Here’s something people often don’t notice about Sunset Boulevard: Norma Desmond isn’t old. Several elements in the film are designed to make us think she’s elderly: the decrepit old mansion she lives in, her old butler, the comments people make on the Paramount set she visits — “Is she still alive?” But then the screenplay (a work of genius, primarily by Charles Brackett and the film’s director, Billy Wilder) starts to undermine the impression it has taken pains to produce. On that movie set, Cecil B. DeMille, playing himself, reminds people that he’s old enough to be her father. Joe Gillis (William Holden) comments that she’s “middle-aged,” and then, in their climactic confrontation, reminds her that she’s fifty years old.
And Gloria Swanson was indeed fifty when the movie came out — 49 when it was made. DeMille was 69 and Erich von Stroheim 65, but one of the other superannuated silent-movie stars we meet in the course of the picture, Buster Keaton, was just 55. The point here is a powerful one: that the coming of sound to motion pictures utterly transformed the industry, and did so overnight, so that one year’s matinée idols were the next years’ forgotten ancestors.
This could of course also be a comment on a Hollywood youth culture — never cast anyone over thirty — but I don’t think that’s the case here. Swanson was just five years older than Cary Grant, seven years older than Katherine Hepburn, both of whom would continue to be superstars for years and years. Her misfortune was that she became big too soon — just before the Great Divide introduced by sound. (“I am big — it’s the pictures that got small.”)
Let’s compare that situation to our own moment. Swanson was born in 1899; her career as a star was essentially over before she turned 30, so let’s say by 1929; this movie was released in 1950. Imagine a version of Sunset Boulevard coming out today, featuring an actress whose career had followed a similar trajectory to Norma Desmond’s. Let’s see, we’d need an actress born around 1972, so: Jennifer Garner. Gwyneth Paltrow. Thandiwe Newton. Any of those strike you as plausible candidates for Norma Desmond? (“Gwyneth Paltrow — is she still alive?”) Sandra Bullock of course would be too old for the part, as would Marisa Tomei and Jennifer Aniston. One might also take a look at the widely varying ages of the actresses who have played Norma Desmond in the musical version of the story.
Now, how about the even more archaic 55-year-old Buster Keaton? That would call for … let’s see … Will Smith, Hugh Jackman, or Daniel Craig. Tom Cruise? Way too elderly. But maybe he could play the Erich von Stroheim role. (Incidentally: early in his career Jackman played Joe Gillis in a Melbourne staging of the musical.)
All of this we can explain with reference to general improvements in health care, exercise regimes, and cosmetic medicine. But there’s another element that’s more curious.
So let’s make a different comparison. One of Swanson’s most successful films was Sadie Thompson (1928) — a movie released 22 years before Sunset Boulevard. To the moviegoers of 1950 that was effectively the Jurassic era. But let’s think about films made in 2001: Monsters Inc. A Beautiful Mind. Shrek. The Royal Tenenbaums. Mulholland Drive — and The Fellowship of the Ring. All movies that are, to one degree or another, a part of the contemporary conversation. Not Jurassic; not even Neolithic.
What does this difference tell us? Certainly that the silent-to-sound transition was devastating to the cultural currency of everything made in the silent era. But it also suggests that we of 2023 aren’t necessarily the most present-minded Americans ever. We might have a longer cultural memory, at least in some media and in some genres, than we give ourselves credit for. And surely there’s a big technological reason for that: the availability of movies, almost any movies we might want, in our homes — something that I’m especially thankful for right about now, since it enabled me to watch Sunset Boulevard last night, on the whim of the moment.