Being sleepless again thanks to my current cold, I'd love to watch Just Rewards
, the Angel
kindly brought, but alas, it turned out my laptop hasn't got the necessary codecs. It'll have to wait until I'm reunited with my normal computer. So I'll muse on two movies I love instead. Hollywood on Hollywood
is a fascinating subgenre in the movie world. I already wrote about one of my favourite examples, Tim Burton's Ed Wood
, that hymn to the losers in Tinseltown.
Two other examples, which fascinate me with their parallels and contrasts, and which I rewatched recently, are Sunset Boulevard
by the late, great Billy Wilder, surely still the
best cinematic word on the subject, and Gods and Monsters
, directed by Bill Condon. Gods and Monsters
, though it does deal with a real-life director, James Whale, and consequently uses several of Whale's topics and visual motifs very effectively, also is quite openly influenced by Sunset Boulevard
: the triangle of old star, devoted housekeeper/butler of German origin, and young attractive beefcake, for example. The imagery, notably the dead body floating in the pool and the introduction of the Hollywood legend, standing at a window, gazing outside at the young man, though it's significant that we see James Whale photographed from the inside of the room (i.e. we're in his point of view), while we see Norma Desmond from the outside, from Joe Gillis' point of view. Sunset Boulevard
gazes at Norma in her tragedy and mad baroque splendour but never presumes to enter her inner world; Gods and Monsters
is a far kinder picture.
James Whale (played superbly by Ian McKellen) might be in decline, in (self-imposed) exile from Hollywood, and haunted by his past (which allows script and director to fill us in on crucial background - his childhood in working-class poverty which he reinvents as gentility for interviews, his traumatic WW I experience and of course his time as one of Universal's most successful directors, creating the first two Frankenstein
movies); his mind might be betraying him by being unable to stick to the present, and his body might be frail. But at the same time, he's presented as deeply intelligent, witty, and mosty rescued from self-pity by his gift for irony. His former lover David still is friends with him; his unlikely friendship with gardener Clay Boone (Brenton Fraser) is a genuine relief from loneliness. For that matter, Clay, though at times uneasy and freaked out by Whale's homosexuality, genuinely cares and is charmed and touched by the old man and his stories. Clay is a naïve, and in turn rescued from his
loneliness by the friendship. (Both Clay and Whale are at various points identified with the Monster of the Frankenstein movies visually.) As I said, it is a kind film, despite some bitchery about George Cukor which is rather unfair, going by all I've read about the man, but then it's Whale doing the bitching and he is
presented as jealeous. You could say that despite the occasional black-and-white flashers, Gods and Monsters
is painted in gentle pastels. Sunset Boulevard
, on the other hand, is Billy Wilder at his most acid. There is no gentleness for Norma or Joe, save one. When Norma is funny (and she has some great lines - so often quoted and repeated by now), she is so without realizing it, except during one brief scene, the terrific little Chaplin impersonation she does for her hired lover when she's happy. She's completely lacking of Whale's insight or conscious wit about her situation as an Hollywood relic, clinging to the belief that her public ("all those wonderful people out there in the dark") hasn't forgotten her and wants her to return as an increasingly disappearing lifeline. Norma Desmond, one of the great icons of cinematic history, is played by the genuine article, Gloria Swanson, one of the great stars of the silent screen. (And as opposed to Norma living quite happily and sanely in New York at the time Wilder hired her for the picture, as opposed of declining in a Los Angeles mansion. Swanson is decidedly not playing herself here, but she's acting her heart out, and it's one of the great injustices she didn't win an Oscar for this.) Her entire physical language comes from another era, and provides a great contrast to William Holden's subtle acting as Joe. The camera mercilessly exposes every one of Norma's and Swanson's 50 or so years - not really old by any standards save the crucial Hollywood one which has captured her in her youthful glory and never allows her to escape the contrast, and as for her relationship with Joe… we're not talking "A Star is born" sentimentality here.
