I was watching Sunset Boulevard the other night for what seemed like the hundredth time. It’s one of my favorite movies, but this time around I was struck by something I had never paid much attention to before – the film's central character, forgotten silent screen legend Norma Desmond, was 50 years old.
Holy crap! I’m older than Norma freakin’ Desmond! I’m even older than Gloria Swanson was when she played Norma Desmond (the magnificent Swanson was 53).
For those few of you who somehow never caught it, Sunset Boulevard, written and directed by the great Billy Wilder, is the story of Desmond, a delusional recluse who lives with her butler, Max (Erich Von Stroheim), until a down-on-his-luck screenwriter named Joe Gillis (William Holden) accidentally stumbles into her crumbling Hollywood mansion. Together they begin to plot Norma’s comeback (she has written a terrible script about Salome) and, as Netflix delicately puts it, “their professional relationship evolves into something more.” In other words, he moves in and becomes her boy toy.
Norma lives entirely in the past, viewing her old films in the evening and being chauffeured about in a monstrous town car with leopard-skin seats during the day. Her only friends are a few fellow old-timey actors — Joe dubs them the “waxworks” — who occasionally drop by to play bridge. Norma teeters between fantasy and madness through most of the movie before finally breaking with reality at the end when she delivers what many consider to be one of the greatest last lines in film history: "All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up."
I know that I’m older than most actors and actresses in movies today (except maybe the cast of Amour and that Marigold flick), but the realization that I’m older than ND really got to me this time because Norma wasn’t just old — she was all washed up, a has-been, her best years behind her, a fossil trapped in her own imaginary amber. At 50! (I Googled it just to be sure.)
I had always thought she was much older (at least in her 70s), mainly because the previous 99 or so times I had seen the film, I was always much younger. I mean, she plays bridge with Buster Keaton! And the movie is called Sunset Boulevard — as in sunset, as in dying.
Sunset was made in 1950, when the life expectancy for women was just about 70, so I guess Norma was officially entering into her twilight years. But if it were remade today, some of the actresses vying for the role would be Michelle Pfeiffer, Demi Moore and Madonna. Older people in the past sure seemed a lot older than they do today.
I was in my early 20s when I first saw Sunset Boulevard and I remember being kind of creeped out by Norma and Joe’s May-December relationship. “Why would this young, good-looking guy sleep with this old hag?” I thought at the time. And maybe my kids would think the same thing if they saw a modern version with say, Sharon Stone and Ryan Gosling.
Now that I’m in my mid-50s, I'm far from being all washed up and hope my best years are still ahead. And I gotta admit that Norma Desmond looked pretty damn good to me the other night (although I’d insist that she clip her talons). Of course, I’m in no position to make demands. The truth is, I’m probably too old for her.
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