Wednesday, 29 October 2014

CINEMA SIDE: Self-Absorption & the Evolution of 'Sunset Boulevard'

In Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, the romantic relationship between William Holden’s character, Joe Gillis, and Gloria Swanson’s character, Norma Desmond, begins with the death of a monkey.

Needing a place to hide from pursuing police, Joe Gillis takes refuge in the driveway of faded movie star Norma Desmond.  While waiting for the police to be at a safe distance, Joe Gillis is misidentified by the residing butler as the representative of a funeral home that has been hired to help in the burial of Norma Desmond’s recently deceased pet monkey.  At once, the unsuspecting Gillis is taken to view the body and, as a consequence, meets his future lover, Norma Desmond.

An interesting insight into the film’s ill-fated love affair between Gillis and Desmond, however, is the direction that Billy Wilder (who co-wrote the film) gave Gloria Swanson concerning her character’s feelings for the departed pet.  In an interview with Cameron Crowe, the great director revealed that the relationship between the monkey and Miss Desmond was much more intimate than that of owner and pet:  They were, in fact, lovers!  Throughout the scenes involving the monkey, Wilder reminded Swanson repeatedly: “There goes your last lover;” and, after the animal had been buried in the garden, he continued to tell her, “Remember that your lover is in the garden”(Cameron, 304).

A point that movie critics have failed to properly appreciate in this classic film, then, is not only a transition between lovers that is unique in cinematic history, but also one that is supremely Darwinian in nature: Gloria Swanson goes from a monkey to William Holden—now that is evolution!

Evolution in Sunset Boulevard

An even more important point that has been overlooked, however, is that through this vital piece of characterization the complete dysfunctional nature of Norma’s relationships is made more ironically clear: she treated her pet monkey as a lover and her lover, Joe Gillis, as a pet.  Thematically then, it is no surprise that at the end of the film she survives both and, as the final scene shows the faded star being escorted to prison, one of the film’s major themes is fully revealed:  Taken to its extreme, self-absorption both destroys and kills. 

Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond

Crowe, Cameron.  Conversations with WilderNew York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

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