Image: Greta Garbo in 1935.
Tom Joudrey wrote in The Guardian of 4 Aug 2020:
“On its release in August 1950, Sunset Boulevard punched its own industry in the face. Showbiz royalty, normally enclosed in an echo chamber of self-congratulation, sputtered into a rage. At a star-studded private screening on the eve of the film’s debut, MGM studio mogul Louis B Mayer lambasted the film’s Austrian-born director, Billy Wilder: “You befouled your own nest. You should be kicked out of this country…
Audiences, however, piled into cinemas…released in the same year as Joseph L Mankiewicz’s All About Eve – a ruthless dissection of the American theatre world – Sunset Boulevard became a landmark statement on the perils of celebrity culture. But 70 years later, at a time when visibility has been weaponised as a tool of social change, the film is no longer just an indictment of Hollywood’s vanity but of a whole cultural ethos that values “being seen”…
Sunset Boulevard also mirrors our political rifts. In a tribalised era, Norma Desmond has for both partisan factions the complexion of the enemy. For liberals, she epitomises super-rich self-delusion. Cocooned in privilege, she fancies herself a meritocratic success story. The fantasy of her self-made triumph is abetted by an information silo that she doesn’t even know she’s trapped in. Her sycophantic enabler – erstwhile director, ex-husband, and now butler, Max von Mayerling – showers her with forged fan letters, as though anticipating the echo chamber that would manifest under the banner of Fox News. “Without me there wouldn’t be any Paramount studios,” she imperiously declares, discounting the swarm of worker bees buzzing around the lot. When Gillis describes her as a has-been (“you were big”), she snaps back, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small,” capturing the toxic mix of arrogance, nostalgia, and resentment that feeds into the Maga battle cry. President Trump telegraphed as much last February when he touted Gone with the Wind and Sunset Boulevard in a nativist harangue against the multicultural modernity that the popularity of Parasite represents.
Conversely, for conservatives, Norma is the trauma-broadcasting, victim-centred hysteric. Immune to irony and armed with snobbish entitlement, she preps for her starring role with fanatical earnestness. Oscar Wilde once observed that “all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling”, and Norma’s faith in her screenplay is, well, genuine. Meanwhile, whenever she senses Gillis’s attention waning, she sounds off about her frayed nerves, wielding guilt as a tool to gag his misgivings. It’s a prescient caricature, from the perspective of the right, of the modern-day theatrics that thrive in grievance culture. Had Gwyneth Paltrow’s brand gurus been on the job in 1950, they’d have called Norma’s extravagances “self-care”.
In fairness, though, whatever is vile in Norma is what the gaze of the crowd made of her. She’s the vampiric femme fatale feasting on the adulation of others and crowing that “no one ever leaves a star”. Yet there she is, Gillis observes, “still waving proudly to a parade which had long since passed her by”. That’s the real tragedy the film explores – not the noxious effects of ageing or wealth, but the surrender of selfhood that comes from living as a spectacle. When fans stop gawking, her loneliness forces her to invent phantasmic replacements, so that her psychic survival finally depends on her insanity.
Here’s where a chasm opens between 1950 and 2020. Sunset Boulevard indicts fame. By contrast, 21st century popular culture extols the virtue of maximised visibility. So widely shared is this belief that it passes as a banal truism: “being seen” constitutes both a form of personal therapy and a social justice imperative. “So, I want you to know that I see you,” wrote Hillary Clinton in the heat of the 2016 campaign, as though rescuing supporters from the dark fate of anonymity. Meanwhile, the largest organisations advocating for LGBTQ acceptance have made media visibility and identity representation the fulcrums of social progress.
And no doubt visibility politics does strip back prejudice. But Sunset Boulevard forces us to contemplate the cost of needing to be seen – namely, the unquenchable thirst for external validation that festers beneath a culture of exhibitionism.
The final decades of the 20th century showcased the depredations of celebrity. From the infantilised, rhinoplastied…persona of Michael Jackson to the crucified rebel-from-royalty that was Princess Diana, fame built and toppled global icons. In the aughts and teens of the new century, Lindsay Lohan scraped rock bottom but survived; Amy Winehouse didn’t.
But amid this wreckage, celebrity status didn’t fall into ill-repute; instead, it became the average person’s ambition. Social media enabled anyone and everyone to be digitally seen. Influencers proliferated. YouTube stars opened their bedrooms to the public. Clicks, likes and retweets transformed into a cryptocurrency…
And that’s the most unnerving revelation of watching Sunset Boulevard in 2020: what ails Norma Desmond is what defines today’s popular culture. How’s that for an influencer?
Still, it’s worth remembering that the studio era’s “greatest star of them all” was the inscrutable eccentric who turned her back on the frothing fandom of the masses. With her shocking exit from the industry in 1941, Greta Garbo clawed back her privacy and never again relinquished it. In a strange way, the occult heroine of Sunset Boulevard is one who never occupies a single frame. In 1948, Wilder summoned Garbo to his home at 704 North Beverly Drive for a drink. His plan was to entice her to accept the lead part in his embryonic film. Offer he did, but her answer was no…”
(Wikipedia): “Miss Otis Regrets” is a song about the lynching of a society woman after she murders her unfaithful lover. It was composed by Cole Porter in 1934, and first performed by Douglas Byng in Hi Diddle Diddle, a revue that opened on October 3, 1934, at London’s Savoy Theatre.
The song is a murder ballad which involves a reversal of roles: a white woman from aristocratic society is lynched after she shoots and kills her lover. Lynching was at the time very widely reported and discussed in the United States, but by far the majority of cases were being carried out against working class male African Americans. The song reverses the gender, class and racial roles to produce an anti-lynching narrative.”