The Backstage Blogathon 2016: Kim Novak- Fallen Idol double bill “You’re an illusion… without me you’re nothing!” *

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Here’s a truly compelling Blogathon hosted by two of the most insightful bloggers you’ll ever find! Fritzi of Movies Silently and Sister Celluloid ! They’re featuring a subject that is endless in it’s offerings. The Backstage Blogathon 2016!

What is most challenging, eye opening and delicious for me is what I discovered not only about the films I chose that have a ‘Backstage’ theme, but how in fact, I uncovered the volatile backstage world within the backstage world. The back story of both screen & stage sirens, Kim Novak and Jeanne Eagels, the directors -particularly Robert Aldrich who made ‘Lylah Clare’, and the artists involved in molding the historic perceptions of all of it!

I’m thrilled to have been invited to join in, and couldn’t resist the temptation to do yet another double feature, cause I’m a child of the 60s & 70s & and I like it like that…!

Kim Novak

This time spotlighting three? legends, one a symbolic artifice of that intoxicating mistress that is… celebrity’ and two true legends– both portrayed by Hollywood goddess Kim Novak in The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) & Jeanne Eagels (1957) with a little bit about the real tragic legend Jeanne Eagels herself.

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Director Alfred Hitchcock and Kim Novak in the an earlier film where Novak plays an eerie dual role, a story of fixation & fear of heights in the classic thriller Vertigo (1958)
Kim Novak - Vertigo - 1958. Restored by Nick & jane for Doctor Macro's High Quality Movie Scans website: http://www.doctormacro.com. Enjoy!
Kim Novak Vertigo (1958) courtesy of Nick & Jane at Dr Macro’s

[on her role in Vertigo (1958)] “I don’t think it’s one of my best works, but to have been part of something that has been accepted makes me feel very good…{..} They’ll always remember me in Vertigo (1958), and I’m not that good in it, but I don’t blame me because there are a couple of scenes where I was wonderful.”-Kim Novak

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Novak as Judy in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)
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Kim Novak as Madeleine -Scottie (James Stewart’s obsession) in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)

Kim Novak ‘The Lavender Girl’ like many Hollywood hopefuls went to L.A to become an actress, discovered by an agent who got her a screen test with Columbia Pictures who signed her to a contract. Harry Cohn marketed her as a ‘sex goddess’, something she resisted from the beginning.

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“I think it will be helpful to people because I know the expectations that are put on you as a sex symbol, and how MarilynMonroe suffered and so on, and I was able to get free of that.” –Kim Novak

She made her first motion picture at age 21, getting the lead in the film noir gem Pushover (1958) co-starring Fred MacMurray. Novak received a Golden Globe nomination for “Most Promising Newcomer” in 1955.

That year she made three successful pictures, Otto Preminger’s controversial film about drug addiction The Man With The Golden Arm (1955) starring Frank Sinatra as a strung out junkie and Novak as Molly.

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Frankie Machine: “You got any money, Molly?… I feel so sick. I hurt all over”Molly:“Jump off a roof if you’re gonna kill yourself but don’t ask me to help ya…”

Then she received critical acclaim starring along side William Holden as the girl next door- Madge Owens in Picnic (1955), While Novak was surrounded by an incredible cast that includes Betty Field, Susan Strasberg, Cliff Robertston, Arthur O’Connell, Verna Felton, Rita Shaw, Nick Adams, Elizabeth Wilson AND Rosalind Russell as a painfully cliché old maid school teacher. The film didn’t seem to jive for me, and I felt it didn’t do anything to showcase Novak’s acting ability. 

She then followed up with Pal Joey (1955) again co-starring with Sinatra.

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Bill Holden and Kim Novak dance in director Joshua Logan’s Picnic (1955) adapted from William Inge’s play, boasts as great cast!
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Kim Novak as prostitute Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage (1964) image courtesy of The Red List
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Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak smoke on the screen in Strangers When We Meet (1960) image courtesy of Dr Macro

Sadly with the way Columbia hyped their young star, she continued to make box office flops that halted her career, playing the other woman in love with Kirk Douglas in Strangers When We Meet (1960) then cast as prostitute Mildred Rogers in the remake Of Human Bondage (1964) with co-star Laurence Harvey, and Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid (1964). Novak made several films with director Richard Quine with whom she dated, was married to actor Richard Johnson for one year, still remaining friends afterwards. But Novak never truly fit into Hollywood, was disillusioned by the pressures & politics of being framed as a sex goddess and not really getting film roles that were to her liking.

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“I don’t feel that I was a Hollywood-created star.”-Kim Novak

“The head of publicity of the Hollywood studio where I was first under contract told me, “You’re a piece of meat, that’s all”. It wasn’t very nice but I had to take it. When I made my first screen test, the director explained to everyone, ‘Don’t listen to her, just look’.”-Kim Novak

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Pyewacket and Kim Novak in 1958 Bell, Book and Candle

She never quite broke through and lived up to her potential. With various cameo appearances and a few stints on television, she gave it up for good– married a veterinarian and lives in Oregon with her horses, her love of nature and animals. Kim Novak still the goddess!

Kim Novak the sultry lavender haired beauty is well known for Hitchcock’s beautiful mirror image as Madeleine Elster & Judy Barton in the psychological thriller Veritgo (1958), but I’ll always have a thing for her portrayal of Lona Mclane in Richard Quine’s noir film Pushover (1954)

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Kim Novak as Lona Mclane in Richard Quine’s film noir Pushover (1954) co-starring Fred MacMurray

She was great as Kay Greylek in 5 Against the House (1955). And though it possesses a terrific cast of stellar talent, I’m less enthusiastic about Novak (not her fault) cast as Madge Owens opposite William Holden in Joshua Logan’s Picnic (1955). Other notable films featuring Kim Novak are as Molly in Otto Preminger’s Man With the Golden Arm (1955), Marjorie Oelrichs in another George Sidney film biopic The Eddy Duchin Story (1956), Linda English in Pal Joey (1957), My favorite as Gillian Holroyd in Richard Quine’s Bell, Book and Candle (1958), Betty Preisser in Delbert Mann’s Middle of the Night (1959), She was excellent as the conflicted ‘Maggie’ Gault in Richard Quine’s Strangers When We Meet (1960) She is wonderful as Mrs.Carlyle Hardwicke in Richard Quine’s hilarious romantic comedy with Blake Edward’s screenplay, The Notorious Landlady (1962) with lovable Jack Lemmon , Polly the pistol in Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) Mildred in Of Human Bondage (1964), Moll Flanders, and in Terence Youngs’ The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965).

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Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak in The Notorious Landlady (1962)
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Kim Novak as Jeanne in the biopic Jeanne Eagels (1957)
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Kim Novak with director Robert Aldrich on the set of the 60s deviant trashy melodrama The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968)

“The same characters that keep reappearing bigger than life, find their own integrity in doing what they do the way they do it, even if it causes their own deaths.” Robert Aldrich

Over his extensive career director Robert Aldrich has always pollinated his film world with losers, outcasts, deviants and ego maniacs, that collectively form a certain archetypal group which goes against the grain of a ‘civilized’ & ‘moral’ society. One just has to think of his eternal cult hit What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962)

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Dark Romance: Sexuality in the Horror Film- by David J Hogan –“In the sixties director Robert Aldrich released a number of pictures that popularized Grand Guignol, and shaped Hollywood myths into stylish decadent burlesques. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) is the best-known, but The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) is the most grotesque. Peter Finch played a washed-up film director whose chance for a comeback is a biopic of his ex-wife Lylah Clare, a German actress whose wanton bisexuality and taste for high living led to her accidental death. The director is amazed when he meets (Elsa) Kim Novak), a young actress who is the image of Lylah. Elsa is cast in the role and gradually assumes the dead actress’ personality and voice. Her relationship with the director grows more brutal and pernicious as Lylah’s influence becomes stronger…{…}

… it is tacky, vulgar and full of improbable circumstances. Lylah’s odyssey to stardom began in a brothel; her death occurred on her wedding day, and was caused by a fall from a staircase during a struggle with a female lover. Her reincarnation, Elsa inspires a number of sexual advances-lesbians and otherwise-from people who had known the actress. Lylah consumes Elsa, and finally assumes control of her body. Kim Novak’s blankness of demeanor perfectly expressed Elsa’s suggestibility. An un-credited actress provided Lylah’s throaty Germanic voice, and though the effect is hard to swallow at first , the film’s campy tone makes the device seem appropriate. In this gaudy movie, anything is possible.”

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‘Lylah Clare’ presents us with a few cliché characters you’d find in the industry. Aldrich places them within the narrative “that is fragmented into contradictory possibilities.” The symbol of Lylah Clare dies twice in the film, that is to say she is destroyed in various ways. “The original death has been sentimentalized, sensationalized, fantasized in the course of the film. All these elements have been brought together in a way that can only suggest the triumph of savagery and vulgarity.” – Ursini & Silver

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Here’s a snippet of historian/writer Alain Silver’s interview with filmmaker Robert Aldrich who is perhaps one of my favorite non-Hollywood directors… talking about Lylah Clare & Kim Novak.

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Silver: Some years after the fact, are you still dissatisfied with The Legend of Lylah Clare?

Aldrich: I think it has a number of flaws. I was about to bum rap Kim Novak, when we were talking about this the other day, and I realized would be pretty unfair. Because people forget that Novak can act. I really didn’t do her justice. But there are some stars whose motion picture image is so large, so firmly and deeply rooted in the public mind, that an audience comes to the move with a preconception about that person. And that preconception makes “reality’ or any kind of myth that’s contrary to that preconceived reality, impossible. To make this picture work, to make Lylah work, you had to be carried along into that myth. And we didn’t accomplish that. Now, you know you can blame it on a lot of things, but I’m the producer and I”m the director. I’m responsible for not communicating to that audience. I just didn’t do it.

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Novak as Elsa/Lylah in The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968)

Many of Aldrich’s explorations deal with the acidic nature of Hollywood with forays like his cult classic – What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), The Big Knife (1955), and the The Killing of Sister George (1968)

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Robert Aldrich on the set of The Killing of Sister George (1968) starring Beryl Reid and Suzannah York

Just a brief discussion about another Aldrich film that bares it’s frenzied teeth at the entertainment industry The Killing of Sister George (1968), which possesses the same problematic themes that emerge from show-biz which are transferred to June Buckridge (Beryl Reid) a middle-aged BBC soap opera star named Sister George who happily rides her bicycle  throughout the town helping the quaint folk. She is quickly being phased out of the show, in other words she is going to be killed off! 

Reid gives a startlingly painful performance as the belligerent June– a lesbian and a raging alcoholic. Abrasive, vulgar and absolutely a challenging anti-heroine to like as she will cause you to cringe yet at times feel sympathy for. Her internal conflict, volatile, poignant, alienated and transversing a heteronormative world as a nun on a popular television show of all things is quite a concoction. The conflict between the character on television and the actress’ personal life both connect as they renounce the morally & socially acceptable code that is splintered by the queerness, the vulgarization of her actual self, which is daily eclipsed by the illusion of her cheery onscreen persona as George, the bicycle riding do gooder tootling about town in the popular series, as a nun –this mocks June’s private life.

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She’s a belligerent vulgarian, foul mouthed, domineering alcoholic who has a vein of sadism she inflicts on her infantilized lover Alice ‘Childie’ McNaught (Suzannah York) who is ultimately set free from her present overpowering lover, only to be seduced/abducted by another strong Sapphic figure, Coral Browne. At the end, June is left to sit and reflect on the sound stage as she is about to play the cow in a children’s show, she yields to her professional and personal demise as she ‘moos’… a pathetic coda, yet a telling one about the industry. Aldrich creates a satirical version of Hollywood within the television workings of the BBC with all it’s trifling regulations and intolerance that can drive anyone to ‘moo.’ at the end.

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actress Beryl Reid learning to smoke a cigar for her role in the play picture-courtesy of Getty Images.
No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features ( 534946B ) THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE, (ctr) Susannah York, Beryl Reid, Coral Browne - 1968 FILM STILLS
Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features ( 534946B )
THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE, (ctr) Susannah York, Beryl Reid, Coral Browne – 1968
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The loneliness of Sister George- Beryl Reid as June who plays Sister George on the popular BBC soap opera. The last moments of the film, sums up her alienation as she reflects back on the sound stage. As James Ursini & Alain Silver point out the location in Aldrich’s Hollywood vision is a place where his characters find most comforting and ‘real’ from Charlie Castle to Jane Hudson.

