer is being denied the truth.)

The 1950s is remembered as a time in Hollywood when female grotesques were put on parade, from Norma Desmond and Margo Channing to Vivien Leigh's Blanche DuBois (all in two years: 1950 to 1951). Perhaps this was not so much in response to the ageing of the great female stars of the 20s and 30s as it was to the passing of Old Hollywood itself. But looking back, all is not (quite) as misogynous as it seems. Let's remember that Gary Merrill's Bill is devoted to Margo, who's less well-preserved as a 40-year-old than Norma is as a 50-year-old. And we know why, because Davis - never a beauty in Hollywood terms and ageing badly - is, well, Davis: the epitome of glamour, too dignified to ever be anyone's grotesque (except, of course, her own), and larger-than-life. A few years later, in Autumn Leaves, Joan Crawford, fully fifty, is paired with a younger man (33-year-old Cliff Robertson, who looks younger, and acts younger still) who's part-Anthony Perkins neurotic, part-Marlon Brando brute... part male version of Carroll Baker in Baby Doll (also 1956!). Their kinky sadomasochistic relationship produces some distressingly steamy bedroom scenes.

There's even a moment like this in Sunset Boulevard, although if you blink you'll miss it: after Norma and Joe consummate their affair on New Year's Eve (he rushes to her side when he finds out about her suicide attempt, nearly knocking over poor Betty on his way out), Wilder cuts to the morning after, with Joe not-so-subtly diving into her pool, looking darned active and refreshed. Coming out of the water, Holden, who's looked mopey and hangdog for most of the film even in his expensive new threads, reveals a surprisingly Adonis-like chest. Wilder briefly, weirdly, lets the audience occupy a lustful female perspective as we get a glimpse of what he's got to offer Norma.

And let's not forget Douglas Sirk's blockbuster soaps, Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows, both of which pair young stud Rock Hudson with older woman Jane Wyman. What happened to Wyman, anyway? At one point she looked like this:

By the time she starred in the Sirk films with Hudson, although she's not even 40, with her lacquered poodle cut, pearls, and prim manner, you could easily believe she's 50 (which is what I assumed before looking up her date of birth on Wikipedia). At any rate, only All That Heaven Allows makes an issue of the May-December romance, and as in All About Eve, it's an issue for Wyman (and her middle-class milieu), not Hudson (and his bohemian woodsman Thoreau-reading intellectuals). (I ain't kidding.)

It's true that more often than not, age is an issue in classical Hollywood films with an older woman/younger man pairing, as it is not in all of the 50s films that paired the ageing Golden Age male stars like Grant, Stewart, and Bogart with lovely new faces like Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, and Eva Marie Saint. Trying to find recent examples of older woman/younger man pairings in Hollywood film, however, makes you wonder if all that feminism accomplished was to not allow female fears of ageing (and losing one's desirability) to be a subject for movies. Nowadays actresses past 40 like Jennifer Aniston and Nicole Kidman dubiously benefit from advances in plastic surgery, Botex, and a media whipped by feminism into denying (despite what the culture continues to think) that a woman's age matters and try their best to be tight-faced, boob-jobbed, dyed-blonde versions of their 20-year-old selves, only slightly ending up looking like mutants. They're photographed as much as ever, but I don't think anyone watches their movies, where, if they were paired with a younger man, it wouldn't be very remarkable, since we're engaged with them in a mutual delusion, worse than anything suffered by Norma Desmond, that 40 looks the same as 20.

Maybe the last Hollywood portrayal of a "sexy older woman" was Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham, after which maybe feminists and everyone else thought they'd won the fight and it never needed to be proven again. But that may have also been the last moment when an actress who started out as a sex symbol was allowed to look like she was ageing. Now female sexual viability past 40 has to look like it's 20 (at least in the movies), and agreeing that older woman can be attractive means denying that there's any difference in appearance between a 20-year-old and a 40-year-old, in a fiendish conspiracy between feminism, Botox, and the media. In retrospect, 1950s Hollywood, where it was admitted, albeit rarely, that an attractive young man might fall in love with an older woman - because she's Bette/Davis Margo Channing, or because he's kinky, or because (like Rock Hudson) he just feels like it - is looking better than ever. Without any Botox.


  1. I havent seen SB in an age but I did like it. I loved All That Heaven Allows more though. I think there it was the class difference more than the age thing that made the couple risque though.

  2. True, although age is highlighted in the scene where we see the sort of white-haired suitor that Wyman's kids and friends would like her to accept - and watch her shudder in the chill wind of the end of her sex life!