But let’s look at that line carefully, because it’s also evidence that Norma is, as you noted, tragically out of touch. With her card games among silent film stars (the “waxworks,” Joe calls them), her private silent-movie screenings and her antique car in the garage, Norma is doing everything she can to live in the past (not altogether unlike modern actresses trying to live in the past by undergoing cosmetic surgery). The truth is that Norma doesn’t actually know that the pictures have gotten small, because she doesn’t watch those pictures. Norma assumes—or convinces herself—that the movies have declined in quality simply because she isn’t in them. So it’s interesting that the same piece of dialogue that can make cinephiles high-five one another in triumph, as if Norma has reached into the future to bitch-slap Jerry Bruckheimer, can also be seen as the stubborn, clueless ramblings of someone bitter that the world has changed on them—the kind of stuff served up these days by Andy Rooney, who recently ranted against the micromanaging of medical professionals by bragging that he’s never brushed his teeth twice a day. In that light, Norma isn’t the woman that more reasonably disgruntled cinephiles should want as their spokesperson.
EH: Yeah, it’s funny that her words have become such a battle cry against mediocrity, because in fact Norma herself isn’t exactly a paragon of artistic integrity and inventiveness. She doesn’t miss the good old days because they represented a high water mark in cinematic aesthetics; she misses the movies of the past because they were more glamorous, more lurid, because they better suited her own particular talents and, as you say, because she was in them. Norma doesn’t fit in the modern movies because she’s too melodramatic, too over-the-top in her acting—whether she’s onscreen, trying out for a part or simply playing herself in her increasingly theatrical everyday life. The movie she wants to make is an absurd soap opera about Salome, the kind of movie that Cecil B. DeMille might’ve made in the silent era, which is why she wants DeMille to direct. But even DeMille, in the middle of directing a probably-not-so-different-on-the-surface sword-and-sandal epic, recognizes Norma’s ideas as outmoded. The pictures didn’t get too small for Norma, they simply changed, and she was unwilling or unable to adapt with the times, to adjust to new aesthetics and new ways of making movies. (Witness the overhead mic swiping her in the head as she sits on DeMille’s set, as perfect a metaphor as any for Norma’s relationship to sound.) As I said before, there’s something to admire in Norma’s refusal to compromise her own vision, but at the same time it’s a very conservative outlook, a desire to halt the natural evolution and development of a medium striving for new and different means of expression.
Director/co-writer Billy Wilder is striking a delicate balance here. Sunset Boulevard is a lament for a lost era, for those forgotten stars who failed to make the transition to sound, whose careers faltered when faced with the new economies and aesthetics of sound filmmaking. There’s something poignant even about the mere appearance of Buster Keaton, looking somehow wasted and gaunt, a premonition of the meditation on mortality and performance that he’d later deliver in the Samuel Beckett-written Film. There’s no doubt that Wilder feels genuine regret for the talents lost or forgotten during the transitional period from silents to talkies. At the same time, the film doesn’t idealize the past, doesn’t suggest that everything was better before sound came in and ruined it all; surely that would be hypocritical and silly coming from a director who started out as a writer and always knew the value of good dialogue. Instead, the film suggests that commerce always ruled, that the silent era represented not some golden age of artistic creativity but simply a different form of commerce, catering to different tastes and serving up different forms of spectacle. In the film, DeMille (gamely playing himself) rejects Norma and her ludicrous vanity project script not because he’s dedicated to his own noble artistic vision, but because he’s learned how to tailor his commercial products to new temperaments, while Norma is still serving up old-school kitsch. She hasn’t learned how to make modern trash.
Wilder, for his part, counters this artistic bankruptcy, which bridges the old and the new Hollywood, with some of his most compelling filmmaking. The film is packed with iconic images, like the early shot of a corpse floating in a pool, ingeniously shot from below the water, looking up at the body. Wilder matches Norma’s extravagance with baroque compositions that give the film the feel of an overblown Gothic fairy tale. At one point, Wilder shoots Joe’s arrival into a room from a distance, placing a pipe organ keyboard and Max’s white-gloved hands in the extreme foreground. Coupled with the film’s consistent depiction of Norma as a Nosferatu-like vampire, these shots further solidify the film’s links with the past, with Murnau and the German Expressionists—in other words, with the real artistic touchstones that might lend some credence to the argument that the pictures used to be bigger.
