“Sunset Boulevard”: The Edge of Madness

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Among my stack of books is one entitled “Leading Ladies: The 50 Most Unforgettable Actresses of the Studio Era.” It is also a tribute to 50 of the most beautiful women of the 20th century. Glamour shots paired with a listing of must-see films and tid-bits of trivia enliven the pages. Titles are at our disposal on DVD so that we could see for ourselves why these actresses are memorable. Each has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

All this aside, one flabbergasting fact stands out that unifies them as members of an exclusive sorority. Ava Gardner, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner, Elizabeth Taylor, Lena Horne, Myrna Loy, Marilyn Monroe… these screen goddesses were married an average of three times. From the end of the last marriage (usually through divorce) up to the time of their deaths, which could have been anywhere between two years and 30 years, they lived without a spouse. As Rita Hayworth once said, “Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda… and woke up with me.” She was alluding to her role in the 1946 movie named after her character, one that cemented her persona as the “love goddess” of war-era America.

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Hayworth’s quote could serve as the life story of all gorgeous creatures. Their images so bewitch us that we forget they are just that – images, manufactured avatars of touch-ups and airbrushing packaged to feed our dreams. No model or actress has ever lived up to her two-dimensional alter ego. 1950s supermodel, Dovima, herself deplored, “I began to have the idea that I was a photograph…a plastic image. I could only be myself behind the camera.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dovima) Thus, with Hayworth and company, men married them for their projection of an ideal, and when the human in them surfaced, their husbands bolted. For one’s reality to consist of such betrayal is enough to drive any woman to the edge of madness. If you want to have a distinct picture just how cuckoo, watch “Sunset Boulevard” (1950).

The story of Norman Desmond (Gloria Swanson) has spawned a Broadway musical and spoofs on the “The Carol Burnett Show”: aging silent screen superstar-turned-recluse plans a comeback, employs the professional assistance and personal companionship of a handsome screenwriter (William Holden), and becomes a murderess on the night he walks out on her. Swanson’s performance is over the top, aptly so because that was how moving picture actors performed before sound destroyed their lives, all this widening of the eyes and gesticulations of an orchestra conductor.

The staginess is fitting for the character of Norman Desmond. The has-been is unable to distinguish fact from fiction. For 20 years, she has been holed up in a crumbling mansion, in the company of a manservant, Max (Erich Von Stroheim), who makes it his life’s duty to pen bogus fan letters in order to satiate her delusions of grandeur. The guy isn’t all with it himself. Her fantasy world keeps him breathing, for he, too, was great once… or could have been. Max was a promising director when he had discovered Desmond and had molded her into a star. He is also her husband. Talk about not only a reversal of fortune, but also a reversal of roles. (I believe the word for a man in this position is uxorious.) What a spider’s web screenwriter, Joe Gillis, gets entangled in on the afternoon he swerves his car onto a driveway in an effort to circumvent cops who are after him for a parking ticket. If he had just paid the paltry fine, he would have had a long life. But then we wouldn’t have a movie. If it’s any consolation, the reward of a dramatic story can justify a bad decision.

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For Swanson, playing the role that Mae West and silent greats, Pola Negri and Mary Pickford, had turned down proved to be a good decision. In addition to receiving an Oscar nomination, Swanson is most remembered for the role of Desmond. Any discussion of her earlier films serves as a precursor to “Sunset Boulevard.” Not that the film is autobiographical. Far from it. Through the 1950s and beyond, Swanson flourished as hostess to her own TV show, fashion designer, and fitness guru. Other film offers came, which she rejected because they were variations of the Billy Wilder classic, and crazed old movie star was not the character she wanted to be pigeonholed as.

In her seventies, Swanson did make a star appearance in “Airport 1975” (1974). The disaster flick called for something simple, for the actress to play herself – Gloria Swanson, dressed in fur and black head cloak, narrating to a reporter the story of her life as the queen of a bygone Hollywood, complete with references to Cecile B. DeMille and Carole Lombard. Though somewhat of a parody, we can see in her eyes glee for the chance to tell the world in another blockbuster movie just what it is to be La Swanson. The woman lived a life of excess that included marriage to European (albeit penniless) nobility, the title of marquise, and a weekly salary of $20,000 (a quarter of a million dollars in 2015 currency rate). The lesson: extravagance is permissible so long as one remains level headed.