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The Killing of Sister George  emerged during the fury & flutter of Queer Cinema that was experimenting with putting gay characters in the main frame of the narrative. These films took the subject of homosexuality and lesbianism head on… Head on as in a head on collision with homophobia!… For each character ultimately met with some kind of fatalistic & dire end. Figures either predatory, alienated, lonely or desperate. Doomed to die or eternally alone, by way of murder, suicide, violent death or unrequited love. All shown to either be mentally ill, or homicidal. For example: Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour (1961) Otto Preminger’s Advise and Constent (1962). Films like director Edward Dmytryk’s salacious Walk on the Wild Side (1962), Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961), Robert Rossen’s Lillith (1964) Gordon Douglas’ The Detective (1968), Claude Chabrol Les Biches (1968), Mark Rydell’s The Fox (1967), John Hustons’ Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), Radley Metzger’s The Alley Cats (1966)Thérèse and Isabelle (1968), Estelle Parsons in Rachel, Rachel, (1968) , The Sargent (1968) starring Rod Steiger who gives a gripping performance as a self hating homosexual.

And, including this post that includes lesbianism/bi-sexuality in The Legend of Lylah Clare.

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Elsa“She’s dead and I’m alive so you’ll have to get used to me.”Rossella- “That can be arranged.”

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Lylah Clare is an unnerving journey, with very unattractive show-biz types… And it’s supposed to be. Aldrich wants you to despise everyone who inhabits the Hollywood chimera, inhabited by outliers and egocentrically driven characters.

From the beginning of the film the ‘legend’ is set up by revealing to us, flashbacks, slides, a grand portrait, and vocal recordings of Lylah’s speaking style, wardrobe archived, fashion sense, body language and attitude.

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The dangerously iconographic staircase, that tells the death of Lylah Clare in three separate yet altered flash backs

Aldrich himself an outsider to Hollywood has made a name for himself as an irreverent auteur who creates high melodrama germinating in the realm of show business, stage & film. With cut-throat, and malignant sorts, parasites who feed on the desperately narcissistic, delusional and addictively determined to succeed.

There isn’t anything poignant or warm-hearted about Aldrich’s view surrounding any of the characters in the narrative itself as seen through the lens of The Legend of Lylah Clare. It’s imbued with noxious gasoline– giving off fumes just waiting to be thrown onto the smoldering fire, as he depicts this love/hate story about the myth and the illusion that is Hollywood.

You’ll start to feel the bile rising from your stomach, as every predatory, cynical and egomaniacal neurotic seeks to feed off the dreams of others trying to do the very same, like a snake devouring it’s own tail. It’s a quite unflattering look at fleeting power, bottomless fame, self-worship and the seduction of celebrity… deviant cannibalistic & venomous.

THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE (1968)

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Novak plays both the fictional screen siren Lylah Clare and her doppleganger Elsa in Robert Aldrich’s toxic orgy of Hollywood indulgences in The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968)
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Rosella Falk plays the sapphic Rossella obsessed with both Lylah and Elsa as the reincarnation of her lost love… Lylah.

The Legend of Lylah Clare is one of director Robert Aldrich’s crassest indictments of Hollywood, using brutal symbolism -exploring a visual narrative of an industry that is narcissistic, chaotic, duplicitous, superficial, devours the soul, and cannibalizes it’s own.

From James Ursini & Alain Silver’s wonderful book, What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?“Real emotions and real events are clouded in ambiguity. Elsa and Zarken are not ‘simple-minded stereotypes’, they are the expressive components of The Legend of Lylah Clare which begins in setting up a standard genre expectation then they goe to consciously excessive lengths to frustrate and altar those expectations.”

As pointed out in Ursini & Silver’s insightful biography, Aldrich is one of Hollywood’s rebels & great auteurs, they also point out that Zarken (Peter Finch) & Elsa’s (Kim Novak) are industry victims by their own doing and because of the cut throat nature that permeates within its closed universe. They both come to an end by death, physical, emotional & career. “Their fates are as fixed as that of Joe Gillis, floating face down in Norma Desmond’s pool.”- Ursini & Silver- (they are referring to Sunset Boulevard 1950)

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Kim Novak as Elsa filming the final scene in the film within a film’s biopic film about the life and death of Lylah Clare.

Kim Novak stars as Lylah Clare /Elsa Brinkmann/ Elsa Campbel, with Peter Finch as egomaniacal director/ Lewis Zarken/Louis Flack, Ernest Borgnineis the studio bigwig. Barney Sheean,wonderful character actor Milton Selzer is agent Bart Langner and Jean Carroll plays his wife Becky. Giallo queen & 8 1/2 star Rossella Falk is Rossella, Lylah’s lover, the dreamy Gabriele Tinti plays Paolo the Adonis gardener, Valentina Cortese is fashion designer Countess Bozo Bedoni and Coral Browne who was incredible in The Killing of Sister George that same year, does her thing as the scathing, acid tongued film critic and virulent gossip mongering columnist Molly Luther. Ellen Corby has a small part as the script woman.

Teleplay by Robert Thom and Edward DeBlasio, with the screenplay by Hugo Butler, and Jean Rouverol
Music by Aldrich regular Frank De Vol… Filmed on location at Grumman’s Chinese Theater and MGM Studios. Aldrich consistently used masterful Cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc

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George Reeves with cinematographer Joseph Biroc Biroc served as cinematographer on the “Adventures of Superman” He also received several Emmys for his work and in 1989 received a lifetime achievement award from the Society of American Cinematographers.

The camera work in Lylah Clare is perhaps one of the standout aspects of how the film is skewed & washed over by reality vs illusion. Here’s just a few of the amazing films credited to Biroc… a master at film noir, fantasy & suspenseful landscapes. Joseph F. Biroc has lensed some of my favorite films.

The Killer That Stalked New York (1950), Cry Danger (1951), The Glass Wall (1953) Vice Squad (1953), Donovan’s Brain (1953), Down Three Dark Streets (1954), Nightmare (1956), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), Born Reckless (1958), Home Before Dark (1958), The Bat (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960), Toys in the Attic (1963), Kitten with a Whip (1964), Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), Enter Laughing (1967), Tony Rome (1967), The Detective (1968), The Killing of Sister George (1968), The Grissom Gang (1971), Emperor of the North (1973), Blazing Saddles (1974), The Longest Yard (1974)

William Glasgow who had worked on Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955) is responsible for the stunning art direction.

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Overnight, she became a star…Over many nights, she became a legend.”

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“The entire film might be classed as a reincarnation fantasy or murder mystery”  Alain Silver & James Ursini; What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?

It could also tantalize us with a hint of the supernatural theme of ‘soul possession’ within the Hollywood Exposé It is never clear whether Lylah is possessing Elsa or if Elsa just goes mad!

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Agent Bart Langner (Milton Selzer) who is dying of cancer wants to finally produce a film before he dies. He discovers Elsa Brinkmann (Kim Novak) a meek horned rimmed glasses wearing movie fan who is the spitting image of the dead screen goddess Lylah Clare, a legendary actress who died 30 years ago in 1948 by mysterious means on her wedding night to director Lewis Zarken. Her husband/director has vowed that he’d never direct another picture again.

But when Bart brings Elsa (Novak) to the egocentric who ‘lifted his name from a Hungarian magician who slit his own throat’ director Lewis Zarken/Louis Flack (Peter Finch) who has been isolating since the death of his star/wife, he begs Lewis (Finch) to come out of hiding, so they can make a movie about the life and death of the legendary Lylah Clare. Bart has been tirelessly molding Elsa (using slides and voice recordings of Lylah) into the personification of the dead starlet to entice Zarken to make the picture.

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Milton Selzer as Bart is running through a series of slides with his wife Becky, showing Elsa bits and pieces of Lylah’s past.
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A slide shows the image of brooding ego-maniacal director Lewis Zarken played by Peter Finch

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The wedding of Zarken and Lylah Clare
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Becky Langner shows Elsa Lylah’s dress
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Elsa lacks confidence to take on such an intimidating role.

Kim Novak inhabits two roles, the title of the film which is the ‘dead’ screen goddess Lylah Clare seen in various flashback. And, her other character, that of Elsa Brinkmann who starts out as a shy star-struck neophyte, clumsy and appearing frightened at times until she emerges from her cocoon. The film almost alludes to the idea that Elsa is either a   ‘reincarnation’ of Lylah Clare or is under a spell, like soul-possession.

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Bart Langner to Elsa –“You can’t imagine what a big star she was, I mean really big Everybody loved her, worshiped her.”
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Elsa-“She had a strange kind of appeal didn’t she.”
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The Legend of Lylah Clare uses many touches of Neo-Noir as part of it’s flare. This is outside Elsa’s lonely motel room

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Elsa starts the circular pattern of the film, starting out walking down Hollywood Boulevard looking at famous star footprints and winding up in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. The film will end in front of the landmark

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In Lylah Clare, Kim Novak portrays the flip side of two women once again…  Elsa Brinkmann a star struck timid girl who is discovered by agent Bart Langner. The brash studio head who represents the business end of the world, is played by Ernest Borgnine who calls Bart (Milton Selzer) a ‘lousy ten-percenter.’

Because Bart knows he is dying of cancer, and  his days are numbered he figures that introducing Elsa to the world as the second coming of the legendary actress Lylah Clare a sort of Dietrichesque screen goddess who died 30 years earlier shrouded in mystery will allow him to leave his legacy as a film maker and not just a crummy agent.

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Finding Lylah’s doppelgänger would give him the opportunity to finally produce a picture, putting Elsa on the big screen in a biopic version of the legendary Lylah Clare.

Elsa goes through an evolution from insecure fan whose bed is cluttered with movie magazines, to the vigorous narcissist who embodies the passion and recklessness of the dead starlet. However the catalyst… Elsa becomes TRANSFORMED into either a surrogate Lylah or the real deal. Of course Zarken and Elsa become lovers, but it is not made clear whether he is in love with the new actress or living out old patterns with a replica . Elsa however has fallen for the director and is tortured by the conflict Lylah’s memory/incarnation that has been rekindled.

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Peter Finch, Kim Novak

She begins to feel her own ascendance beyond Zarken, who utters the line, “You’re an illusion. Without me you don’t exist!” In response she shows Zarken to himself who was originally Louis Flack a hack magician. Shouting in defiance, Elsa holds up a make-up mirror that distorts his reflection. “Look you are a God… and I’m created in your image!”

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“Look you are a God… and I’m created in your image!”

Let’s turn the reel back a bit… Bart brings Elsa to meet Lylah’s director/lover Lewis Zarken who has been in seclusion since the tragic death of his protege Lylah Clare. Once Lewis sees Elsa and watches the time she’s put into studying her guttural  accent which she intermittently uses as cackles with other throaty Germanic utterances that is eerie and off putting. This is to give her a streak of supernatural irreverence. Zarken sees a spark of potential to resurrect not only his own career, but to bring back from the dead, his lost love and world wide idol or perhaps just his art piece to mold and exploit once again… or a combination of all of the above.

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The camera shows only Zarken’s back To Bart. Setting up the idea that Zarken is a deity in his own mind, unreachable force who commands deference and obedience. 
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Portraits and memorabilia of the enigma that is Lylah Clare are all around Zarken’s house, like a shrine to the dead goddess.

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Zarken sits in his swivel chair with his back to us and the camera spouting his arrogant and cryptic sense of humor, which already alienates us from his character right from the beginning. As Ursini & Silver point out, it also sets him up as a mythic figure himself. He is congratulated and warned about having a second chance. “You’re getting a chance to live a part of your life all over again… Lewis be careful with this girl… remember, it’s not everyone who gets two chances.”

Zarken, originally named Louis Flack a professional magician plays like he’s a megalomaniac in the vein of Svengali. Elsa winds up living in the shadow of the ‘myth’ of a great mysterious woman much like Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca feeling as if she is NOT nor will ever be the late great idol of passion.

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Zarken aggressively pulls up Rossella’s sleeve to show the track marks on her arm. Each character in The Legend of Lylah Clare has obsessions and demons of their own making.

