[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a monthly feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
Jason Bellamy: On the same weekend that Robin Hood opened, Cate Blanchett turned 41. At least, most of her did. Watching her play Marion to Russell Crowe's Robin, I found it difficult to ignore the glaring (apparent) reality that some of the actress is considerably younger. Blanchett's cheekbones, for example, have such a suspiciously hard, dramatic contour that they look less like features of a human face than like accents of a sporty Mercedes-Benz, probably because they are equally unnatural. Blanchett, I think it's safe to say, has undergone some cosmetic surgery throughout her movie career. And while I want to make it clear that it's none of my business what Blanchett does to or with her body, I do feel I have every right to make the following observation: In Robin Hood, Blanchett's too-perfect cheekbones look neither middle-aged nor Middle Age.
For me, this is a problem, not just in terms of how Blanchett's face doesn't fit the film but also because of the way it continues a somewhat disturbing trend. Particularly over the past 10 years, cosmetic surgery has become a kind of epidemic in Hollywood. Nicole Kidman's forehead no longer wrinkles. Rene Russo's skin is tighter than it was when she got her big break in 1989's Major League. Meg Ryan hardly looks like Meg Ryan anymore. Meanwhile, almost every Hollywood actress over 35 seems to have Keira Knightley's cheekbones, which makes one wonder whose cheekbones Keira Knightley has. Increasingly of late, I'll come across one of these significantly remodeled actresses and silently shake my head, not in haughty admonition but in bewildered sadness, wondering what's gone wrong with society to impel these already attractive women to transform themselves into stiff-faced approximations of beauty, sacrificing their uniqueness for some Hollywood Barbie "ideal."
And then I remember All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard. And then I realize that the only thing new about what's going on in Hollywood today is the available medical technology. Sixty years old this year, All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard each tell stories of actresses who are effectively washed up as a result of becoming middle-aged—the only significant difference being that one of them sees the writing on the wall, while the other is so deluded that she doesn't even see the wall. This is certainly not the only way in which these films are united, but it strikes me that it's a good place to start. Ed, I wish I could tell you that the experiences of All About Eve's Margo Channing (Bette Davis) and Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) strike me as something from our country's shameful past. Instead, I think the way that these films suggest that, for actresses, wrinkles amount to irrelevancy is all too contemporary. How about you?
Ed Howard: Both All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard are the kind of movies that one hopes, 60 years later, would seem like dated time capsules from an earlier era. Instead, as you say, revisiting these films now gives the impression that we haven't made much progress at all, that women—and especially women in the entertainment industry—are still dogged by these unreasonable societal standards about youth and beauty, this aversion to seeing a woman age naturally. It's such a well-known aspect of popular culture that it's taken for granted, and I don't think I need to dwell on it too much. As an actress ages, with very few exceptions, she will get fewer and fewer parts, and more and more limited parts, so of course most Hollywood actresses will do anything they can to maintain some semblance of youth as they approach or pass the age of 40.
In somewhat different ways, both All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard (which were both released in 1950) deal with the phenomenon of an actress whose best years are behind her. Margo is a Broadway star who's increasingly aware that she's starting to look ridiculous playing 20-year-olds, and that maybe she isn't at the apex of her profession anymore. Norma, meanwhile, has already retreated from Hollywood fame into a solitary existence where, with the help of her butler/former director/former husband Max (Erich von Stroheim, himself a former director) she can convince herself that she still matters. The films also create an extra layer of metafictional commentary from the fact that both actresses were arguably reflections of the characters they played. Gloria Swanson had been a star in the silent era and survived the transition to sound but not the transition into her 40s; Sunset Boulevard was her first film in nine years. Bette Davis was still making movies regularly in 1950, but certainly her years as a young starlet were behind her, and like her character Margo she was poised on the brink of middle age, perhaps fearing that her audience wouldn't follow her into her maturity.
Maturity is perhaps a key word here, for while both films are concerned with the fear of growing old, neither of these characters is actually growing up. In fact, these films together make a compelling case that our society's obsession with age, with youth and attractiveness, leads to misplaced values and stunted emotional growth. Norma and Margo, as their bodies grow older and they can no longer hide the wrinkles in their skin and the bags beneath their eyes, cling desperately to the shallow preoccupations of youth. They're emotional children in aging bodies. Instead of embracing the maturity and wisdom that should come with age, they struggle to maintain an illusion of youthful "perfection," and they project the attitude of entitlement, capriciousness and superiority that comes with it.
JB: I think that's mostly right. To be fair, Margo ultimately does grow up: bowing out of a part she knows isn't right for her, marrying the man she loves and coming to terms with the fact that Eve (Anne Baxter) isn't a threat to her happiness. But Margo gets to that point all of a sudden, and only after a lot of kicking and screaming. In essence, she ignores reality until she has no choice but to confront it, lest she go insane, which is precisely what happens to Norma in Sunset Boulevard. So, yes, I do think these films say a great deal about how the desperate pursuit of external youth creates a kind of arrested development, because it's easier to never grow up than to never grow old.