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Unfortunately, Swanson’s contemporaries did not fare as well as she. One, in particular, had a hard fall, and it is said that she served as the prototype for Norma Desmond – Mae Murray. Known as “the girl with the bee-stung lips,” Murray fabricated everything about her life, going so far as to change her birth year from 1885 to 1898 so that when she did “The Merry Widow” in 1925, her most famous motion picture directed by none other than Erich Von Stroheim and that called for a 20-something actress, she was 40. Like Swanson, she was one of the biggest paid stars with the trappings of a palatial home and a penniless, titled European husband to prove it. Unlike Swanson, she had a mind for neither business nor the hard facts of life: “I am not a realist by nature, and for me to try and become one would only make me acutely unhappy. . .  I have lived as much as possible in a world of fancy.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/mae-murray-the-girl-with-the-bee-stung-lips-by-michael-g-ankerich/2013/01/25/c3f4b7e4-326c-11e2-bb9b-288a310849ee_story.html?utm_term=.81f97e0b8433)

Murray was imperious on set. Disagreeable behavior coupled with a sham of a royal husband who siphoned her fortune left her unemployed, indigent, and insane. In her seventies, she was found disoriented on the streets of St. Louis, believing she had completed a bus trip to New York. “Step aside, peasants,” Murray would tell those around her. “Princess Mdvani is passing through.” It mattered not that homes were now Central Park benches and a Salvation Army shelter and that her daily attire were rags held up by clothes pins.

At least, Desmond retains her wealth and finds a spark of hope in that lonely existence of hers where the sun set long ago. Gillis could walk out on her any moment, but he never does. The truth is the guy cares for her. They are two drifters joined in a macabre partnership of glories past and a future built on dreams. He sees in her the wreckage of fame, the effects of an aftershock when the world turns its back on those who have worked so darn hard to be adored by all. She sees in him happiness.

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Rita Hayworth’s epitaph could well be that of Norma Desmond: “All I wanted was just what everybody else wants, you know, to be loved.” (https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/rita_hayworth_127213)

“Casablanca”: From Mess to Masterpiece

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“Casablanca” (1942) is a movie that during its production was saddled with a recipe for disaster. Two different versions of the ending were shot because nobody had a clue where the story was going. The script changed on a daily basis, rendering useless hours of memorizing lines and internalizing characters, each of whose essence was altered upon the omission of one scene and the inclusion of another. More vexing was that the onscreen chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman was non-existent once the camera stopped rolling. As Bergman’s eldest daughter, Pia Lindstrom, put it, “I don’t think they were particularly simpatico.” (https://www.sfgate.com/movies/article/No-moonlight-or-love-songs-on-the-Casablanca-set-2596909.php) All this is no news. The mess that was “Casablanca” in the making is ingrained in Hollywood folklore, and the masterpiece that emerged from this mess has cast a spell so far reaching that through the decades “Casablanca” has become as integral to our collective psyche as the Rock of Gibraltar is to the earth. It is unlikely the spell will ever break as time goes by.

This raises a conundrum: how then is a classic created? As evidenced by “Casablanca,” one would be hard pressed to say that passion and love for a project lead to something wonderful. Neither Warner Brothers nor anybody else involved with “Casablanca” from the writers to the director had expectations of the film. It was considered another commonplace piece of entertainment Hollywood churned out yearly on an industry line basis, packaged for mass consumption and then meant to be disposed of and forgotten. During breaks, Bergman would retreat to her quarter in anticipation of a call informing her that she got the lead to “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1943). That was where the glory for her was at, and certainly the rest of the crew was yearning for this fiasco to be done with so that everyone could move on to the real deal. Yet day after day, the writers wrote away, the actors adapted to on-the-minute changes, and director Michael Curtiz remained focused on a vision. Confusion and frustrations notwithstanding, no accounts of Bogart and Bergman exist of either one as having been a slacker. Everybody was there to do a job and do it everybody did, to the end.

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And that, perhaps, is a how a classic is created; people do their best under the circumstance and excel as a result. It’s like a love affair, really. When passion hits a roadblock, you stay committed. You learn to see your partner as a person, not as a projection of your lofty ideal, and together you work towards a life with a house free of plumbing issues, turkey on Thanksgiving, and vacations to faraway lands for a spicy dab of adventure. You do not expect perfection. You expect instead occasional disagreements and temper outbursts. You expect flight cancellations, defective orders from amazon, and spoiled sushi. You expect reality. If the affair ends, then it ends with memories of both of you as having once made something beautiful, discordances included.

Consider other creations hailed as great or a classic or a masterpiece or whatever other superlatives critics and historians bestow upon such creations indicative of seemingly superhuman talent. Margaret Mitchell confided to friends that she would be happy if “Gone with the Wind” sold a hundred copies. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/gone-with-the-wind-another-day-another-chance/)  Leonard Bernstein took a gamble with “West Side Story,” a musical so raw in its depiction of such social issues as gang rivalry and juvenile delinquency that it was feared too downbeat for Broadway. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/west-side-story-devotion-in-death/) Alfred Hitchcock’s “Pyscho” (1960) is a product of relentless editing. Of course, these examples differ from “Casablanca” in that their creators started out loving what they were doing. But you see what I’m getting at. Love wasn’t enough. For that love to be visible to the world, it took work, work, and more work, work absent of delusions of grandeur, work steeped in the hard facts of diligence, trial and error, disappointment, and perseverance. In the case of “Casablanca,” the work behind it produced a movie the American Film Institute ranked at the end of the century as third on a list of 100 of the greatest films of all time made in English. (“Citizen Kane” (1941) ranks number one and “The Godfather” (1972) takes second place.)