Now living isolated in his decadent old mansion (reminders of the Hudson sister’s house in Baby Jane?) he shares the isolation with friend Rossella the beautiful Italian dialect coach and Lylah’s lover who is a dope addicted lesbian. She inhabits her scenes with a love/hate relationship toward Zarken as she haunts the house like part of his conscience for both characters the memory of Lylah won’t rest.

Zarken is a psychopathic megalomaniac who lives in the odd mansion like Norma Desmond. He plays life/death tricks with a gun, and is an abrasive egoist, and an elitist, A maudlin auteur from the first moment we meet him. After Bart works with Elsa, playing recordings of Lylah’s Voice and teaching her the walk etc. Bart is ready to bring Elsa to meet Zarken.

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Zarken makes Bart play the gunshot trick/game with him. He is impervious to bullets. A God like man…

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Elsa arrives at the mansion and begins walking up the staircase looking at the extravagant portrait of Lylah.

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As Elsa is paraded in front of Zarken he depersonalizes her.
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The 1st flashback which suggests Lylah was assaulted by a crazed fan with a knife. There is a struggle. The use of red to soak the screen in blood.

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Both Lylah and her assailant wind up dead at the bottom of the great staircase.
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“We’re moving like a deeply offended Tibetan yak!” Lewis tells Elsa as he watches from below the absurd staircase that plays a very significant role in the film.
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Lewis Zarken: [Talking about choosing a stage name for Elsa] Elsa Brinkmann. “John Foster Brinksmanship.” It’s horrible. We’ll have to change your name.” Elsa: “Thank you, but I’m happy with the name I have.” Lewis Zarken: “Well, I’m not! And neither will the public be! Anyway, what’s in a name? Why are you so sensitive? If it’s any consolation to you, I rejoiced in the name of “Flack.” Louie Flack, F-L-A-C-K, Flack. How does *that* grab you? Then one day I saw this magician: “Zarkan the Magnificent.” He was a terrible act. I think he finished up cutting his throat in a Hungarian boarding house. Anyway, I lifted his name. Sounds a bit like a Transylvanian pox doctor, but it serves to impress the natives. We’ll do the same for you.”
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Lewis Zarken: “I’ve never seen a woman yet who didn’t have a whore locked up somewhere deep inside her.”

As Elsa is paraded in front of Zarken he depersonalizes her. Zarken is offensive and rude and down right abusive. Eventually Elsa is imbued with the essence of the dead actress and the possession, or the spell Elsa falls under begins to manifest the abrasive more bravura persona that apparently was Lylah, losing Elsa all together. She falls in love with Zarken of course, but is he in love with Elsa?, or the image of Lylah that has been molded as if by Madame Tussauds, or intoxicated by the idea of being able to control Elsa/Lylah all over again, creating her image on screen for the sake of art and his supposed genius. Lewis tells Elsa in his preachy condescending way. Lylah has died under very curious circumstances on their wedding night, that only begins to unfold as the film’s flashbacks start to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

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Elsa sits in the screening room watching old film’s of the dead goddess Lylah Clare.

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Valentina Cortez plays the costume designer Countess Bozo Bedoni
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Ernest Borgnine is studio head/producer Barney Sheean.
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It is the premier coming out party at Zarken’s mansion where Zarken has invited the press and industry people to meet his new Lylah Clare protégé
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Molly Luther: “Free food, free drinks, free press.” Molly Luther: “She’s tame enough now, Lewis, but will she turn into a slut like the last one?”

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Jean Carroll as Bart’s wife Becky Langner, Valentina Cortese as Countess Bozo and Rossella Falk as Rossella are gleefully admiring their make over –an anti Pygmalian transformation. No grace, no grammar just guts and glamour

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Elsa is created to look like a carbon copy, down to the rose and blonde hairstyle as the huge portrait by the staircase.
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Coral Browne as the cynical and acerbic  Molly Luther is lying in wait to offend & grill the young actress!

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Elsa must past inspection by the harpy like critic Molly Luther played by Coral Browne. Elsa manifests Lylah’s contemptuous maniacal laugh and nasty tongue. Demeaning Luther by almost molesting the disabled woman’s private parts by putting her cigarette out in the ashtray on her crotch. Then banging her leg brace with her own cane in front of the crowd of party guests.

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Molly Luther–I presume you know what kind of an establishment Lewis’ last performer came from? Are we to take it that your background is equally unfortunate? Oh come along child, surely you’re not retarded. I am asking you Do you sleep with him?!”
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Elsa (Manifesting Lylahs throaty German voice) “Why you miserable son of a bitch. What makes you think that because once Yes Miss Luther just once (she puts her cigarette out in Luther’s lap) you spent a cozy hour with Lew Zarken… that you have the right to be jealous of him…”

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“Do you really believe that you have a license to ask any dirty question that slides into that snake nest between your ears… And nobodies jealous of you why! Because they’re gentleman? NO… I’ll tell you why. Molly Luther’s magic wand. (Elsa holds Molly’s cane in her hands) It keeps her safe from (smacking Molly’s leg brace) dragons!… (she cackles) Luther’s personal guarantee that she has the right of God almighty… Now get out and don’t come into this house again!”

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Elsa ultimately professionally and psychotically reincarnates or uncannily manifests herself as Lylah. She seems almost possessed by the spirit of the dead screen goddess. This suggests an element of the supernatural perhaps that the films doesn’t bother to dissuade or convince us of. Elsa’s intermittent vocalizations arise at times as M.J Arocena says in their IMBd review —“talks with the grave tones of a hybrid, part Lotte Lenya part Mercedes MacCambridge. Outrageous!” I remember reading that Mercedes MacCambridge had done the voice of the demon possessing Regan (Linda Blair) in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973).

Once an agreement is set with the studio to allow Zarken to make his picture and Lewis Zarken agrees that he can mold Elsa in the image of Lylah and cast her in an epic biography about the lost screen goddess and her tragic mysterious death, we meet the mouthy studio head ’ Barney Sheean played by Ernest Borgnine. Who is wonderfully belligerent and not all too enthusiastic to revisit another Lylah Clare with auteur Zarken helming the project.

Barney Sheean (Ernest Borgnine) is invited to come to the unveiling, where Elsa is coached even how to walk down the long staircase at Zarken’s mansion to greet her public and more importantly the press, in particular that harpy-like gossip columnist Molly Luther played by brilliantly by Coral Browne, as the archetypal scandalmonger in the vein of the great  Louella Parsons.

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Molly asks what Lewis has to say about being thrown out by Elsa. “I’ve always been told that a director should never under cut their actors big scene. I’m afraid I must ask you to leave!”
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With Lewis Zarken taking sides with his new actress, Rosella and Countess Bozo do their version of a spit take! Rosella drinks to it and Countess Bozo gags on her cigarette smoke!

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Bart, in a panic chases after Molly making excuses “she’s really a nice girl” pleading with her to wait for Barney (Ernest Borgnine)

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Molly- “She’s a degenerate swine!”

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As she descends the oddity that is Zarken’s high and open ended staircase symbolically a decent with no safety bars attached, Elsa seems bent out of joint by Molly’s questioning so rather than succumb she assaults her using that thick throaty German Lylah voice in order to make the intimidation more grandiose!

On the day of Elsa’s big unveiling, she manages to conjure Lylah so well that she has a cat fight with columnist Molly Luther (Coral Browne) who calls her a ‘degenerate swine’ in which she inappropriately mocks and attacks not only her physical disability, but her identity as a woman  by banging her own cane against her leg brace to demean her in front of the gathered crowd at the party. Elsa goes as far too call her a ‘freak’.

Director Lewis Zarken’s Svengali like preoccupation with molding Elsa in Lylah’s own image creates a sort a Monstrous Feminine, a beautiful Frankenstein who begans to desire it’s own primacy rather than be mastered, while he is trying to re-create what he has lost, he loses all control over his creation yet again.

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Lewis Zarken: [Upon nearing a large greenhouse, while giving Elsa a walking tour of his estate] “You might say that that greenhouse is something of a memorial to her. We had a Japanese gardener that used to look after it. Nice little fellow – quiet as a cherry blossom. Worked out here the best part of ten years, then suddenly one day we were at war. And the Government – who know a dangerous man when they see one – gave him a few hours to pack up before they shipped him off to some god-forsaken concentration camp in the middle of a desert. Lylah was so upset, she came down here to say good-bye to him. You can take my word for it, that gardener had the most *unexpected* going away present he ever had in his life.” Lewis Zarken: [pauses, noticing that Elsa looks somewhat taken aback] “Don’t look so shocked… She wasn’t married at the time.”
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Barney Sheean: “Films”? “Films”? What the hell ever happened to movies? What do you think you’re in, the art business?
I make movies, not films!

Under the shadow of the great Lylah, Elsa is driven hard to bring forth the same enigmatic persona by Zarken. During the film we’re not even sure if Elsa is either, becoming possessed by the dead star, truly talented at stepping into character or absolutely mad. Is she driven by a desire to be a great actress, or is she trying to please her lover Lewis who only sees her as an object, and the subject that is ‘Lylah’.

What’s like a rollercoaster ride is how Elsa suddenly bursts into one of Lyle’s vulgar tirades perfect pitch German accent, once when Lewis tries to grab her she spews venom at him shoving him away, “keep your filthy hands off me!”

I’ve read that Novak’s voice was dubbed post-production as a last minute idea- something that purportedly caused the actress much embarrassment at the film’s premiere. This was based supposedly on the idea that Aldrich realized that Elsa could not have known so many private details of Lylah’s intimate life and so the idea of ‘possession’ became more viable when she would manifest the guttural laugh and tirades she would go off on in that German accent. But due to this maneuver after the film was shot, the possession scenes come across as even more surreal or otherworldly and off-putting & creepy.

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The 2nd flashback a different version of the assailant/lover is revealed to be a woman played by a very young Lee Merriwether

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Along the for the ride in this ensemble excursion typical of an Aldrich narrative, is Rossella Falk, who plays assistant Rossella, Lyle’s heroine addicted lover.

There aren’t any characters that have an attractive, compelling or empathic role, as they are all in this mission to resurrect the dead Lylah for an agenda each one has. Zarken desires to destroy the woman all over again, Bart just wants to produce one great film before the cancer kills him, and Rossella is still hopelessly in love/lust with Lylah, which she easily transfers to the now well groomed Elsa.

During the exhausting studying down to each movement and inflection, Elsa begins to lose her identity slipping more and more into Lylah’s personality off the film set.

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Elsa kisses Bart on the cheek, even his wife Becky is starting to see the transformation and the shy Elsa is becoming more flirtatious like Lylah Clare
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Even Bart’s wife Becky sees the change in the mild mannered girl who is now flirting with her husband.
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I doesn’t escape me, the use of the re-occurring iconography -the use of ‘the mirror’ to represent the splintering of personalty

The film becomes an almost surreal fruit salad of moments that are a journey for several archetypal figures who are destined for self-destruction in the literally dog-eat-dog world of show-biz. Also a film within a film within a film.

What’s hard to know or what is not meant to be discovered is whether Elsa becomes possessed, whether Lewis is using Elsa to resurrect a woman that he might have also driven crazy or in fact killed, and the strange romance between the two. It’s hard to define it as a love relationship rather than one of opportunity obsession and need.

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Zarken is re-shooting the death scene on the staircase where Lylah was either attacked by a true assailant, a female lover playing dangerous foreplay with a knife, or in fact if the fall was caused by the jealous & possessive Zarken.

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Ellen Corby plays the script woman. Watching the volatile scene on the staircase

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One plot line concerns the actress and her possession by the spirit of the late Lylah Clare, and the other subplot concerns the romance between the actress and the director, and the burgeoning promiscuity (hearkening back to Lylah) as Elsa begins to explore sex with Rossella the voice coach and the hunky gardener played by Tinti.

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An interesting confluence, Kim Novak’s character Lylah too suffers from vertigo as did James Stewart character in Hitchcock’s film. In flashback we see three possibilities of what happened the night that Lylah Clare died, but it doesn’t unfold until it has been strained through a few different psychedelic versions to get to the likely truth behind her death. Photographed by the great Josef Biroc he creates a mesmerizing color palate that reminds me of some of the best Giallo films from Italy.