JB: Bigger, right. But, I agree, not necessarily better. As you said, it would be hypocritical, or at least inauthentically self-deprecating, for Sunset Boulevard to suggest that sound, and more specifically words, cheapened cinema. Sunset Boulevard is powered by words, in Joe’s omniscient screenwriter’s narration and even in the form of routine dialogue. And if other films, prior and since, have been made with such an obsession for “talk, talk, talk” that very little thought has been given to what’s within the frame (ahem, All About Eve, are you listening?), well, we can’t blame the technology (or the “words, words and more words”), only the filmmakers.
And so I wonder if over time the true meaning of Norma’s famous quote has become somewhat lost. Perhaps now we instinctually interpret the phrase as representing Sunset Boulevard and movies of its era, rather than the silent movies Norma is actually attempting to defend. On that note, I have to admit that over the past two years, when I’ve come across critics blasting away at 3-D as if its (re)arrival is the death knell of cinema, I’m startled at how much their diatribes (which I largely identify with, by the way) can come off like Norma Desmond offering her own technology-inspired obituary for movies: “They’re dead! They’re finished! There was a time in this business when they had the eyes of the whole wide world. But that wasn’t good enough for them. Oh, no. They had to have the ears of the world, too. Look at them in the front offices. The masterminds! They took the idols and smashed them.” Ed, is it possible we could reach a point, perhaps only 15 years from now, where the anti-3-D crowd and/or the anti-Robert-Zemeckis-motion-capture crowd sounds this loony? I shudder at the thought. In fact, don’t answer that question.
I’d rather get back to Sunset Boulevard’s images. You already mentioned one of my favorite shots, of Max’s fingers hammering on the organ keys, and the shot of Joe floating in the pool, which, incidentally, I think of every time I watch the opening credits of Mad Men. But there are so many other examples of this movie’s visual richness, particularly in contrast to All About Eve. For starters, consider that terrific moment when Joe first ascends the stairs toward Norma’s bedroom and Max steps into the frame to deliver one of the film’s best laugh lines: “If you need help with the coffin, call me.” Genius! Consider the shot when Joe walks into the parlor for the first time, and the camera pans left along with Joe and pulls back to take in the enormity of the room. Consider, of course, the famous scene in which Norma stands up into the projector light, drawn like a moth to the flame, in a maybe-somewhat-accidental moment that she milks for all the theatrics it can provide. Consider the very simple slow zoom over Joe’s shoulder as he peers into Norma’s empty bedroom trying to understand the woman who lives inside it. And, just because I have to stop somewhere, consider a few of the various shots during Norma’s trip to Paramount, like her touching moment in the spotlight, or the way the camera takes in the chaos of the set and then slowly zooms to frame Norma and “Chief” DeMille for their intimate conversation. Visually, as well as verbally, this is very much a “big” picture. And, as I’ve already implied, I can’t say the same of All About Eve.
EH: Neither can I. Talking about these two films together is interesting in all sorts of ways, but one way in particular is very fascinating from a meta perspective: All About Eve might be the textbook example of the kind of movie that Norma Desmond is railing against in Sunset Boulevard. It couldn’t be more perfect. This is what happens when words take over and the visual virtues of the cinema are neglected. Joseph Mankiewicz’s take on the subject of aging actresses really is all about “words, words and more words.” Though I find All About Eve reasonably interesting in terms of themes and, to some extent, performances, I have to confess that in virtually every other respect it’s a profoundly dull, aesthetically bankrupt film, with little to offer beyond the ideas that prompted the script. It might as well have been an essay about female aging for all the visual or aesthetic interest Mankiewicz brings to this material.
Virtually every shot in the film is utilitarian and little more. Mankiewicz frames the characters and occasionally moves the camera to follow them around if they happen to move—which they often don’t. It’s a shockingly static, theatrical film, which is perhaps fitting for its Broadway milieu but doesn’t really translate into satisfying cinema. I can hardly think of any shots, any camera moves, that enhance the themes or say something substantial about the characters or their relationships—at least, not until the very last shot of the film. This final shot is so striking, so potent, that it seems to have come from a different movie altogether. In the last scenes of the film, the narrative has already moved on from Margo, who has come to terms with her aging and gotten her happy ending. At the end, Eve has essentially become the next young Margo, a rising star, and when she returns to her hotel room she finds a young woman named Phoebe (Barbara Bates) waiting for her. The cycle is beginning anew, with Eve as the established star and Phoebe as the young wannabe who noses her way into her idol’s circle in order to get ahead. In the last shot, Phoebe dons one of Eve’s glittery coats and poses in a segmented mirror while ritualistically bowing as though accepting an award. Behind her, the fragmented mirrors create a multitude of Phoebes receding off into the distance, suggesting that this story will be played out again, and again, and again, one crass opportunist after another waiting to take over for those who grow old and tired of the game.