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“Casablanca” tells the story of a love triangle that unfolds in the midst of World War II. That is all. Scarcely a sub-plot exists or even psychological complexity. It’s a safe film for marketing purposes since a romance in a time of strife offers plenty of conflict and excitement. However, it is the message that this particular romance imparts that has elevated “Casablanca” from light entertainment to a drama of deep philosophizing. I can think of no other scene in any film that conveys such life changing thoughts with total ease than in Rick’s final goodbye to Ilsa before she boards the plane to be with the husband (Paul Henreid) she planned on abandoning. Rick holds her on the chin, raises her face to his, and gazing for the last time into those eyes that glisten with tears and star light, he says one of the most famous lines of the 20th century: “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Rick is right. Jews are being incinerated in crematoriums. The Japanese Imperial Army has mobilized Filipino and American prisoners of war for a death march across the Philippine island of Bataan. Bombs are decimating cities in half the globe. Who cares about the misery of two men in love with the same woman?

Who cares about this blog? About my high aspirations of literary recognition? About my thoughts and feelings? Maybe nobody. Still, we all have our lives to live on this one planet that bears the fruit of human existence, and we need films like “Casablanca” because they remind us that in this crazy world, love is the noblest cause worth fighting for. I could disappear into a crowd of seven billion people, doing whatever it is everybody else does and probably be good at it and even content, or – like Bogart and Bergman and Curtiz, like Mitchell and Bernstein and Hitchcock – I could keep pounding away on what I love and am gifted at for a brush with greatness.

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“Vertigo”: In Search of the Perfect Mate

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I have seen Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958) about five times, but only in my last viewing a couple of years ago did I have a visceral reaction to it. I’ve always been intrigued by “Vertigo” – the mesmerizing images of San Francisco bathed in fog and mist, the beauty of Kim Novak, the chronicle of an era now lost – and up to this point, I saw it as nothing more than a thriller. In actuality, the genre element is merely incidental to the underlying theme of objectification, passion, yearning, and unrequited love.

“Vertigo” is a dark spin on the Pygmalion story.

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Here you have Madeleine (Kim Novak), the suicidal wife of millionaire Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who hires Detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) to watch over her. The task has Scottie trailing Madeleine through a vista of San Francisco landmarks from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Legion of Honor, on hilly streets and in winding alleys. In muted colors like a painting cloaked in a veil, San Francisco is the perfect place to stalk a woman and to fall in love. Scottie finally meets Madeleine when he saves her after she jumps into the bay. He takes her to his home, keeps her warm under sheets and by the fireplace. A series of rendezvous follows, hugs and kisses, but Madeleine is cryptic in her talk. She ultimately lures Scottie to a mission outside the city, where she falls into a delirium and plunges to her death from a belfry. Scottie has a nervous breakdown, a logical reaction when you consider reality. Half the world has Scottie in them -men enamored by beautiful, loony women who stir in each male a desire to save and protect. A man fails, then he crashes into a wall. Scottie’s dead end is the psychiatric ward of a hospital, enclosed by walls as sterile as a strait jacket.

Fortunately for our doleful detective, Hitchcock gives him a second chance. Upon his release, he meets Madeleine’s doppelganger in the body of a woman named Judy, whom he molds after Madeleine’s image by dressing her as Madeleine dressed, dyeing her dark hair blonde, and ignoring her pleas of acceptance: “I remind you of her, the one that’s dead… I want you to love me. If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?”

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We hear it all the time, the platitude that true love means embracing a person in the form that he or she already inhabits, flaws included. Coercion to change a partner is a hornet’s nest. Scottie is not entirely alone, though. He has Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). Talented and pretty, nurturing and comforting the way a best friend is, she is the kind of woman who keeps a man anchored in the sensibilities of life. She even has a job and wears glasses, which means she must be bookish. This is the problem: Scottie doesn’t see her for the blessed things that she is because she’s earthy rather than goddess-like.

Talk about the odyssey of one man’s search for the glorified woman ending disastrously. History abounds with tales of passion that had risen because of the vision of perfection the admirer bestowed upon the admired and then had collapsed once the vision tarnished – the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Aristotle Onassis and Jackie Kennedy, Samson and Delilah… Think of how often idealization of a mate occurs in our own lives. Ultimately, the ideal is a figment of the imagination.