At the climax of the film when Elsa is filming the last scene as Lylah, she is up on a trapeze being able to still capitalize on Lylah’s fear of heights (a scenario that never happened but Lewis envisions this campy exhibition as a metaphor to her real death, also signifying that Hollywood is a circus!), Elsa shouts to Zarken, “All right, Lewis we will see if I am an illusion!”

Lewis Zarken is one of Robert Aldrich’s typical film megalomaniacs, with a measure of psychopath added to the mix. Bart (Milton Selzer) berates Zarken, “You think you created her, can create her again!” The combative Zarken tells him- “The public will continue to believe what we tell them… We make the legends and the legends become truth!”

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Bart is getting increasingly disparaged by Zarken’s controlling ego trip and mistreatment of Elsa.

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This maxim that the illusion becomes the reality is re-articulated in Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George (1968) as June (Beryl Reid) tells her lover ‘Childie’ (Suzannah York) about her quaint & extremely popular soap opera gig, “It’s real to millions of people, more real than you or I.”

Once the filming begins the blustering studio head Barney Sheean (Ernest Borgnine) begins to oversee the picture and vocal coach Rossella (Rossella Falk) and staff, designers etc are on board. Novak starts embodying the very essence of Lylah’s persona as she further immerses herself into the character. Is she possessed?, or merely going mad from the pressures. Everyone begins treating her as if she is the late screen goddess to tragic results as history repeats itself again…

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Elsa as Lylah Clare: “Just tell ’em Lylah’s coming, soon as she gets her harness on… Lylah Clare: [to Barney Sheean] Squat and wait!”
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The 3rd flashback gives more of an impression that Zarken either caused or purposefully made Lylah fall off the staircase when he finds out that her lover is a woman.

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Up on the trapeze the final flashback -one of the dream sequences be it real or fantasy of Lylah’s death, the predatory male suitor with a knife is now a young woman who is shot by Lewis falling off that ridiculous staircase with no railing—it is Lee Meriwether (Catwoman in Batman 1966) and former Miss America. — playing a lesbian suitor/lover dressed in male drag wielding a knife as deadly phallic weapon or just s&m foreplay–all of it that precipitates Lylah’s fall to her death.
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Elsa looks down, and winds up missing her cue, as she too falls to her death for real, not just written into the script as a feature.

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Ironically the film premiers at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the very place that Elsa playfully walks around in the very beginning of the film.
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Rossella waits… she loads a gun. Will she kill Lewis Zarken? That is left up for grabs…
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Molly Luther at the premier of the ‘degenerate swines’ movie… Life goes on in Hollywood
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Zarken reflects on what has happened
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Zarken is interviewed about the film, but it is quickly cut to a Barkwell dog food commercial…

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In the end, Elsa in a struggle of power to maintain her identity falls to her death from the trapeze, dying in an eerie similarity to Lylah. She might as well have slipped inside Lylah’s skin.

The filming catches every nuance. The extras gather around her body. It is a bizarre scene… until Aldrich leads us out with the dog food commercial freeze framed under the rolling credits. We are also left to wonder if Rossella will finally shoot Lewis in a jealous rage for having caused her beautiful lover to die yet again… Molly Luther shows up to the premier of Zarken’s film at the legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theater smiling as none of this scandalous affair has tainted her career and Zarken himself  brooding & reflecting about the premier while being interviewed by a reporter until he is cued away on television to a Barkwell dog food commercial, phasing out Zarken’s soliloquy in front of Grauman’s Chinses Theater. All is back to normal in the world of Hollywood and with its short attention span syndrome.

Aldrichs’ way of ‘vulgarizing Hollywood showing that nothing is sacred, nothing lasts. The camera pulls away and goes to the commercial. The symbol of the dog food (incidentally used in Baby Jane? when the dog food ad interrupts one of Blanche’s classic films re-run on tv) is a grandiose show of contempt as a pack of wild dogs pile into a kitchen through a dog door and in a frenzy, sharp fangs bared, tear each-other apart over a bowl of meat. Leading out to the final freeze frame of the snarling teeth, as De Vol’s theme song for Lylah plays over the rolling credits.

An ugly Grand Guignol Guilty Pleasure stylized by Aldrich’s animosity toward the film industry-wonderfully vulgar in the same way as was his What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962). It’s another poison love letter to Hollywood that is perhaps even more absurd, and almost as grotesque as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

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The two iconic ideals of the vulgarization of screen goddesses worship and ruination, as the Hudson sisters Blanche and Jane. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. The exemplar of Grande Dame Guignol theater.

The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) was a failure in the sense of a box office hit it could have been, even with the collaboration of Novak’s star quality, the studio MGM’s money machine, the successes Aldrich had with The Dirty Dozen in 1967 and the stellar casting, it came across as an convoluted oddity.

Aldrich created a quirky uncomfortable campy indictment of Hollywood, and not a grand action adventure or high melodrama that never sank too low in decadence for it’s audience.

a similar film theme that precedes Aldrich’s film by 16 years!
Tagline: from THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952)“The story of a blonde who wanted to go places, and a brute who got her there – the hard way!”

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Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner star in The Bold and The Beautiful (1952) directed by Vincent Minnelli.

Aldrich gathered his usual ensemble of outliers in a world gone mad and literally let the dogs loose. If people are looking for his edgy noir touch he used in Kiss Me Deadly, or the gang of men fighting against all odds in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), or The Longest Yard (1974), the taut melodrama of the older woman loving back to sanity a younger psychotic male like his Autumn Leaves (1956) starring Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson, they will not find this kind of linear style of story telling in Lylah Clare.

The film does fit somewhere in the realm of pulp like- Jacqueline Suzanne’s Valley of the Dolls (1967) or other auteur Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1970).

Unfortunately what was to be Novak’s return to the big screen, wound up being her swan song, because the film was not the critical success she had hoped for nor a flattering dramatic exercise for the actress.

But the film also acts as a corollary for the glamorous days of Hollywood and the death of the industry that was a dynasty. The late 60s didn’t deal with dreams anymore, but brutal realism and social awakening to a different kind of story on screen and backstage…. In that way, the film itself is a queer swan song to those golden days, much in the way Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard was in 1950.

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In Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) Novak also was called to embody the roles of two separate yet identical archetypes of the enigma that is ‘the male gaze’ of the ‘objectified female body.’

Aldrich’s film will immediately grab you as something campy with a bit of that offbeat vulgarity that he’s known for. Peter Finch who plays the Svengali like director Lewis Zarken who tries to transform Elsa both physically and psychologically into the very being that was his actress/star/wife Lylah Clare.

Amidst the transformation in the film we are shown three different versions of how Lylah met her death. The flashbacks are psychedelic with a hazy focused lens using bold color washes and weaves of slow motion and blood splatter on screen to obscure what we see.

When Elsa is seemingly channeling Lylah it sort of works as a reincarnation piece draped in the mod quality of the late 60s and the make-up job by veteran William Tuttle and Robert J. Schiffer create the look of Nancy Sinatra, Karen Dors or Mamie Van Doren which are all good things but it’s not quite the look of the Golden Age glamour of Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich.

It’s also never clear within the story whether Elsa is rational or descending into madness. Similar to Jack Palance’s actor Charles Castle in The Big Knife (1955) who is a victim of his own inflated ego subject to box office ratings, betrayal and his fear of failing. Betrayal, which was also at the turbulent core between the Hudson sisters in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

“The film has moments of self-conscious ‘parody and stylization.’… whether she merely continues to act at being Lylah off the set or is actually ‘possessed’ by her. The Legend of Lylah Clare is neither pure satire nor pure melodrama, but a difficult integration of real and unreal.”Silver & Ursini.

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on set Elsa (Kim Novak) is playing Lylah Clare in the story of her life and death… a film within a film…
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Jack Palance and Ida Lupino in Robert Aldrich’s very intense film The Big Knife (1955)

The Lavender haired actress is wearing a more mod 60s icy white coif and velvety pale pink lips and Twiggy style eyeliner that just doesn’t say screen goddess of a bygone era. More-so cheesecake, groovy, and eerily out of place, perhaps this is what Aldrich intended as he is apt to vulgarize what he touches.

Lylah Clare might also be said to contain fragments or composites of great actresses of long ago, Joan Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead, Garbo, Dietrich and Harlow. all icons of the 1930s.

Aldrich also didn’t miss his commentary on the struggles of studios to make the almighty buck, clawing to get that money making actress, and film. The conflict between the studio system and the directors who want to make art. And the servitude they must surrender to– the media and piranha like Molly Luther who can immortalize or annihilate with their power of the press. Ernest Borgnine as the studio head Barney Sheean says in one scene, “I don’t want to make films. I want to make movies. What do you think we’re making here, art?”

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Kim Novak too remains a legend shown here in this iconic allegorical imagery from Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)

The ending is irreverent, trashy, campy and is the lead up to the cynical climax. Absolutely the weirdest of all Aldrich’s dark show-biz operas, as Lylah Clare and Kim Novak both remain a legend.

IMBD TRIVIA–Although this was her first film in three years, Kim Novak found that she had little enthusiasm for her character. Director Robert Aldrich found it increasingly difficult to elicit a viable performance from her. This was Kim Novak’s last starring role in an American-made feature film. When Kim Novak walks along Hollywood Blvd, a theater she passes by is playing The Dirty Dozen (1967), a film Robert Aldrich made a year earlier, and whose commercial success made it possible for the director to start his own production company and make movies like this.

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When MGM executives finally screened the film, they decided to market it as being “deliberately campy”, but audiences in 1968 were not yet ready to embrace the idea of going to see something trashy on purpose, and the movie proved to be a box office bomb despite this trend-setting marketing ploy. This film is listed among the 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made in Golden Raspberry Award founder John Wilson’s book THE OFFICIAL RAZZIE® MOVIE GUIDE.

 

Continue reading “The Backstage Blogathon 2016: Kim Novak- Fallen Idol double bill “You’re an illusion… without me you’re nothing!” *”

When the Spider Woman Looks: Two Glorias- “Wicked Love, Close ups & Old Jewels”- The sympathetically tragic villainesses of Sunset Blvd (1950) and Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

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This is part of the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy* Shadows and Satin & *Silver Screenings from April 20th – 26th 2014

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”– T.E. Lawrence

“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”- Mark Twain

IT’S ALL IN THE EYES! -THE LEGACY OF GLORIA SWANSON/NORMA DESMOND & GLORIA HOLDEN/COUNTESS ZALESKA

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Gloria Holden as Dracula's Daughter

Are these wicked women? Do they exemplify the monstrous feminine? I dare say NO! They are sensual yet tragic figures!

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Gloria Holden’s Countess Zaleska is a victim of her bloodline (literally)–her father Dracula’s legacy, desperately seeking out redemption and’ release’ from the torture of her relentless desires. (lesbianism in the form of blood lust) And Gloria Swanson‘s enduring Norma Desmond an aging silent screen star pushed out by talkies-a victim of a punishing Hollywood institution that forces older women into self-delusion. Though her beauty did not fade, the praise and recognition has.

Both women are-literally immortal!

Ironically without realizing the connection there are two threads of synchronicity that revealed themselves after I decided to pair both Glorias. A) Both women have male servants who show a stoic undying co-dependent worship of their mistress and B) Hedda Hopper appears in both films….

“She gives you that weird feeling!” –tagline from Dracula’s Daughter

Two Glorias, two dynamic forces on screen- Written about endlessly, on the surface spider women, vamps and villainesses perhaps… but to the thoughtful observer and film fanatic like myself… they are sympathetic figures in a cruel world…

“Cast out this wicked dream that has seized my heart.”- subtitle from one of Gloria/Norma’s silent films.

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First let’s begin with our ‘close-up’- on Gloria Swanson as the eternally mesmerizing Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s masterpiece! Norma is in actuality the one trapped in an orbit of ambivalence about her own primacy which ultimately devolves into a vulnerable, needy, discontented and brooding personality whose dependency upon men and (one opportunistic man in particular) is self-destructiveness turned outward.

SUNSET BOULEVARD 1950

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Written and directed by auteur Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity 1944, The Lost Weekend 1945, Ace in the Hole 1951, Stalag 17 (1953), Witness for the Prosecution 1957, Some Like It Hot 1959, The Apartment 1960 which won for BEST PICTURE that year, beating out ELMER GANTRY!).

