Sunset Boulevard (1950)

October 31st.

After the Feminism in London Conference, learning how to manage the Older Feminist Website (www.olderfeminist.co.uk) and the consuming London Film Festival I can finally concentrate on Sunset Boulevard.

As usual the majority of women who attended and they were all members of the University of the Third Age. This was disappointing as an effort had been made to inform the local  organisations of ‘seniors’  about  the matinee sessions.

Everybody enjoyed the film and more than one person said they were  enthralled  in spite of having seen it before. Other comments were:  at the time 50 was old,   the devotion of Max to Norma Desmond,   being stuck in the past, the effect of the talkies.

I will not write in details about the film because as with all classics there is a lot of literature and analyses on-line. I will make a few points about the ageing woman.

It is Molly Haskell’s  “From Reverence to Rape : the treatment of women in the movies” that made me realise that I was not the only one who felt aggrieved by the representation of  women.   A few lines made me decide to look specifically at the old woman in films. “He (the director) projects on to her the narcissism, the vanity, the fear of getting old which he is horrified to find festering within himself. A grotesque mirror image of his own insecurity, the actress becomes the painting to the director’s Dorian Gray. He loudly hawks the myth that women are more devastated by aging and by the idea of aging than men … “.

There are a few films about an ageing female actor: All About Eve, Driving Lessons, Fedora, Sunset Boulevard, Unhook the stars, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Of these both Sunset Boulevard and Fedora were directed  by Billy Wilder who also contributed to the script. It would be presumptuous to declare that at the age of 44 Wilder was fearing advancing age but interesting to note that he comes back to the subject at the age of 72.

I will leave Fedora for another post but ask why do we perceive Norma Desmond as old? The 1950 Variety review talks about “an aged star”, “young actor enmeshed with an old woman”. And yet in  close-ups Swanson’s  skin is smooth with not a sign of a wrinkle, her hands are not liver spotted,  her gait is strong, and acting commanding. In contrast to the prevalence of wrinkles, folds, faltering gait in the representation of the old woman in films, (see for example the modern Notes on a Scandal, this film uses other devices.   Visual connotations and the dialogue are rich with ageing references.   The scenes when Joe Gillis enters Norma Desmond dilapidated  mansion evoke without any doubt David Lean’s  Great Expectations (1946) early scenes. When Norma and Joe are sitting on the sofa her desire is expressed by a grotesque witch-like demeanour with sharp claws, cigarette holder and the facial expressions of a horror movie. The montage of the beauty treatments in preparation for her return also implies the ageing body.

It is said, and numerous quotes are used in support, that the film is about Hollywood. Yes it surely is. But Haskell is right it is also about the fear of  ageing.  Instead of seeing a woman stuck in her past glory and maintained by her ex-husband/servant in this state, we see Norma through Gillis’s eyes. Both the voice over and the dialogue comment on age and ageing . Many lines can be quoted, nearly all spoken by the younger man. “I wonder what a handwriting expert would make of the childish scrawl of hers” ,”Norma, you are a woman of 50 now,  grow up” (infantalising the old woman).   “There is nothing tragic about being 50 not unless you try to be 25” “”She must be a million years old”(de Mille assistant).  Gillis cynically summarises the theme of the rich old woman and the toyboy:  ” a very simple set up: an older woman, well to do and a younger man who is not doing so well”. Her desire for Gillis is shown as grotesque. But more than that, she is set up to compete for  Gillis ‘s favour against  Betty, 22, fresh and fragrant.

Norma is in turns grotesque, corrupting and pitiful and we are led to ascribe this to her age rather than her loss of contact with reality.

About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
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