Wait For The Moment When: Gloria Swanson

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…Goes To Bed With William Holden.

No director was as layered, coded and mordantly witty as Billy Wilder at his best. His contemporaries were shattered by SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) – Louis B Mayer, Mary Pickford, Pola Negri, Norma Shearer, Garbo, Mae West and Montgomery Clift all had their own reasons to be disturbed by it. The American public was baffled. Surely no movie is more complex. I have seen it at least 100 times yet every viewing reveals another detail, another clue or flash of gallows humour. Wilder is a generous director: he gives you a mass of stimuli and then allows you to take these hints, symbols and allusions as far as you like.

SUNSET BOULEVARD is a satire, a black comedy, a psychological thriller and occasionally a horror movie. The first half of the movie ends with the scene of Norma Desmond’s first coupling with Joe Gillis : a union of two vampires come together at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

The fatal party that ends the evening in Norma’s suicide attempt in “that grim Sunset castle” is seen in retrospect to have been a macabre wedding feast complete with a great cake and a tango band playing the erotic rhythm that originated in the porteno brothels of Buenos Aires. As Norma and Joe dance – “there are no other guests” – Swanson tears off her hair jewel and veil, a bridal disrobing, self-defloration for her putative fourth husband. Is there also a reference to an abdication as she removes this winged diamond falcon¤, just as Garbo removes her diadem in QUEEN CHRISTINA? Will Norma give up the career – the lost career that only she still believes in – for marriage? Is the whilom Queen of Hollywood renouncing her crown for paid love? What an irony of absolutely sterile futility: Billy Wilder is not always a comfortable companion.

Later, lying on her “bed like a gilded rowboat” – dreamboat? – Norma is visually the more evident succubus, what with her brilliant white teeth, her snaky black curls and her slit wrists bandaged to look like evening gloves, arching varnished nails as though painted with her own blood. But look at the predatory incubus Joe, still wearing the luxurious evening clothes, vicuna coat and jewellery paid for by the doting employer so soon to be his mistress. Tenderly as an expert torturer, he unties and removes her shoes, well-worn conjugal symbols of fertility and sex, before Norma draws him down into a literally fatal embrace like a mantis. And in taking off her shoes Joe is about to hobble Norma with sex, just as she has captured him with money. The pair of them are now fatally enmeshed, inextricably entangled .

“Happy New Year, Norma”

In the springtime one of them will be shot dead; and his murderer taken off raving to the asylum.

“Happy New Year, darling”.

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And then immediately follows a sinisterly skittish scene in the (ruined) garden to which Norma, usually a creature of the shadows, has briefly returned like a middle aged Persephone. By the poolside• and for the only time in the movie Swanson and Holden seem briefly almost at ease with one another. For a mad moment you think that they might even have the possibility of a future together: Joe Gillis capers in his swimming trunks and Miss Desmond, revived by salaried sex and astrology, is positively girlish¤¤, but then comes that unsettling moment when Joe emerges from the water (the last living creatures seen in that pool were rats: he himself is “a stray dog”). Norma swathes him in a towel that is horribly like a winding sheet – or a straitjacket. The phone rings, Paramount is on the line and Norma’s only true love – herself & her own fame – once again takes over.

What a reel! And I have omitted so much: the ominous figure of Max, the keychains & gaping keyholes, the recurring telephone motif, the mirrors…but run the picture and as Lilian Gish would say, “Judge for yourselves”. One last thing: by this point in the movie we have been told very explicitly how Norma smells – “…of tuberoses, which are not my favourite perfume, not by a long shot” says Joe. (There’s a whiff of marijuana, Egyptian cigarettes and “half a pound of make up”, too). Tuberoses in excess can be airless, invasive, claustrophobic, eating up oxygen: they are narcotic, obsessive, aphrodisiac and stupefying. The ancient Mexicans, struck by their skeletal white purity, called them “flowers of the bone” and wreathed their dying gods with them. In Latin countries they are often associated with death, piled up in funeral parlours and in cemeteries like lilies and chrysanthemums here. In short, lovely as they are – and I have a spray blooming by me as I write – the tuberose is the perfect olfactory metaphor for Norma Desmond: a perfection of sinister predatory glamour.”

¤ for so it looks to me, lying on the tiled floor and picked up like a holy relic by Max, now the butler and once Norma’s first husband. Norma talks of Valentino’s penchant for the tango – does this bird reference his film “THE EAGLE” with its theme of a young Cossack pursued by a much older amorous Empress?