Considered the last motion picture in the film noir cannon. The first being Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity 1944  with his notoriously sexified femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson who’s got a great pair of gams showcasing that diamond ankle bracelet, dark sunglasses and Barbara Stanwyck’s cool exterior. And Wilder’s last noir Sunset Boulevard that unofficially marked the end of classical noir’s heyday. Sunset Boulevard truly pushing the conventions of noir to it’s limits.

Written for the screen by Wilder and Charles Brackett (The Lost Weekend ’45, Edge of Doom, ’50, Niagara ’53).

Music by Franz Waxman  (Magnificent Obsession ’35, The Invisible Ray ’36, A Day at the Races ’37, The Man Who Cried Wolf ’37, Gone With the Wind -uncredited, Humoresque ’46 I Married a Monster From Outer Space, Home Before Dark, there’s so much more– see IMDb profile). Waxman’s score is superb, from the exhilarating opening sequence that accompanies the flurry of police and newsreel camera trucks racing to the crime scene, the vibrant strings and strident horns that accentuate modernity to the more subtle poignant moments that underscore Norma’s internal agony.

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John Seitz is responsible for the evocative and quirky noir-esque cinematography (Sullivan’s Travels ‘4I, Double Indemnity ’44 , The Lost Weekend ’45).

The use of light in key frames showcases Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond who exults whenever she is either watching herself or is thrust into sudden illumination renders her as somehow lost. The use of shadows and oddly lit spaces evoke the sense of her tragic misconstruction of reality. 

Bruce Crowther on- Cinematographer Seitz who helped to define some of the memorable images of Sunset Boulevard“Rarely does full light intrude upon this movie… Seitz handles the often cluttered sets using lighting to direct the eye to each scene’s key areas. Even when light is used fully, as when Norma steps into the beam of her home movie projector or when a lighting technician at the studio turns the spotlight on her, it serves a dark purpose… Here it shows with appalling clarity the incipient madness that will eventually destroy Norma.”

Arthur P Schmidt, the film editor, died at age 52 (worked on Ace in the Hole and Some Like it Hot with Wilder).

Art direction by Hans Dreier and John Meehan, fabulous mise-en-scéne by set designers  Sam Comer Ray Moyer who both worked on (Read Window 1954, Vertigo 1958, Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1961) Which arranges the landscape of Norma’s world with Art Deco style furnishing, elaborate candelabras, wrought iron scrolled staircases, tapestries and ornate lighting fixtures. Norma’s bedroom is something out of a Gothic fairytale with it’s superfluous ruffles and claustrophobic pageantry.

Wilder and his artistic design team create an atmosphere of decadence and decay. Using an ornate baroque visual style that puts emphasis on the surroundings which are careful set pieces of time-worn opulence. The scenes are filled with a cluttered and suffocating mise-en-scéne. Sunset Boulevard reveals the conflict of the old grandeur of the silent era with the hollow clamor of modernity, as a ‘clash of styles and eras.’

Once Joe walks in from the brightly lit Los Angeles hustle and bustle, the tone turns darker, as he steps inside the confines of the mansion crowded with the serpentine wrought iron staircase, large yet dim light fixtures and ancient looking columns that appear to be disintegrating in small scattered parts. Set against the crispness of Max’s white gloves and Norma’s black sateen lounging pajamas, it offsets the sense of a perishing house in an odd and creepy way. Again this is where noir meets horror by the elements combined in the visual style.

Most effectively is the central character of Norma Desmond who’s electrifying intensity and melodramatic flare projects an other-world style in contrast with the biting and cynical, dispassionate humor of the younger screenwriter from the age of talkies.

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According to Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair many of the film’s props came from own Swanson’s home and scrapbooks. “One shot pans across the table covered with Swanson’s film stills, the photographs in old frames capturing her young face and heavily painted eyes.”

The portrait in Norma’s living room was painted by Geza Kende. Wilder also borrowed a film clip of “Norma” in her prime from a Swanson film Erich Von Stroheim directed, Queen Kelly 1929.

From Foster Hirsch’s The Dark Side of the Screen- he cites Amir Karimi in Toward a Definition of the American Film Noir as the true period of noir beginning with Wilder’s Double Indemnity and ending with the same directors Sunset Boulevard 1950. He goes on to say that Wilder’s noir drama’s contain “the biting social comment, the stinging disapproval of the American way” Sunset Boulevard “transfers noir psychology to a novel setting, the decaying mansion of a once-grand film star. Wilder’s portrait of the megalomaniacal Norma Desmond is etched in acid; she is the embodiment of Hollywood’s rotting foundations, its terminal narcissism, it’s isolation from reality.”

Norma’s sensational costumes were created by prolific designer Edith Head who resurrected Swanson’s silent era look, the exotic and exaggerated costumes and fashions of an ex-screen Goddess, which point back toward Swanson’s past. She wears a hat, adorned with a peacock feather in the scene where she is reunited with Cecil B. DeMille. This is a visual homage to a headdress she wore in Male and Female 1919 one of the first films he directed her in.

The silent movie queen Norma Talmadge is reportedly “the obvious if unacknowledged source of Norma Desmond, the grotesque, predatory silent movie queen” Dave Kehr,An independent woman, nobly suffering in silents”, New York Times, 11 March 2010.

Sunset Boulevard could not have been cast with anyone better than the dynamic and grande actress who in 1919 was signed to a contract by Cecil B. DeMille. With this, her come-back role Gloria Swanson ignites the screen with her eponymous Norma Desmond -star of the silent screen -Norma Desmond, the tragic central satellite of the story who herself is dreaming of a comeback. Swanson’s performance is as much transfixing as it is exquisite.

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The intoxicating beauty of Gloria Swanson from the silent era

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Swanson herself was a very hard working actress in 1910s and 1920s with Mack Sennett before joining Paramount studios. She started her own production company in the mid ’20s but only made a few talkies in the 1930s. She made six silent films with Cecil B. DeMille.

As Leo Braudy says in his insightful book- The World in a Frame: What We See– Aesthetically, Swanson faces into the film as the fictional character Norma Desmond and faces outward toward us as the star. He calls her role a ‘meditation’ on her screen image and the relationship between the old world of silent films and the new world of 1950s Hollywood. He refers to the other actors who were her contemporaries playing themselves as ’embalmed’ with her in the past, losing their relevance to the audience and ultimately their power.

Billy Wilder’s film is as James Naremore says in his book More Than Night- Film Noir in its Contents- is an “iconoclastic satire” and “a savage critique of modernity.” Much like Aldrich’s The Big Knife it is a condemnation of Hollywood in the cycle of films released in the 1950s, also notable The Bad and The Beautiful 1952. Naremore points out these films coincided with the blacklist, and the decline of studio owned theater chains summoning the end of an era. Norma’s character is a casualty of changing times.

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Co-starring as the ill-fated gutless unemployed screenwriter who becomes Norma’s gigolo, is smooth and sexy William Holden as Joe Gillis. Erich Von Stroheim plays Norma’s devoted butler and ex-hubby Max Von Mayerling. Erich Von Stroheim who had directed Swanson in Queen Kelly ’29 is perfectly suited to play her servant/ex-husband/devotee.

The film also co-stars Nancy Olson (Union Station 1950) as Betty Schaefer, Fred Clark as Sheldrake, Lloyd Gough as Morino, Jack Webb as Artie Green, Franklyn Farnum as the undertaker, and special appearances as themselves, Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, Anna Q Nilsson, H.B. Warner, and composers Ray Evans and Jay Livingston.

The film is a Gothic, poetic nightmare in noir that so often evinces a sympathetic lens toward the forgotten characters who engage the audience like apparitions of another time in Hollywood. The unorthodox narrative that embraces a vividly unstable noir identity that dwells within the constructs of an American life, pushing the limits of social and sexual convention to a dark place of obsession and excess. Although Wilder scripted this as a black comedy, the noir stylization that had by now ran through it’s re-occurring patterns still manages to create the incessant mood of bleak cynicism and a distant vulgarity.

Bruce Crowthers Reflections in a Dark Mirror- ”Of the other German emigres who worked in Hollywood the most significant contributor to the film noir is Billy Wilder, whose Ace in the Hole perhaps the most cynical movie ever to come out of Hollywood, Double Indemnity with it’s mesmerizing manipulative spider-woman and Sunset Blvd with it’s atmosphere of brooding baroque insanity are classics of the genre.”

“Wilder introduces a creepy atmosphere of eccentric ruin that’s strange and destroys lives, yet hypnotically alluring and seductive from a lost indulgent age.”Alain Silver & James Ursini from The Encyclopedia of Film Noir-The Directors

Wilder wanted stark reality and realism to pierce the veil of illusion and fantasy that was the dream factory of Hollywood 1950s. He portrays a corrupt landscape of used-up people, conniving agents, writers hustling to get their scripts sold, and the loneliness and alienation that permeates a world of broken dreams and perpetual struggle. Andrew Dickos in Street With No Name calls Wilder’s noir films “visions are steeped in cruel and corrosive humor, distinctive in its own right and its ability to function apart from the noir universe.”

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In this provocative masterpiece Billy Wilder masterfully evokes a shudder in us, “by emphasizing it’s verisimilitude, though, Wilder reveals the hidden truths of the world’s cruelest company town- from the isolation of forgotten celebrities to the crass efficiency of producers. Not only a thrilling and strange piece of entertainment, the film also is an indictment of Hollywood.” –Kashner & MacNair

Louis B Mayer, at a private screening of Sunset Boulevard, was furious with Wilder for his cruel portrayal of the industry that supported him. At the party before the various celebrities, he reproached him, “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!” Wilder kept the script hush hush using the innocuous code title A Can of BeansWilder and Brackett fearing that Hollywood would respond negatively to their damning portrayal of Hollywood.

He offers us the very typified archetypes of classical noir with his doomed anti-hero, the dangerous femme fatale, and the good girl redeemer. Also present are the familiar themes of entrapment, claustrophobia, instability, corruption, flawed character, psychological crime melodrama and even the police procedural with it’s thrilling opening sequence as the newsreel camera’s and police cars, their sirens blaring, tear up the streets as they speed toward the murder scene.

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The inimitable Mae West turned down the part of Norma Desmond

Originally Billy Wilder wanted the legendary & incomparably sexy and suggestive writer/actress Mae West to play Norma. West declined because she found the story to be ‘too dark’. She also didn’t want a film that portrayed the relationship between an older woman and younger man that reflected itself as hideous. The two approached Greta Garbo who also declined the offer. Wilder also approached Mary Pickford who was appalled by the offer, they had to apologize to her. It was George Cukor who suggested Gloria SwansonWilder asked Gloria Swanson to screen test for the part in 1949 and she almost said no. She had worked with Wilder who had adapted the screenplay for her film Music in the Air 1934. Norma is a larger-than-life film character though an exaggeration of reality considering Swanson wasn’t ancient she was only fifty at the time!

Wilder had contracted Montgomery Clift to play Joe Gillis. Clift left the picture finding it too uncomfortably close to his own life, because of the younger man relationship- he allegedly had an affair with Libby Holman a popular singer of the 20’s whose career was ruined by scandal surrounding the shooting death of her husband. Clift had spent time with Holman who also lived in a sprawling mansion much like Norma’s. Wilder worried that the age difference between Swanson and Holden wasn’t big enough, Swanson was fifty and Holden was thirty one. Wilder hadn’t been impressed with some of Holden’s more mediocre films of the ’40s, even though he had starred in Rouben Mamoulian’s Golden Boy (1939) with co-star Barbara Stanwyck. Sunset Boulevard made William Holden’s career. While I find Joe Gillis to be a dismissive smarmy ass who sort of had it coming to him, in this picture, I let it be know that I’m a huge fan of William Holden!- he did a superb job of playing it cagey, opportunistic and sarcastic as hell.

Wilder mirrors Joe Gillis’ from his own start as a shaky Hollywood writer having moved from Germany to America after Hitler’s rise to power, He used to be a ‘taxi dancer’ who would dance with any unattached older women who were willing to pay for his services.

One of the most iconic scenes from Sunset Boulevard, aside from the film’s fever dream climax where Norma descends the grand staircase, plunging into her gathering madness, is the scene that illustrates the withering passage of a lost era. The three fading silent film stars play bridge in the parlor of Norma’s decaying Gothic mausoleum. During the scene with the old stars playing bridge, the collectors come and take Joe’s car away, the only passport to freedom he has.