I suppose all of this is obvious. No one could watch these films and fail to grasp that Margo and Norma demonstrate how difficult it can be for women to pass into middle age. This theme isn't just in the subtext, it's often in the text itself. (Margo: "Bill's 32. He looks 32. He looked it five years ago, he'll look it 20 years from now. I hate men.") And yet just because we're conscious of what these films are saying doesn't mean we're as good about remembering what they've said. Given that All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard are about actresses under the extraordinary expectations of Hollywood (or Broadway as a stand-in for Hollywood, in the case of All About Eve), it's tempting to regard Margo and Norma as movie stars only, thus forgetting that they are very much regular women, too.
So it is that Sunset Boulevard's final scene, in which Norma slithers toward the camera like the vampire in Nosferatu, ready for her famous closeup, is often interpreted as a comment on Hollywood's twisted ideals and the corruptive effect of fame. It is that, no question about it, but on a much more basic level that scene also reveals a woman driven not so much by a desire to be loved by the world (or the camera) as by a desire to be loved by just one man. Given Norma's obsession with stardom, it's easy to forget that what sends her into madness isn't the realization that her movie career is finished but that her live-in screenwriter/quasi-boyfriend Joe (William Holden) is leaving her for a younger woman. For all the elements of these films that are specific to Hollywood, I think they each speak just as well to some of the inherent pressures of general womanhood, even if they tend to use dramatic, theatrical gestures to get their points across.
EH: That seems accurate. The Hollywood actress (and actor, for that matter) is often held up as some kind of paragon, an ideal of beauty and charm that "ordinary" people aspire to mimic. The Hollywood celebrity is a model for what the rest of us strive to be: attractive, successful, talented, poised and elegant. These films pierce that idealization to suggest that these rich, famous actresses aren't actually so different from the rest of us; they too worry about growing old, about losing their glamor, about being unable to find love due to fading looks—or about losing what love they already have. As you make clear in your intro, such concerns are particularly acute in the years before universal plastic surgery, when these celebrities, just like the rest of us, don't really have many options for avoiding the inevitable passage of time. The connection between these actresses and the non-famous women who go to see them is thus more pronounced than it is today, when those who can afford it don't have to age (visibly at least) at the same rate as everybody else. The drama is exaggerated and stylized, but to some extent these films are mapping ordinary concerns onto the kind of fabulous women who some might assume would be above such problems. In that sense, certainly, neither of these films is just a satire of the Hollywood/Broadway cycle of fame and irrelevancy; they're both also about the more prosaic concerns of "general womanhood."
But all of that exists on a thematic level. I don't think anyone would argue that, in other respects, either Margo or Norma (or anybody else in these movies) really seem like icons of typical femininity. They are very particular characters, played by very particular actresses who are drawing on very particular acting traditions to craft stylized, in some ways absurd performances. Although I'd agree with you that both these films resonate with universal concerns that aren't limited to the insular worlds depicted onscreen, the actual textures and aesthetics in both films are far from realistic. Norma Desmond is, as you suggest, derived equally from Nosferatu and the tradition of the silent vamp, from literal vampires and vampiric screen seductresses. She spends much of the film with her hands gnarled into claws and her eyes nearly bugging out of her head. Sunset Boulevard, after all, isn't only about the physical degradation of age, but about losing touch with societal norms and the rapid pace of aesthetic change.
Norma has lost relevance as much because she represents an outdated aesthetic as because she's started to grow old. The silent movie stars acted with their faces and their bodies because they couldn't use their voices; Norma lives her everyday life as if she's still in a silent movie, still mugging for the camera, projecting her emotions in every twitch of her expressive face. Mitigating against the idea that Norma is a woman like any other is the way that the film surrounds her with the trappings of Hollywood's past: not only von Stroheim as her butler, but cameos by other actors whose stars dimmed in the sound era (Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner). At one point, Norma even dresses up like Charlie Chaplin to do a mime routine as the Tramp. Norma's biggest crime, as far as Hollywood is concerned, is her refusal to adapt to the times; in some ways the film suggests that society might be willing to forgive a few wrinkles, but it can't countenance Norma's intransigent devotion to silent movie (over)acting and old-school epic extravagance. The rest of the movie industry has moved on, and Norma's been left behind, punished for sticking to her aesthetic convictions, as cheesy and out-of-touch as her preferences might seem to post-silent era audiences.
JB: That actually segues nicely into another of Sunset Boulevard's famous moments: when Norma responds to Joe's assessment that she "used to be big" by demanding, "I am big! It's the pictures that got small!" It's a magnificent line—truly one of the best in cinema history—and, like the film's equally famous final shot, it's tempting to think of that line as nothing more than a sharp dagger to the heart of a misguided Hollywood. I mean, just think of the countless essays you've read that use Norma's quote en route to a proclamation that Hollywood's best years are behind it. Sure, there are lots of movie lines that are more celebrated or better recognized, but I'd be hard pressed to come up with one that cinephiles, on the whole, find more personally resonant. Because we've all been there: staring up at the closing credits of a lackluster movie with that empty feeling that Hollywood used to make 'em better. Whether that's true or not is beside the point. When Norma sneers that the pictures have gotten small, cinephiles reflexively nod their heads in agreement. We love her in that moment.