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“City Lights”: The Eyes as Windows to the Soul

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Rhett and Scarlett, Rick and Ilsa, Tony and Maria… in every list of cinema’s most iconic couples, these duos always make the grade. Even though other couples may not have the ubiquity nor the pop cultural standing of the aforementioned three, they merit mention at one point or another, which makes the constant omission of my personal favorite – the Tramp and the Blind Girl – all the more an injustice.

“City Lights” (1931) with Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill in the lead roles is a film that transcends a genre. It’s a romance and it’s a comedy, yet to call it a romantic comedy would not be right. “City Lights” is not structured according to the prescribed formula of boy meets girl/conflict separates boy from girl/boy and girl reunite as they resolve a series of humorous misunderstandings. A courtship doesn’t happen. Nobody’s love is scorned. The Tramp and the Blind Girl both get what they want in the end. All ought to be sunshine and daisies. It isn’t.

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The Tramp and the Blind Girl meet on a street corner where the Blind Girl is selling a basketful of flowers. Upon hearing his passing footsteps, she offers the Tramp a flower to buy, which he does with money he scrounges from his pocket. He realizes that she assumes he is a wealthy gentleman when the door to a car parked in front of them opens and shuts, for she calls out to the real gentleman who has boarded the car and driven away that he has forgotten his change. The friendship that develops between the two with subsequent visits to the street corner takes a turn as the Tramp chances upon a newspaper notice for an experimental surgery that restores vision. From then on, the Tramp and the Blind Girl share one dream. Still, there is a grave matter that needs to be settled; the Blind Girl and her grandmother are about to be evicted. To raise rent, the Tramp falls into money-making schemes, all of which prove to be preposterous because that is the life of the Tramp.

“City Lights” was made when talkies were exploding. Charlie Chaplin, however, wanted a silent. The result is a love story so delicate that it flitters across the screen as if it were a dream. Regardless of how many times the Tramp falls on his ass, he gets back on his feet, ennobled by a selfless desire – for a blind girl to have the comfort of a home and the blessing of sight while he asks for nothing in return. Such nobility in the face of humiliation was a matter of survival during Depression Era America. Men labored under the sweltering sun, picked grapes for a pittance, no matter that the future promised nothing; their families depended on them. So it is with the Tramp. He knows from the start that he might never get the girl. It is her happiness that matters, not his, and knowing that he would be the man to grant her that happiness is enough of a future for him to endure any indignity.

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As with all films that celebrate the most coveted communion between two people and the sacrifices it entails, “City Lights” makes me mull over what I would do for that person:

  1. I would give him the single parachute in a plane about to hit a mountain wall
  2. I would face a firing squad without a blindfold
  3. I would hold him close on a cold night for my heat to warm his blood
  4. I would tickle his ear with my tongue to make him laugh when he’s sad
  5. I would author a novel dedicated to him

I do have my limits, however. I wouldn’t use his toothbrush, and to take the fall on his behalf for something of which I am guiltless, I’d have to think about that. A life behind bars could be worse than death; death is a form of freedom. Decisions. Decisions. Should any of us find ourselves in this crisis, we have Charlie Chaplin to teach us a thing or two about the right choice. Again, “City Lights.” Time passes. The Tramp is in worse condition than before. Coat torn at the seams, holes in pockets, he wanders the streets an object of derision as boys shoot pellets at him. He is annoyed, nothing more… not angry, not bitter… no matter what atrocities life had done him. Even then, his annoyance passes. Such is the nature of the Tramp – upbeat against all odds – which makes the finale to “City Lights” the most poignant in all filmdom.

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I wish you could experience it as I did, to the movie score Chaplin had composed as performed live by the San Francisco Symphony, only words for the pounding of drums and clashing of cymbals in simulating the beating of a weeping heart are beyond my vocabulary. Instead, I offer you another Chaplin treasure:

Smile though your heart is aching. Smile even though it’s breaking. When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by. If you smile through your fear and sorrow, smile and maybe tomorrow, you’ll see the sun come shining through for you.

On his way the Tramp goes, past the flower shop where the Blind Girl works, she prettied up in a lace-collared dress and heels. Everything he did for love has paid off. The beauty of the world is now hers to relish, an existence far from shabby dwellings, poverty, and homeless riffraff. In her joy he has found his own. That’s the way it is. Sometimes we need to lose in order to share with the person we most care about a piece of paradise. In other words: when you love someone, free, free, set them free. Sorry for the hokum, but Charlie Chaplin was the first to visualize it in a story unique to him. And when these words appear before us in a cloud thought to sum up a situation we’re in, the jab to the heart really does puncture.

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