‘The wax works’ cracks wise, struggling snarky screen writer Joe Gillis, referring to Norma’s bridge party guests. Wilder envisioned this scene as purposefully macabre or as Kashner and MacNair call it “ghastly.” To see figures gathered around the table, as the sequence unfolds, it is revealed that these actors are actually playing themselves. Silent screen actress Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner who had played Christ in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 picture The King of Kings. And Legendary actor of silent cinema Buster Keaton is there too. Kashner and MacNair describe “his features ravaged by alcohol abuse.” Even Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in a way is paying tribute to herself recalling the bridge game in the parlor scene- “Came close to giving us all the creeps.”

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Like the bridge guests DeMille plays himself with scenes shot on the real set of his 1949 motion picture Samson and Delilah. Erich Von Stroheim himself a once great director, Wilder uses him poignantly as Max who mourns his former life. Wilder touching on the fact that Stroheim in real life had a rough time with his career often going over budget and ultimately making box office flops.

As I’ve pointed out here in this piece for The Great Villain Blogathon, I am using Norma Desmond to argue that she isn’t the psychotic spider woman or villainess that she’s been referred to, and that the film neither makes fun of her, yet creates a sense of sympathetic apology to this grande dame mostly revealing her as quite a tragic figure. I neither see her as washed up nor grotesque, but a beautifully powerful women possessed of intensity. She is the one who is ‘trapped’ in the web of an unforgiving culture that demonizes women for their sexual primacy. Norma is possessed of desire. The desire to still be adored. The desire to make a ‘return’ to motion pictures. The desire to be loved as a great star. The desire to be loved by Joe.

It’s Joe Gillis that is not a very likable guy, who is uncaring, weak, too shallow and powerless. Let’s face it he’s a self-acknowledged heel. Ironically, sadly it is Norma’s story that is being told through this guys voice and perspective yet another way that her character is silenced, her personae distorted and perverted through the male gaze.

Once again Silver & Ward point out eloquently-

“Norma herself as portrayed by Gloria Swanson is a tragic figure. imbued by Wilder with powerful romantic presence… A woman obsessed, she clings to her vision with a tenacity that must ultimately be granted a grudging admiration and she is the only character in the film with the possible exception of Erich Von Stroheim’s fanatically loyal Max, who inspires genuine sympathy. Watching herself on screen in an old movie, she leaps into the projector’s murderous blast of light and cries, ‘They don’t make faces like that anymore!’ It is difficult for the viewer to favor Joe’s cynicism over her fervor, however misguided or self-centered it may be…”

THERE’S A MONSTROUS FEMALE IN OUR MIDST- SOME CHARACTERIZATIONS OF NORMA:

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From The Bad and the Beautiful: Hollywood in the 1950’s by Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair-Chapter- The Waxworks: Mae West, Gloria Swanson, and Sunset Boulevard which opens with-
 “Hollywood has never been kind to older actresses…”

Here are just a few of the negative & unwarranted cursory examinations of Norma Desmond’s persona, put here -not because I agree, but to point out how cruel & misguided critics have been.

David Kehr of the New York Times refers to Norma as “predatory and grotesque.”

Alain Silver and James Ursini from The Encyclopedia of Film Noir- The Directors– refer to Norma as “delusional eccentric, past her prime.” and a “washed up misfit.” “femme fatale who embodies unstable noir psychosis.”

Foster Hirsch spells it out like this,  “Her fate was monstrous” calling her the “ultimate spider woman hibernating behind closed shutters in a swoon of alcohol and self-deception…{…} her loss of fame and fading beauty turn her into a psychopathic recluse.”

Hedda Hopper describes Norma descending the great staircase at the climax of Sunset Boulevard as her being in- “ a state of complete mental shock!”

Bruce Crowther-Film Noir: Reflections in a Dark Mirror actually uses the word ‘demonic’ he says “Yet, in Sunset Boulevard (1950), she succeeded in bringing to demonic life Norma Desmond, an old-time movie star who is on the most grotesque of all femme fatales.”

Janet Place chapter The Spider Woman from Women in Film Noir“with her claw-like hands.”

Actress Mae Murray a contemporary of Swanson’s, was offended by the film and commented, “None of us floozies was that nuts.”

Forster Hirsch calls her -“megalomaniacal.”

John McCarthy- Movie Psychos and Madmen calls her “a monster”

Marjorie Rosen (Popcorn Venus 1973) & Molly Haskell ( From Reverence to Rape 1974) –“a despairingly lonely serpent…” whose predicament is “reduced and trivialized because the source of her misery is merely growing old”cited by Brandon French, who feels they miss the point by merely reducing Norma to a victim of Wilder’s satire.

Brandon French -On the Verge of Revolt- “these fictional villainesses unable to discover-or accept-an autonomous creative expression of their power are made monsters by it, to one degree or another…{…} Her ludicrous existence as a middle-aged child.” 

From Chapter –Women in Film Noir– by Janet Place- The Spider Woman

In discussing the powerful returning motifs and patterns in film noir, Place talks about the dangerous power of the sexual woman, and how it is visually expressed. She states,

“Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard is the most highly stylized ‘spider woman’ in all of film noir as she weaves a web to trap and finally destroy her young victim, but even as she visually dominates him, she is presented as caught by the same false value system. The huge house in which she controls camera movement and is constantly center frame is also a hideous trap which requires from her the maintenance of the myth of stardom;the contradiction between the reality and the myth pull apart and finally drive her mad.”

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A caption that goes with the photo of Norma with head scarf and dark glasses smoking a cigarette “emphasizes the perverse, decaying side of film noir sexuality, with her claw-like hands, dark glasses and bizarre cigarette holder.”

She goes on to add that these ‘visual cues’ are a characteristic iconography of the “dangerously explicitly sexual and often violent noir female.” Using signals like cigarettes and their trails of wispy smoke are linked with immoral feminine sensuality and the forces of darkness. The specific use of heavily defined make-up, eyebrow pencil and full contoured lips, the dark glasses etc. Even the animal print that Norma wears. The power of these particular women is expressed in the visual style by “their dominance in composition, camera movement and how they are lit.”

From Mary Beth Haralovich– Chapter-Movies and Landscapes in-American Cinema of the 1950s Themes and Variations edited by Murray Pomerance“A character’s mental landscape is written on the mise-en-scéne in the film, the bodies of the actors and in their subjective visions, in their responses to settings that give them solace and to settings that they fear.”
As Joe Gillis comments to Betty Schaefer in Sunset Blvd“Psychopaths sell like hotcakes.”

In fact like the silent cinema which was once her world, Norma is a ghost there, an empty shadow of the past. Now Norma is in a lonely place because the industry that once supported her has forgotten her completely.
“Sunset Boulevard is cast with doppelgangers, fictional counterparts of actual Hollywood players, Paramount’s actual silent star Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond, “Paramount’s Silent Star” Like Norma, Swanson’s screen career did not transfer over to sound films until her remarkable performance in the Sunset Boulevard.

One issue that is suggestive of lensing Norma as a monstrous female is the prevailing mood of ‘male anxiety.’ Centered around not only her age, (for crying out loud she was only 50), but threatening was also her vivid sexual impulses and desires.

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Mary Beth Haralovich points to critic Sarah Street “Sunset Blvd. describes the overwhelming male anxiety about age, morality and career” -from her Mad About the Boy”; Masculinity and Career in Sunset Boulevard 1995

Haralovich points out that in Sunset Boulevard Joe works well with Betty at the studio -it’s a space where creativity can flourish, after hours and is a collaborative effort with Betty for the screenplay first entitled Dark Windows but the new draft is called Untitled Love Story. It shows that energetic youth is taking over the staid and faded ways of the old world.

I defer to Brandon French once again because of his insight and compassionate stance on the character of Norma Desmond, as I also see her. He writes, “In numerous films of the fifties such as All About Eve (1950) The African Queen (1951), The Rose Tattoo (1955), All That Heaven Allows (1956) and Autumn Leaves (1956) middle aged women are shown to be sexually attractive. What renders Norma less than desirable is her neurosis not her age.”

So you could argue that Wilder’s film is not only a condemnation of the failed system of Hollywood but also how it marginalizes it’s older stars, more specifically women. As French puts it, “a protest against Hollywood’s institutional policy of human discard, Wilder put the spotlight on Swanson.”

Gloria Swanson beautiful

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The film showcases society’s anxiety about sexual women especially those who have aged out of their place of ‘desirability.’ It’s this repulsion against older women that turns them into screen ‘monsters.’ It only follows that Norma would fall into an orbit of madness, when she had once flourished in an industry that co-nurtures narcissism, then punishes their women stars when they no longer have the advantage of claiming that egotism as an earned right. These stars are primed to be egotistical and then damned for it once they no longer serve a purpose for the industry cronies who make pictures.

Again, it invokes, Bette Davis’ performance of Baby Jane Hudson and her self-delusion caused by years of growing neglect and the cruel reversal of attentions that were once foisted on her. These accolades taken away, creating  stars that are relics left in a lonely place. Perhaps Wilder’s script did not make his import obvious or more compassionate through the narrative which would more easily coax the audiences sympathies and not necessarily gear them toward repulsion of the central tragic figure that is Norma Desmond. 

Norma Desmond was the prototype for the Grande Dame Guignol films that were to follow… of course the actresses would be faced with the same dilemma– of being given a script that would challenge them not to be type cast or appear monstrous.

It is then up to us to redeem Norma ourselves and see her as the victim and not the ultimate noir spider woman, psychopathic megalomaniac, deranged and deluded horror movie queen.

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The story should work in a way that sheds light on the anxiety surrounding women who aren’t in their twenties or thirties, not framing the narrative or focusing the visual cues on their age as if they are uncanny and dangerous. To tell the story of alienation and madness yes but lens it in a way that doesn’t promote revulsion of the older woman’s sexuality and power. A beauty standard where women can’t grow older and be beautiful at the same time. As people describe Norma as ‘grotesque’ All I see is a very beautiful lonely woman who is yes, filled with a growing delusion. Norma’s misguided fervor is only fueled by her co-dependent side-kick Max as he shelters her from the truth instead of helping her gain awareness through his companionship.

“The attention that Norma Desmond pays to herself, as opposed to the man, is the obvious narrative transgression of Sunset Boulevard.” -Haralovich

Not that Hollywood hasn’t created narcissism in their stars, or that it’s truly a crime for a woman to value herself above all else. Norma gazes at her own reflection in mirrors and in her old motion pictures. As Writer Place points out that the narcissistic independence that the femme fatale seeks is ‘fundamentally and irredeemably sexual’ in noir. Combined with both aggressiveness and sensuality, the dangerous woman becomes the central ‘obsessive’ focus of the narrative. She represents the man’s own sexual freedom, which she must control, repress or ultimately destroy him.

Norma insists on Joe participating in her life rather than being interested in his life. He dreams he is her pet chimp and he actually does become her victim. The victim of Salomé-

From Brandon French’s On the Verge of Revolt-Women in American Films in the Fifties- Chapter 1 The Scarlet “A” Sunset Boulevard (1950) “Sunset Boulevard is a film about ambition and what it allegedly does to the human spirit…{…} On the other hand we harbor a gloomy suspicion that ambition corrodes the soul. America’s negative attitude toward ambition had a critical influence on the transitional woman of the fifties. An Ambitious woman not merely violated the domestic female image; she became a receptacle for America’s most distorted fantasy projections about ambition; a soulless monster of selfish manipulation without moral restraint.”

This was the type of female who film noir had manifested during the forties and fifties. French so aptly points out that ambition is ‘as deadly as the scarlet “A” that is born of our puritan consciousness’. Sunset Boulevard is a perfect example of how a woman who has more drive and ambition, even more than Joe Gillis, evokes an image of her as a “fallen Eve seducing Adam into sin.”

In Sunset Boulevard French views as do I, Billy Wilder’s depiction of Norma as not a typically “just plain rotten” noir villainess. The film yields a thoughtful perspective on the ambivalence of what French calls ‘the transitional woman in the fifties.” Because Wilder complicates the issue of the typified noir evil predatory woman, misunderstood trapped man, innocent ingenue redeemer. Norma is therefore much more nuanced than a sad tragic figure.

