Sunday, April 19, 2015
The title of this dark film about
Hollywood and the movies applies to its two
main characters, each one heading to “The End” at the conclusion of their
intertwined stories. There is Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who lives in a
decaying monstrosity of a mansion, which mirrors her post-mortem career as a
silent film star. But, we also have Joe Gillis (William Holden), who is much
younger, but whose screenwriting career is on a downward ride. In fact, we
already know that he is dead at the beginning of the story, which he tells from
beyond the grave. His claim to fame is that he has written a couple of
"B" movies. Now, he finds himself unable to sell one of his stories
to an ulcer-afflicted producer (disease being linked to the film industry
has its own Catch-22 for scripts – they won't be bought if they are either too
original or not original enough. Quality
in and of itself isn't profitable. One of Gillis’ scripts was changed from being
about the dust bowl to a story set on a submarine. As the writer says, he tried
talent last year – now he's trying to earn a living.
Gillis comes upon Desmond's Gothic castle when he is driving away from men trying to repossess his car. The fact that she is living in the past, because there is no place for her fragile ego in the present, is seen in all the photographs of herself decorating the house. She has her own screening room where she shows films of, what else? – herself. The ghosts of a past life inhabit this place, and Desmond feels at home only in that previous life. Her former director and husband, Max, is now her butler, and feeds her delusions to protect her by sending fake fan mail. She does not want to leave her crypt. She has silent film stars over occasionally, who Gillis dubs the "wax works," emphasizing the lifelessness of Desmond’s world. She has a New Year's Eve party with only Gillis in attendance, a spectacle without humans inhabiting it. It is an ironic celebration of a holiday which only pushes her glory days further into the past.
But, she is hopeful about the future now because the younger Gillis has now arrived, needing her money. So, he promises to, appropriately, "ghost write" her script. (This movie really piles on the “death” references). When he bolts for a party with younger guests, she attempts suicide, again showing how she almost ceases to exist when the present world intervenes. When he returns to her, she holds up her arm to cover her face, reminding us of a stock silent film acting gesture. Gillis feels badly about leaving and plays the role of the gigolo, since Desmond is his only current salvation. Gillis is sucked into her ghostly world, sleeping in the room of her former husbands, driving an antique car, wearing clothes that she picks out for him. He is never given enough money at one time, so he can't escape.
Gillis realizes he has lost his soul, and there is no place for him in
now. He breaks away from a young woman he was co-writing a script with in
secret, and who had fallen in love with him, not knowing about his relationship
with Desmond. He feels guilty about leading her on, causing her to want to
leave her fiancé. He tells Desmond the truth about the fake fan mail, and that
there will be no comeback movie. He packs his bags, and tries to leave, seeking
resurrection through his old journalism job in Dayton. But Desmond shoots him, and he falls dead
into that symbolic Hollywood status symbol,
the swimming pool.
Desmond totally escapes into her dream world of past stardom as the police come for her with the press in attendance. She goes along only when Max makes it look like she is being photographed for her film. The ending is very creepy, with Desmond talking straight to the camera, to us, as the film shows us how total escape into the illusion of the movies is frightening: "There's nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark."
For a movie about a silent film star, it is ironic that we are given an Oscar winning screenplay which contains so much wonderful language.
Next week’s movie is The Maltese Falcon.