Norma might genuinenly love the young man who shows up accidentally in her mansion, but she's also very consciously buying him, and knows she does. In return, she doesn't get sympathy and friendship, as Whale does in Gods and Monsters
, she gets pity and disgust. Because Joe quite consciously lets himself be bought. Men on sale are something of a red thread through Billy Wilder's pictures, which is quite unusual not just for Hollywood at the time but also for the present-day incarnation. (As opposed to women on sale, of course.) In Wilder pictures, you get Jack Lemmon selling himself out metaphorically through letting his boss use his flat for trysts in return for more money and more attention in The Apartment
; you get Lemmon, again and more farcically finding money and happiness in drag in Some Like It Hot
; you have the G.I. pretending love to get out of an investigation to Jean McArthur in A Foreign Affair
. Men sell their charms (to quote Stephen Sondheim's lyrics from Passion
"Women sell their looks/ Why not a man?/If he can") in Wilder's world, but I don't think anyone does it so openly, or filled with as much self-loathing, as Joe Gillis (William Holden, who competes with Jack Lemmon as Wilder's favourite actor). Wilder doesn't have any mercy with Joe, either. If Norma is mad and pathetic, she's also genuinenly larger than life; when she says, in reply to Joe's initial "You used to be in pictures - you used to be big", "I am
big; it's that pictures that got small", we believe her. Joe is sane, and modern, sensible Hollywood as opposed to Norma's over-the-top past, but he is
small. And a sell-out who can't say he doesn't know what he's doing; he's intending to exploit Norma from the moment they meet (though initially he just wants some quick bucks by pretending to proof-read her efforts at a script) just as she's intending to exploit his obvious financial desperation.
It has been observed that Wilder, though he adored America and all things American from the moment he arrived (not to mention the English language - Billy Wilder is one of the all-time best screenwriters in it, entranced by its rhythm as perhaps only someone who learns it later in life can be), never lost his European cynicism. (And in relation to Sunset Boulevard
, that he literally knew the older woman/ younger man tango from having danced it himself, working part-time as a hired dancer in Berlin in the 20s for a while.) Which is true and yet not, for Altman (American born and bred) has as cynical a view on all things Hollywood in The Player
. I'd say a film like Sunset Boulevard
is the perfect union of what America and Europe could offer on experience at the time, including, ironically, the Universal horror movies, mostly shot by and with European emigrés like James Whale, Edgar Ulmer, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi. Norma in her mansion, greeting her guest and intending to keep him with her spidery gestures is echoeing Dracula in his screen incarnation just as much as anything else. Max, her possessive, devoted butler who as Joe later finds out was her first director and discover and
her first husband, is every creepy servant of those horror movies, and James Whale would have recognised him immediately. (Meanwhile, Whale in Gods and Monsters
German-accented housekeeper full of devotion, Hannah, who loves him as surely as Max loves Norma, but Hannah echoes Whale's comic female characters played by Una O'Connor more than she does the male variety, as opposed to Max in Sunset Boulevard
Lastly, it's interesting to compare and contrast the way both films deal with sexuality. Recently at the Book Fair more than one reviewer observed tersely that our Great Old Men in literature currently indulge in another fit of Altherrenerotik
, i.e. endless scenarios of old-man-meets-young-nubile-woman-who-
rejuvinates-him-sexually. Neither Gods and Monsters
nor Sunset Boulevard indulge in that kind of sexual sentimentality. Whale might find Clay quite attractive, but never kids himself Clay would desire him, nore does the movie go for a old-teaches-young/young-gives-old-youth-
back sexual discovery. When Joe in Sunset Boulevard
decides to sleep with Norma out of a mixture of pity, guilt and mercenary greed, we're never under any illusion he finds her sexually desirable, and though she wants to believe it, she never quite does. Meanwhile, Max' devotion to and obsession with Norma does have sexual overtones, sadomasochistic ones at that. (Which pleased Erich von Stroheim, who plays the part - von Stroheim of course was like Max one of the great silent directors (and an actor as well) who loved to tease the audience with S/M overtones. One of von Stroheim's suggestions which Wilder shot but ultimately didn't use was Max putting Norma's underwear in drawers.) And then there's Joe's relationship with Betty Shaffer, which you might think would be the audience's relief in sexual identification, since he's good-looking and relatively young, and so is she, but Betty is engaged with Joe's friend, ambitious for fame herself and not exactly an innocent, either. One doesn't really root for her and Joe to make it; when she departs in disgust after finding out how he earns his living, there is a feeling of relief. Good for Betty. And we're left with the one moment, where Wilder, and life, as the dead Joe in his voice-over observes, is kind to Norma Desmond. Who finally, mercifully, gets the light of the cameras back and, having lost her grip on reality entirely, does not notice anymore they're not the cameras she has been waiting for. She's ready for her close-up now.