Another sentient point that goes to the entire source of Norma’s ambivalence and state of mind begs the question… who’s responsible for her state? DeMille who doesn’t take any culpability for his own contribution to Norma’s decline-blames the press agents who worked overtime focusing on Norma, creating her goddess like megalomania. Demille does not come to Norma’s rescue and help her ‘return’.

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DeMille fondly recalls Norma’s talent in terms of her as “a lovely little girl of seventeen.” But unlike ‘men’ in the film industry who don’t have to qualify themselves by their age and appearance, they don’t have to suffer the effects of a punishing system of skin-deep values. Also it’s this atmosphere that nurtures and places value on youth and the function of beauty that have given rise to a Norma with an arrested development, living in the past obsessed with her ‘self.’

His girlfriend Betty types while he dictates the script they try to write together. Joe loves that Betty smells like a brand new car or freshly laundered handkerchiefs, and not tuberoses. Betty is ambitious too, she dreams of his career and is content to be behind the camera instead of in front of it. “Self-interest, over devotion to a man is the original sin of the film noir woman.”Haralovich

In John McCarthy’s Movie Psychos and Madmen- Chapter- The Female Psycho, McCarthy talks about Gloria Swanson’s faded movie queen in Billy Wilder’s biting attack on Hollywood. He frames Norma as trapped by her delusions-“the delusion that her glamour has not yet faded.”

I disagree. I think that Gloria Swanson/Norma Desmond is STILL glamorous. Perhaps led by the majority who have profiled her as a has been beauty queen and here again, the value judgement has been sworn against her, not just as a character trapped by self-delusion and that her career has ended, but that her desirability is an illusion as well…

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Gloria Swanson is beautiful as ever as silent movie queen Norma Desmond

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Given the immense narcissism which goes along with Hollywood, Swanson  in my opinion does not look like a caricature of her former self nor is she Norma Desmond’s doppelganger. To me… she just looks a little older but still quite sensual and beautiful as ever!

I suppose due to the visual cues by director Wilder and cinematographer Seitz Norma is presented or we are made to believe that she is grotesque like Bette Davis’ Baby Jane whose make up, hairstyle and mannerism truly were an exaggeration of a farcical youth that Davis purposefully plays as campy in order to illustrate her detachment from reality and the attachment to a past life that doesn’t translate well in the modernity of Los Angeles in the 60s. Aldrich’s film pushed the boundaries of convention even further by implementing an even more claustrophobic universe in conflict with the outside world, that engenders madness.

It was a combination of fate and opportunity-

Though Norma has been referred to as having snared Joe in her web. She didn’t go out and set a trap for him, he wandered into her world, she didn’t force him to stay, he stayed because he saw ‘a cozy set up’. and money in it for him, he was hiding and was morbidly curious about the ex-screen Goddess as if he saw her as a side show freak… if the house was a web, he put his own foot on the silk chord and set off the tremor that signaled the spider to pounce. Joe even remarks via voice-over while he’s being led up to his room over the garage, “I dropped the bait, and she snapped at it…”

It’s a tragedy of psychological entrapment and neurotic purgatory that she desires to be loved for herself by the down on his luck screenwriter Joe Gillis whom she has turned into her kept man. Tragic that she believes her fans continue to remember and write to her, and finally that the Hollywood she helped build is still anxiously awaiting her return. McCarthy says “unlike the use of her trap of delusion as a vehicle for comedy as in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) about two dotty women… Norma’s psychological entrapment is a tragedy.”

That Norma’s entrapment is as real and not just that of Joe Gillis’ is a tragedy, I would entirely agree. But McCarthy continues by calling her a ‘monster.’ And yes through the lens of Grande Dame Guignol cinema of which Sunset Boulevard appears to be seedling the screen for the sub-genre, with the decaying mansion and dreary atmosphere, and the theme of ‘the monstrous feminine’ Norma has been perceived and written about as having evolving into a monster. Though I’ll never see her that way.

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And I dare say she did not create this transmogrification herself. She was created by Hollywood, the fictionalized concept that Wilder attacks and by the actualization of the character by Wilder who framed her that way. As a result of her delusion, much like Davis’ Baby Jane Hudson– her madness leads to murder. As McCarthy says, “broken dreams leading to a broken mind” He brings up one good point. That Sunset Boulevard could almost be a horror movie/film noir hybrid. Much like Aldrich’s similar rebuke of Hollywood with his seminal What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? it is a psycho-sexual thriller that breaks apart conventional narratives. And much like Norma Desmond, I will never see Bette Davis’ role as Jane Hudson through the lens of the monstrous. They will always be sympathetic figures to me.

Plot

“A Hollywood Story… This is it … the most compelling dramatic story ever unfolded on the screen .. a tale of heartache and tragedy … love and ambition … told against the fabulous background of Hollywood.”

Told in flashback by a dead man-set against the blaring sirens of racing police cars to the crime scene, the film opens with police cars speeding down Sunset Boulevard. They’ve been called to a mansion where the body of a man, Joe Gillis (William Holden) is floating face down on the surface of the swimming pool with his eyes wide open-(camera used a mirror underneath to catch Holden’s face from underneath). The dead man begins to narrate the story of what led to his death in flashback noir style. This is truly a spin on the term, “ghost-writer.”

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“Yes, this is Sunset Blvd… the homicide squad complete with detectives and newspaper men. A murder has been reported from one of those great big houses… You’ll read all about it in the late editions… You’ll get it over your radio, and see it on television because an old-time star is involved, one of the biggest. But before your hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion, before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you’d like to hear the facts, the whole truth… If so you’ve come to the right party.”

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Repo Man-“There’s gonna be fireworks” Joe Gillis- “You Say the cutest things!”

It leads us back- Six months earlier. Joe Gillis is an out of work screenwriter with only a few B-movies to his credit. He tries to persuade Paramount Pictures producer Sheldrake (Fred Clark) to buy one of his scripts, but reader Betty Schaefer (Olson) administers a harsh critique not realizing that Joe can hear her. Carrying a folder of papers, she puts them on Sheldrake’s desk not noticing Joe Gillis standing by the door. Referring to Joe’s script Sheldrake-“What’s wrong with it?” Betty- “It’s from hunger… just a rehash of something that wasn’t very good to begin with.” Sheldrake-“I’m sure you’ll be glad to met Mr. Gillis. He wrote it.”

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Betty is embarrassed, she would like to ‘crawl into a hole and pull it in after her.’ She says to Joe, “I’m sorry, Mr.Gillis but I just don’t think it’s any good. I find it flat and banal.” He asks “Exactly what kind of material do you recommend? James Joyce? Dostoyevsky?” She tells him, “I just think pictures should say a little something.” Gillis“Oh, you’re one of those message kids. Just a story won’t do. You’d have turned down Gone With the Wind.”

First Joe is typing at his apartment when two collectors show up looking to repossess his car. He manages to elude them once but they spot him on the street at a traffic light. Gillis spots the men who are going to repossess his 1946 Plymouth convertible while sitting at an intersection. They begin chasing him and he gets a blow out.

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the car hidden behind Rudy’s Shoeshine Joe comments about Rudy-“he’d just look at your heels and know the score”

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Trying to hide out Joe turns onto a Sunset Boulevard driveway and stumbles onto an old garage crumbling by the side of a gloomy yet grandiose deteriorating, dying mansion with a little formal garden all gone to seed.

“If ever there was a place to stash away a limping car with a hot license plate.”

When Joe starts his monologue describing Norma’s house, it’s as if he is giving us a portent, describing Norma’s state of mind as the mansion is an extension of her projected identity.

Gillis’ voice-over “It was a great big white elephant of a place. The kind crazy movie people built in the crazy twenties. A neglected house gets an unhappy look. This one had it in spades. It was like that old woman in Great Expectations –that Miss Haversham in her rotting wedding dress and her torn veil, taking it out on the world because she’d been given the go by”

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Suddenly he hears, “You there!… why are you so late!”

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The ever brooding Max

Living in this opulent ruin, is the reclusive and long forgotten silent film star Norma Desmond. She alone inhabits this fading estate with her faithful butler Max (Erich Von Stroheim), who also happens to be her ex-husband, who was once a great director and plays a wheezing organ. Both lost relics of a bygone era. The interior shots of the grand hall, great staircase, Norma’s ‘waxwork’s’ parlor, her bedroom and the Gothic baroque style mansion in general evoke an atmosphere of bleak desolation and mystification.

The great hall is grandiose and grim, described in the script as exhibiting portieres that are drawn before all the windows, and “only thin slits or sunlight find their way in to fight the few electric bulbs which are always burning.”

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As Norma Desmond first makes her entrance she stands like a ghostly figure down the corridor in front of a doorway that allows the intrusion of a flickering light. She is small in stature, yet she exudes an electrifying presence, wearing black house pajamas and high heeled pumps. Like many femme fatales she wears dark glasses, a scarf and turban patterned in leopard print.

The undercurrent is gloomy and dust covered. The room is hung with white brocade which is tattered in places and has become mucky from years of neglect. Sam Comer and Ray Moyer’s set design fits the mood perfectly as the scene also showcases a great unmade gilded bed, the gold peeling off as to symbolize Norma’s decomposing love life. The curious set piece is in the shape of a swan.

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The gondola bed in her boudoir is ornately carved with cherubs that Norma sleeps in was actually owned by dancer Gaby Deslys who died in 1920. It had belonged to Universal’s prop department who bought it after Desly’s death. It appears in Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Joe in one of his voice-overs describes it as a gilded row boat. “The perfect setting for a silent movie queen. Poor devil still waving proudly to a parade which has long since passed her by.”

All these little details just add to the sense of realism built into the visual narrative with its accoutrements of Hollywood’s “world of illusion.” Clothes and negligees strewn about the room, which is graced with photographs of fading stars of yesterday. There’s a baroque style fireplace book ended by two ornate candelabras. Set out like an Egyptian prince on her massage table is the shrouded monkey in repose under a shawl.

Norma begins to direct Gillis believing him to be the undertaker (Franklin Farnum) from the funeral home. Joe plays along with a morbid fascination. She tells him,  “I’ve made up my mind we’ll bury him in the garden. Any city laws against that?” Joe says, “I wouldn’t know” Norma continues, “I don’t care anyway. I want the coffin to be white. And I want it specially lined with satin. White, or deep pink.”

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When she picks up the shawl, a small stiff arm falls out. Joe is a little stunned by the tiny hairy arm. “Maybe red. Bright flaming red. Gay. Let’s make it gay.”      

When Joe looks closer at the small body under the shawl he sees the very pitiful, bearded face of a dead chimpanzee. It’s a startling scene, odd and curious. Norma seems to have made her little friend almost a surrogate child.

Joe says to her, “I know your face. You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.” Norma replies with a stately languor, “I am big… it’s the pictures that got small…”

Gillis in his smug manner, “I knew there was something wrong with them.”

Norma begins her brusque tirade “They’re dead. They’re finished. There was a time when this business had the eyes of the whole wide world. But that wasn’t good enough. Oh, no They wanted the ears of the world, too. So they opened their big mouths, and out came talk, talk, talk…”

Joe Gillis quips, “That’s where the popcorn business comes in. You buy yourself a bag and plug up your ears.”

Norma chastising- “Look at them in the front offices — the master minds! They took the idols and smashed them. The Fairbanks and the Chaplins and the Gilberts and the Valentinos. And who have they got now? Some nobodies….”

Joe Gillis- “Don’t get sore at me. I’m not an executive. I’m just a writer.”

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Norma- “You are! Writing words, words! You’ve made a rope of words and strangled this business! But there is a microphone right there to catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor to photograph the red, swollen tongue!”
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Joe- “Ssh! You’ll wake up that monkey.”

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Norma yells- “Get out!” as Gillis starts down the stairs, he answers her, “Next time I’ll bring my autograph album along or maybe a hunk of cement and ask for your footprints.” Halfway down the stairs she stops him, “Just a minute you!”

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Joe-“I didn’t know you were planning a comeback”
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“I hate that word!” (clenched teeth)
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“A return… to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen”
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“Salomé” (Norma whispers to herself)

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She is drawn to Joe, and offers him a job helping her prepare the script for her ‘return’ (she hates the word ‘comeback’) in the film Salomé.