This one shot demonstrates the power of such visual inventiveness. If the rest of the film is an often tiresome gabfest with characters spitting out so many witty one-liners that it’s quickly deadening, this last shot is an elegant and memorable image that makes its point entirely without words. Norma Desmond would love it, but there’s not a whole lot else to love here. Jacques Rivette wrote, after revisiting this film in 1998, that “every intention was underlined in red, and it struck me as a film without a director! Mankiewicz was a great producer, a good scenarist and a masterful writer of dialogue, but for me he was never a director. His films are cut together any which way, the actors are always pushed towards caricature and they resist with only varying degrees of success.” I’m not sure I entirely agree with Rivette’s unqualified positive assessment of the dialogue—which is so on-the-nose that it’s maddening as often as it’s clever—but otherwise I think that sums it up nicely.
JB: Well, I guess I don’t disagree with you that the writing is on-the-nose, at least by contemporary standards. But it is very effective in places, and it remains one of the film’s strengths on the whole. However, as for your charge that “virtually every shot in the film is utilitarian and nothing more,” I wouldn’t disagree. Sure, the last shot stands out, as you noted. And I’ve always rather liked the shot of Eve standing just offstage at the end of one of Margo’s performances, watching her idol taking her bows. And yet, in the context of the rest of the film’s visual blandness, that shot is utilitarian, too, upon further reflection; the only difference is that we’re given something comparatively interesting to look at. So much of All About Eve is nothing more than the actors centered in the frame, barking their lines (some memorable, some not), often in front of rather bland backdrops. And so it is that one of the most memorable shots in the film is the one of Eve and Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) walking down a sidewalk—memorable, alas, because it’s so clumsily staged in front of rear-projection.
Sadly, in terms of the cinematography, that’s not the only time that an oddity stands out. Of late, I’ve been puzzled by a shot at the end of Bill’s not-so-happy welcome-back party: The party sequence ends with Eve saying goodnight to Karen (Celeste Holm) and reminding her to put in a good word for her about becoming Margo’s understudy. Karen, standing at the top of a stairway, assures Eve she won’t forget and then descends the stairs. As soon as Karen leaves the frame, the camera zooms past where she was standing to focus on a painting that had hovered unremarkably over Karen’s shoulder during her conversation with Eve. In a very brief closeup, no longer than a second, we see what appears to be woman sitting in a chair, looking to her right, with figures standing over each shoulder—perhaps an angel over her right shoulder and something that looks almost like a court jester over her left shoulder. The painting is there and gone so quickly that it’s hard to say exactly what it portrays. In fact, right now I’m studying the paused image on my computer screen and I still can’t quite tell what I’m looking at.
It’s entirely possible, of course, that the painting is quite famous. I freely admit that my knowledge of that art form is limited. Furthermore, I recognized Toulouse-Lautrec’s Aristide Bruant dans son cabaret hanging in Margo’s living room (hence, she likes famous art). So perhaps you know exactly what that slow zoom reveals, and maybe I should, too, and maybe that’s why neither of the two commentary tracks on my DVD makes any mention of the zoom or the painting. Then again, unless the painting is as recognizable as Mona Lisa, I find the haste with which Mankiewicz cuts away from the painting, after going through the effort to (a) hang it there and (b) zoom in on it, to be baffling. Giving Mankiewicz the benefit of the doubt—and thanks to my close examination of the painting on my computer—I’ll assume that the painting symbolizes Karen’s place between an angel she sees (Eve) and a kind of demon she doesn’t (Eve again). Still, I think it’s telling that one of Mankiewicz’s few attempts at cinematic storytelling is essentially mumbled.
EH: Interesting analysis. I don’t recognize the painting either, so maybe I’m missing something obvious too. But I think you nail it when you suggest that Mankiewicz rushes through this insert too quickly to make whatever point he wants to make, presumably something about good and evil, or the hidden machinations behind a seemingly sweet young woman’s blankly pretty face. The film’s overall undistinguished visual style makes me think, not that I’m missing out on a clever reference, but that Mankiewicz just isn’t getting across whatever he thinks he’s getting across.
That said, I will admit that the over-the-shoulder shot you mention of Eve watching Margo from the wings is another rare exception to the film’s general blandness, especially since it mirrors the earlier shot when Eve sees the inside of the theater for the first time, and Mankiewicz similarly sets up behind her, looking out into the empty rows of seats beyond the curtains. These shots aren’t showy, but they’re substantial, especially in comparison to the purely functional images throughout the rest of the film, in which Mankiewicz often seems to have paid little attention to composition or mise-en-scène.