Liz Swain 4:24 p.m., May 24
Mel Gibson's Sunset Boulevard?
On this final Friday of 2012, a brief bout of movie-related self-promotion
I am very fond of Anne Helen Petersen's Scandals of Classic Hollywood over at The Hairpin. A while back, I was reading her piece on Gloria Swanson, and learned what I really should have known already: that there was a crucial kernel of autobiography in Swanson's performance as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard:
During her tenure in the ‘20s, Swanson had arguably been the biggest star in the world. But this role — this would be the role of a lifetime. It was the role of Norma Desmond, a washed-up, forgotten, delusional yet perfectly preserved artifact of the silent era, trying to revive her career in post-war Hollywood. It could have been Swanson’s alternate life, and that was exactly the point: in 1950, most of the viewers would have a keen memory of 1920s Hollywood, the same way that we have a keen memory of 1980s film and television...this was something rare: a role that would succeed precisely because of Swanson’s past image, but would also allow Swanson to leave that image behind. Tom Cruise (sorta) did it with Tropic Thunder, but it's a rarified turn. How can you simultaneously reify and transcend your image? The secondary pleasures are extra-textual: viewers reveled in conflation of Desmond’s past with Swanson’s own (remember, most audience members in 1950 would have a keen memory of Swanson and the silent era she embodied; for us, it’d be like watching a movie about a fallen ‘80s pop star, starring Michael Jackson). Swanson also agreed to accentuate the similarities, adding items of her personal collection to the set and costume design, performing a Chaplin imitation she made famous in Manhandled, and agreeing to the casting of her former director, Cecil B. DeMille, as, you guessed it, her former director.
And it struck me that the character of Mel Gibson in my little Mel Gibson story Surfing with Mel (only 99 cents!) might could be the man's Norma Desmond role: simultaneously reifying and transcending. If you've got a few minutes, you might find it interesting.