Norma tells Joe, “It’s the story of Salomé I think I’ll have DeMille direct it” Joe humors her. “We’ve made a lot of pictures together.” Joe asks, “And you’ll play Salomé?” “Who else?” “Only asking, I didn’t know you were planning a comeback” “I hate that word… It is a ‘return.’ A return to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen!… Salomé, what a woman! What a part! The princess in love with a Holy man. She dances the Dance of the Seven Veils. He rejects her, so she demands his head on a golden tray, kissing his cold dead lips.”

Max wheels in a tea wagon with Champagne and caviar. Norma sits in her chair smoking from her curious cigarette holder that is a gold ring with a clip. She dumps another batch of pages from the script on Joe.

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Joe “It was a cozy set up”
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“That bundle of nerves Max… that dead monkey upstairs and the wind wheezing through that organ once in a while”

“Well- I had no pressing engagement and she’d mentioned something to drink… Sometimes it’s interesting to see just how bad, bad writing can be. This promised to go to the limit. I wondered what a handwriting expert would make of that childish scrawl of hers. Max wheeled in some champagne and some caviar. Later I found out that Max was the only other person in that Grim Sunset Castle, and I found out a few other things about him… As for her she sat coiled up like a watch spring, her cigarette clamped in a curious holder… I could sense her eyes on me from behind those dark glasses, defying me not to like what I read, or maybe begging me in her own proud way to like it. It meant so much to her.”

Joe admits- “The place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis, out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion… I knew there was something wrong… it sure was a cozy set-up.”

He dismissively mocks her when she tells him that she’ll have DeMille direct, and that she will play the part of Salomé.

“Salome… what a woman what a part. The princess in love with a Holy man She dances the dance of the seven veils. He rejects her and she demands his head on a golden tray… Kissing his cold dead lips”

Okay perhaps there’s a hint of Norma having a little pent up rage toward men… Still, she’s adorable!

Seeing that Joe is broke and a bit of a schemer, he accepts the job and moves into the guest room over the garage. Joe is weak-willed, gutless and a cynic who wields mocking witticisms at every turn. And soon he becomes Norma’s lover, a kept man, a gigolo.

The undertaker arrives with the tiny coffin… Max greets him at the door and leads him up the long winding staircase.

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Joe’s voice over-“Silly hodge podge of melodramatic plotz however I started concocting a little plot of my own”
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Joe tells Norma-“Maybe what it needs is a little more dialogue”
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“What for I can say anything I want with my eyes!”
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“You know I’m pretty expensive”

Wilder visually suggests how Joe is being drawn into Norma’s world at first when he goes to his room above the garage, the camera focuses on the gnarled dead branches that invade the space as he climbs the dark stairs to his room. Joe is too smug in his new cozy set-up, having no clue of the dangerous path he’s about to embark on.

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“So I let him (Max) unpack my things. I wanted the dough, and I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. I thought if I really got going, I could toss it off in a couple of weeks. But it wasn’t so simple, getting some coherence into that wild, scrambled melodrama she’d concocted. What made it tougher was that she was around all the time–hovering over me, afraid I’d do injury to that precious brain child of hers.”
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Joe-“Say… She’s quite a character that Norma Desmond” Max– fixated on his mistress-“She was the greatest of them all. You wouldn’t know… you’re too young… In one week she received 17,000 fan letters. Men bribed her hairdresser to get a lock of her hair. ….there was a maharjas who came all the way from India to beg one of her silk stockings… later he strangled himself with it”
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Joe’s voice over-“Crumbling apart in slow motion -the whole place had a sort of creeping paralysis out of beat with the rest of the world”

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“the last rights of that hairy chimp as if she were laying to rest an only child”
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“it was all very queer…”
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“was her life really as empty as that?”

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While daylight seeps through the blinds, he lies on top of the shabby quilt, the script strewn about him. As he awakens to these strange surroundings he narrates in voice over for us once again-, “That night I had a mixed up dream. In it was an organ grinder. I couldn’t see his face, but the organ was all draped in black and a chimp was dancing for pennies. I opened my eyes the music was still there… Where was I?… Oh yes, that empty room over the garage. (the organ playing beneath his voice-over) Only it wasn’t empty anymore. Somebody had brought in all my belongings. My books, my typewriter, my clothes… What was going on?” He puts his jacket on and heads toward the pipe organ–Max (Von Stroheim, white gloved close up is actually playing) Bach’s widely used baleful Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor.

Not too long after he finds that Norma has told Max to move his belongings into the house. Joe is weak and resents having to rely on Norma’s affections to support him. Norma argues with him about him needing her financial support, that he’s a proud boy who is in difficulties.

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Joe dumps a scene ‘cut away from me?’

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Joe’s voice-over-“I didn’t argue with her. You didn’t yell at a sleepwalker–he may fall and break his neck. That’s it, she was sleepwalking along the giddy heights of a lost career– plain crazy when it came to that one subject: her celluloid self, the great Norma Desmond. How could she breathe in that house, so crowded with Norma Desmonds? More Norma Desmond, and still more Norma Desmond!”

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“How could she breathe in that house so crowded with Norma Desmonds”
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Max lifts the painting that reveals the large movie screen

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Norma is entertaining her cynical ‘lover’ who is coasting on ennui. Trusted Max is a constant enigma of stoic devotion, as he watches from the projection booth, the light from the bulb shimmers on his somber face.

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Joe finally begins to accept his role as Norma’s found boy-friend. He spends time with her, working on the script while Norma dressed in one of her lounging pajamas autographs photos of herself. Joe begins to realize just how unaware she is about how much the world has passed her by. Norma isn’t gracious about any criticism, she forces him to watch her old movies. Joe’s smug voice-over-

“She’s sit very close to me, and she’d smell of tuberoses, which is not my favorite perfume, not by a long shot. Sometimes as we watched, she’d clutch my arm or my hand forgetting she was my employer becoming just a fan, excited about that actress up there on the screen… I guess I don’t have to tell you who that actress was. They were always her pictures, that’s all she ever wanted to see.”

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Swanson delivers her dialogue with an intrepid vehemence which cuts at the heart of being a forgotten silent star gazing at the clip of an actual Gloria Swanson/Norma Desmond film they made, “Still wonderful, isn’t it? And no dialogue. We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces…! There just aren’t any faces like that anymore… Well, maybe one… Garbo.”

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Swanson delivers her dialogue with an intrepid vehemence which cuts at the heart of being a forgotten silent star gazing at the clip of an actual Gloria Swanson/Norma Desmond film they made, “Still wonderful, isn’t it? And no dialogue. We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces…! There just aren’t any faces like that anymore… Well, maybe one… Garbo.”

Standing in the ghostly beam of projector light Norma avows- “Those idiot producers! Those imbeciles! Haven’t they got any eyes? Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I’ll show them. I’ll be up there again, so help me!”

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“Norma is caught between challenge and panic. Her neurotic solution is to buy a man, which establishes her power and control, and then make a pretense of a girlish vulnerability. Her suicide attempt is emblematic of her ambivalence since it is both an assertion of power and an act of self-diminution.” -Brandon French-On the Verge of Revolt-Women in Films of the 1950s

Continue reading “When the Spider Woman Looks: Two Glorias- “Wicked Love, Close ups & Old Jewels”- The sympathetically tragic villainesses of Sunset Blvd (1950) and Dracula’s Daughter (1936)”

Re-Ocurring Iconography-The Cinematic Mirror

A Streetcar Named Desire
Vivien Leigh as Blanch Dubois in Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire 1951
IsobelaCorona is Sara the witch-the witches mirror
Isobela Corona is Sara the witch-The Witches Mirror 1962
Repulsion- Catherine
Catherine Deneuve as the demented Carol in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion 1965
Bette Davis in Deception
Bette Davis as Christine Radcliffe in Irving Rapper’s Deception 1946
Robert Cummings in The Chase
Robert Cummings is Chuck Scott in Arthur Ripley’s The Chase 1946
citizen-kane-1941-orson-welles-
Citizen Kane-1941-Orson Welles
Corridor of Mirrors 2
Terence Young’s Corridor of Mirrors 1948 Edana Romney as Mifanwy Conway
Dead Ringer
Paul Henreid’s Dead Ringer 1964 starring Bette Davis & Bette Davis as twin sisters Margaret DeLorca / Edith Phillips
Decoy
Jack Bernhard’s film noir classic Decoy 1946 Herbert Rudley as Dr. Craig
fritz lang's M
Fritz Lang’s M (1931) starring Peter Lorre
Ida On Dangerous Ground
Ida Lupino is blind Mary Malden in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground 1951
Jane Wyman Stage Fright
Jane Wyman is Eve Gill in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Stage Fright 1950
Jean Simmons and Dan O'Herlihey Home After Dark
Jean Simmons is Charlotte Bronn and Dan O’Herlihy as Arnold Bronn in Mervyn LeRoy’s psychological melodrama Home Before Dark 1958
jean-marais-Orpeus '50
Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (Orphée)1950 starring Jean Marais
Kiss Before The Mirror '33 James Whale
The Kiss Before the Mirror 1933 directed by James Whale Gloria Stuart and Paul Lukas
Lady in the Lake
Robert Montgomery is Phillip Marlowe in Lady in the Lake 1947
Marilyn Don't Bother to Knock-mirror
Marilyn Monroe is the disturbed babysitter Nell Forbes in Roy Ward Baker’s Don’t Bother to Knock 1952
Psycho-Janet Leigh Marion Crane
Janet Leigh plays the ill fated Marion Crane in Hitchcock’s classic horror Psycho 1960
Renoir's The Rules of the Game 39
Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game 1939
She Wolf of London
June Lockhart is Phyllis Allenby in Jean Yarbrough’s She-Wolf of London 1946
sin in the suburbs
Joe Sarno’s Sin in the Suburbs 1946
Somewhere in the night Hodiak
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Somewhere in the Night 1946 starring John Hodiak as George Taylor and Nancy Guild (rhymes with Wild) as Christy Smith
Sunset Blvd
Gloria Swanson is the sensational Norma Desmond and William Holden is Joe Gillis in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. 1950
The Big Steal
Robert Mitchum is Lt. Duke Halliday and William Bendix as Capt. Vincent Blake in Don Siegel’s The Big Steal 1949
The Dark Mirror
Olivia de Havilland & Olivia de Havilland star as Terry and Ruth Collins in Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror 1946
The Lady from Shanghai
Rita Hayworth is Elsa Bannister in Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai 1947
The Queen of Spades mirror

Yvonne Mitchell is Lizaveta Ivanova in Thorold Dickinson’s The Queen of Spades 1949
Thomas Mitchell in The Dark Mirror
Thomas Mitchell is Lt Stevenson in Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror 1946
what ever happened to baby jane
Bette Davis is the outrageous Baby Jane Hudson in Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 1962

Here’s looking back at ya!-Your ever lovin’ monstergirl

the clip joint: Sunset Boulevard (1950)”I am big… It’s the pictures’ that got small”

SUNSET BOULEVARD 1950

Joe Gillis: You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma Desmond: I ‘am’ big. It’s the ‘pictures’ that got small.

Sunset Blvd Poster

Director Billy Wilder’s gritty and gothic noir starring Gloria Swanson as the iconic faded starlet, Norma Desmond and William Holden as Joe Gillis. Co-starring Erich Von Stroheim as the faithful Max Von Mayerling.

Bill, Gloria and Erich-Sunset Blvd promo shot

Set in 1950s Hollywood the story surrounds the outrageously batty recluse Norma Desmond, goddess of the silent-screen living in a world of self-delusion within the walls of her decaying Sunset Boulevard mansion. Her only companion is her ex-husband turned butler Max who idolizes her, once having been her director when she was a star.

Norma’s mania creates the grand dreams of a comeback to pictures. One day Joe Gillis stumbles onto her property needing a mechanic Norma first mistakes Joe as an employee of the funeral home who’ve been sent to take care of her old chimpanzee who has just passed away. Joe a hack-writer becomes Norma’s lover, but soon gets entangled in a web of madness and murder.

Swanson and Holden lobby card Sunset Blvd

gloria swanson & william holden 1950 - sunset boulevard

Holden and Stroheim Sunset Blvd Lobby Card

Gloria as Norma

Ready for my close up

See you round the Boulevard-MonsterGirl