• at least one commentator has equated the swimming pool to the waters of Norma’s womb; but as Julie Andrews once said, “I think that’s going a little too far, don’t you?”

¤¤ though her leopard outfit reminds us of her predatory exoticism – and her claws.

William Holden 1918- 1981
Gloria Swanson 1899 – 1983

Fatal Attraction

“Her fingers touched me: she smells all amber!” And once again the intoxication of perfume sets the wheels of murderous mayhem in motion; this time, 500 years ago in Middleton’s stage shocker, The Revenger’s Tragedy. Our sense of smell catches us unawares at our most basely animal; it awakens  our ancestral instincts for escape and survival, the propagation of the species and the catching of a mate.

Many of the problems that perfume wearers experience come from a misunderstanding of our most atavistic sense. Why is it that we cannot smell our signature fragrance, whereas the horror sprayed uninvited by the girl in the Well-Known West End Store seems to accelerate in its awfulness over the next 24 hours? Its the brain, you see: it knows your favourite scent is “safe”; it presents no threat.The brain, via the nose, has passed it as the censor passes a film; and as there’s no more need to worry about it, switches off. Whereas when we are ambushed by a scent in the unpromising surroundings of a crowded store, the circumstances of the encounter take our senses totally by unwelcome surprise: the brain panics, the nose is affronted and both go into overdrive, analysing that perfume for hours afterwards. And like an animal, you remember the location with dread, shying away like a bolting horse “THAT’S where the girl sprayed me with that AWFUL….”

Our sense of smell has atrophied, we don’t really need it much it any more; we use it for the pleasure of perfume and maybe in the garden and leave it at that. But it’s there alright in all its complexity: we’ve just forgotten how to intepret it. It still sets off alarms when it detects smoke, gas, bad food, infection, decay, death: my aunt, in the wilds of her Canadian orchards, is still alert for the smell of bears down by the creek. She needs to be, and so does the dog. Have you ever picked up the smell of fear? Very rancid and foxy; as forbidding and repellent as you’d expect. I smelled it just once: in a crowded lunch-time shop, a few days before Christmas.

And thus to the mysteries of sexual attraction. The person who eventually formulates the perfume that will infallibly promote lust (the fragrance that is so often asked for) will make a fortune beyond the dreams of avarice; it will come in time no doubt but there’s something a mite Satanic about the thought, the manipulation of men’s souls… Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a seductive scent, trust to instinct and pick the perfume that makes YOU feel wanton, lubricious and desirable: like goes to like.

On the movies, in plays and books we see the power, threat, symbolism of perfume as a sinister metaphor and a symbol for sexual and mortal danger.
Lady Macbeth’s blood-reeking murderous hand cannot be sweetened by all the perfumes of Arabia; Cleopatra, bringing havoc, arrives in a ship whose sails are soaked in scent; in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her team are beguiled and stupified by the field of poppies on the Yellow Brick Road. Diana Dors in Yield To the Night is working a beauty shop when she meets the homme fatal who will drive her to murder. The perfume she sells him (“5 guineas, please”) is with a pleasing cruel irony named “Christmas Rose”. Joan Crawford is the wicked shop-girl who steals Norma Shearer’s husband in “The Women” while selling him a flacon of “Summer Rain” (“When Stephen doesn’t like what I’m wearing, I take it off…”).

Billy Wilder, master of cynicism, offers us two of the most striking scented images. In Sunset Boulevard, Bill Holden’s two women are characterised by their odour. Norma Desmond, embalmed in her past, smells he tells us of tuberoses, “not my favourite perfume, not by a long shot”. And we somehow know he’s thinking of tuberoses in a funeral parlour, tuberoses faded and decaying in a close shut room. An outre, baroque, macabre scent for a vampiric woman on the brink of madness. Whereas the ingenuous Betty Schaeffer smells of “freshly laundered linen handkerchiefs or a brand new automobile” and doesn’t even know it (“must be my new shampoo”). But Wilder saves his best line for Fred MacMurray, sweatily lusting after Barbara Stanwyck in Double Idemnity and prepared to bump off her husband to have her; he’s already aroused by the perfume in her hair, now walking down the hot sidewalk he smells something else…. “How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”

Image from Wikimedia commons