PUMP UP THE COLUMN EXPLORES THE MANY INTERPRETATIONS OF PUNK AESTHETIC USED IN CINEMA
The definition of punk varies: some see the Sex Pistols when they hear the word, while others consider them a boy band. For something to be labeled “punk,” I feel it has to resist or wage war on some form of tradition. While thinking of films that align with that definition, Sunset Boulevard is a fitting one.
To this day, Sunset Boulevard is the rare Hollywood film that isn’t an overly polished view of the entertainment industry compared to something like La La Land. It’s a grim perspective on the transition from silent films to talkies that did what punk’s main objective seems to be: upset the establishment.
There are two reactions infamously reported on Sunset Boulevard. The first is about how Gloria Swanson asked where fellow silent film actress Mary Pickford was after a private screening, and someone saying, “She can’t show herself, Gloria. She’s too overcome. We all are.”
The second, and far more colorful story, is Louis B. Mayer’s reaction.
According to what’s said, Louis B. Mayer yelled before a crowd to director Billy Wilder, “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood.” In a 1999 Vanity Fair interview, Billy Wilder was asked about the incident and stated he followed Mayer’s comment by saying, “I am Mr. Wilder, and go fuck yourself.” There are also allegations that Mayer, a Jewish man himself, got anti-Semitic, and said Wilder should’ve been left in Germany. Not only did the events of WWII happen just a few years prior, but Billy Wilder lost family members in the Holocaust.
If you agree the objective of punk is to anger the establishment, few titles have accomplished that like Sunset Boulevard, because there’s never been a name in film that represented the establishment like Louis B. Mayer.
The hostile reaction comes from how meta Sunset Boulevard is in its depiction of the film industry. Not only does it comment on what takes place behind the curtain, but the film was released when studios were still maintaining a false reality off set. From fake couples photographed at a trendy restaurant or a staged birthday party where starved actresses are posing near a cake, what took place around Los Angeles was filled with as much fantasy as Walt Disney’s imagination. When Hollywood still followed these rules for a faux-authenticity, Sunset Boulevard presented the industry with its pants around its ankles.
Sunset Boulevard follows William Holden as Joe Gillis, a hack writer suddenly finding himself on the property of the most important actress of her time, Norma Desmond. Norma Desmond is played by Gloria Swanson, and while never being hopelessly lost like Norma Desmond, the performer and character share similarities. Swanson was also one of the most iconic actresses of her time. There’s a moment when Norma Desmond arrives on the Paramount Studios lot and says, “Without me there wouldn’t be any Paramount Studio.” It’s a statement Gloria Swanson could also claim, since she was their most bankable star for half a decade.
Erich von Stroheim, in a role he allegedly never recalled fondly, plays Norma Desmond’s butler. Stroheim was a director during the silent film era, and Gloria Swanson starred in his work multiple times. There’s a scene where Max is projecting one of Norma Desmond’s films for her and Joe as they sit in a living room decorated in Gloria Swanson’s old headshots. In reality it’s one of Swanson’s films that Stroheim directed, Queen Kelly.
Erich von Stroheim isn’t the only director Swanson worked with who appears in this film. Cecil B. DeMille plays himself in a scene that takes place on a real film DeMille was shooting at the time, Samson and Delilah.
In one of the braver corners of this film’s meta tone, Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner cameo in this film as Norma Desmond’s bridge playing pals. I use the word “brave” because this is a film that past performers like Tyrone Power and Olivia de Havilland refused to permit their name being spoken in. While former icons were terrified of having their name spoken, these three silent stars in their cameo are referred to as “the waxworks.”
The most surprising and arguably best meta moment in Sunset Boulevard is when Hedda Hopper plays herself at the end while reporting on the scene in Norma Desmond’s bedroom filled with cops.
Along with a meta tone many wouldn’t believe exists in a 1950 film, there are multiple bizarre paths that give this film a rebellious vibe during a decade that’s usually seen as square.
While the 1950s were filled with one-note housewife characters, Norma Desmond is the complete opposite. She’s the campiest Universal Monster in an antique mansion that rivals Dracula’s castle. Desmond is this constant jolt of a manic presence with enough quotable lines to fuel an entire list. Along with the more repeated lines, one of my favorites is when she finds out Joe’s a writer, and proceeds to spit out, “Well you’ve made a rope of this business. But there’s a microphone right there to catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor to photo the red, swollen tongue.” While praising this film’s script, there’s also a great line reminiscent of Mean Girls when Max is detailing to Joe the legend of Norma Desmond: “There was a maharajah who came all the way from India to beg one of her silk stockings. Later he strangled himself with it.”
Norma Desmond is what you get if you dumped Katharine Hepburn in the barrel of chemicals that created The Joker. She’s perfect.
As the meta commentary fueled hatred in Hollywood, I have to imagine the hornier side of this film angered prude viewers.
Instead of the odd relationship we usually see between a young woman and a controlling sugar daddy, Joe Gillis suddenly becomes an older woman’s plaything. It begins with him begging like a teenager for money in front of her friends as his car’s being towed. Then before you know it he’s being instructed not to chew gum, tailored to her liking. The prison-trapping becomes certified when Norma Desmond attempts suicide to lure Joe back into his cage.
This seems like a great time to mention Montgomery Clift was originally asked to play Joe Gillis. What repelled him was how Joe ends up hooking up with Norma Desmond to stay in Hollywood. At the time Clift was also seeing a wealthy former actress, Libby Holman, and was terrified of the press growing suspicious.
Not only is Joe trapped in this bizarre relationship, but you later find out it’s a bit of a cuckolding situation when Norma’s butler Max is revealed to be her former husband who’s devoted his life to watch over her.
Those are some of the taboos explored on screen, there’s also a scene some feel hints at more than the film’s allowed to say.
Allegedly the dead chimp seen towards the beginning of the film is meant to be Norma Desmond’s former lover. Looking into the rumored perversity of old Hollywood, it’s said actresses during Norma Desmond’s time taught chimps to perform cunnilingus. If that isn’t crazy enough, there’s a story in biographer Ed Sikov’s book On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and TImes of Billy Wilder about First Lady Nancy Reagan asking Billy Wilder what the reasoning of the chimp’s existence was. Wilder, looking to shock the First Lady said, “Don’t you understand? Before Joe Gillis came along, she was fucking the monkey.”
This might be petty, but I wish to point out the complete opposite of punk in this film, Betty Schaefer, a character whose personality is about as stimulating as your grandma’s bowl of hard candy. This is one of the greatest films to be made, but Schaefer’s an anchor who holds the story back from having fun whenever she’s around. I’ve never seen a character that represents a dull, soul sucking state of matrimony like her. She’s so boring and safe that I fail to see what purpose she serves besides being a beard for an actor running around with Rock Hudson or Anthony Perkins.
The energy vampire that is Betty Schaefer aside, Sunset Boulevard is a great film that disrupted the norm Hollywood wished to keep in practice. It was one of the first times audiences got a behind the scenes look at the industry. There’s no greater achievement a film with punk ideals could have than causing a tyrant Louis B. Mayer to publicly lash out.