When the feature film industry emerged in Hollywood at the beginning of the 20th century, it drew on a star system already established in theatre and vaudeville. Charismatic and recognisable actors provided the fledgling film industry with an identity that audiences could focus on and connect with. The mystery and allure of the human face in close-up and the enticing possibility of glimpsing the person behind the persona were at the heart of the mythology of stardom.
In the 1920s and 1930s, contemporary narratives, urban dramas and sophisticated comedies were integral to the construction of Hollywood glamour. Gloria Swanson embodied this ideal in the 1920s, and stars like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong took it into the 1930s in the form of an exoticised unknowability. However, while stardom was nurtured by a distance that contrasts with the excess and ubiquity of the celebrity image of our present day, the unreachable glamour of a silent star like Garbo became the exception once the talkies arrived.
With sound bringing a greater naturalism to screen performances, stars like Claudette Colbert and Carole Lombard could be at once impossibly elegant and relatable. This balancing act was integral to the chaotic disruption and boundary pushing of screwball comedies like It Happened One Night (1934) or My Man Godfrey (1936). Actors such as Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, renowned for the singularity of their performance style, may have been larger than life but their uniqueness became their brand. When asked what advice she would give an aspiring young actress, Hepburn’s advice was that “acting rules are made to be broken. No two people are alike and the rules which apply to me may be the very ones which she should ignore.”(1)
In the Hollywood studio system, marketing and PR fostered the star image with carefully composed and idealised portrait photography, pictorial reports of glittering nights out on the town and gracious photo shoots of stars relaxing at home. Fans could see their idols living a ‘real’ life beyond the screen but this peek behind the scenes enhanced the fantasy and desire accrued by stars within this Hollywood system of representation and storytelling. Glimpsing Joan Crawford with her pet dachshunds or visiting Loretta Young at her English-style mansion lent these leading actors just enough connection to the lives lived by mere mortals, while further emphasising their transcendence.
All of this dazzling otherworldliness fed into the Golden Age of Hollywood, an era that gradually came to an end with the breaking up of studio monopolies and, just as significantly, the advent of television. The Hollywood film industry has always been insular and inward-looking, and countless films have focused on themes of performance and/or fame. These themes, so central to the fantasy sold by Hollywood and the discourse of stardom, were most often explored through narratives about live performance (vaudeville, the theatre or the concert hall). With exceptions such as Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and the chaotic Hellzapoppin! (1941), classic, pre-1950 Hollywood narratives typically sought to make the movie-making apparatus invisible.
As the 1950s dawned, a cluster of Hollywood narratives fixated on the star image so integral to the moviemaking business and its capacity to capture and connect with audiences. Marking a kind of mid-century turning point, All About Eve (1950) and Sunset Boulevard (1950) were hugely influential films that staged and worked through the industry’s crisis of identity. In both films, what was essentially an industrial problem associated with societal and technological change was reshaped as a woman problem – relating to issues around both age and performance. Female stars had always had to navigate or resolve contradictory identities around self and image, authenticity and disguise, and in both All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard these contradictions are laid bare through the portrayal of their ageing star protagonists. In All About Eve, the greatness of legendary Broadway star Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is pitted against the superficial talent of her imitator Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). In Sunset Boulevard, faded silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is an embarrassing anachronism attempting a comeback in an industry entering a new phase of storytelling based on ordinary lives and fresh perspectives.
Through its focus on Broadway, All About Eve examines performance, fame and stardom at one remove from the film industry, but the magnetic presence of screen legend Bette Davis leaves little doubt that Hollywood is its true subject. In the dialogue much is made of Margo’s age – mostly as articulated by Margo, whose insecurities primarily relate to the youth of her partner Bill (Gary Merrill). She is frustrated to be playing ingenues due to the dearth of age-appropriate leading roles, but her star power has not dimmed. As Addison DeWitt (George Saunders) says in the film, Margo is “a great star; a true star”. Just as her talent and charisma are a given, so too is Bette Davis’s magnetic presence. But where the conventions of stage performance allow Margo to be any age she wants to be, Davis -- the ageing film star – is lit in a way that emphasises her age and heralds the end of the Hollywood era she represents.
When Eve, the usurper, manoeuvres her way into Margo’s good graces, her intention is not merely to be a star like Margo, but to become Margo. However, Eve will only ever be a copy rather than the real thing. The fact she achieves the highest accolades tells a tale of a new era, where a dazzling surface can be mistaken for authentic talent and star power. Because Eve is all surface, her performances are never enough -- her fans need to fill that lack by feeding on her offstage life: “she's been profiled, covered, revealed, reported, what she eats and when and where, whom she knows and where she was and when and where she's going...” All About Eve offers a prescient forewarning of the impact of celebrity culture and the construction of the self as both a brand and a performance. The conclusion heralds a new kind of formulaic, bland and replaceable 1950s star, with Eve’s look-alike successor Phoebe (Barbara Jane Bates) appearing in the final moments of the film. The celebrated final shot of the film is a tour de force that uses angled mirrors and reflection to reveal an infinite number of Phoebes ready for their turn in the spotlight.
All About Eve invests in the authenticity and charisma associated with the star power of the legendary Bette Davis, to offer a nostalgic paean to a fading star system and the demise of old Hollywood. Sunset Boulevard adopts a completely different perspective. It draws a line under notions of glamour and stardom, relegating them to the distant past and portraying them as oppressive and treacherous. Instead, the film validates a new naturalism and investment in ordinary lives as a way forward for the post-1950 film industry. Where All About Eve used Broadway as a stand-in for Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard works through the changes in the contemporary Hollywood production and viewing landscape by setting its sights on the lost glamour of the silent era. Integral to this portrayal is the vampiric protagonist Norma Desmond, a once-famous silent movie star now confined to her palatial Hollywood mansion with Max (Eric von Stroheim), her faithful man servant (and former husband and director), and memories of her past triumphs.
When the narrative begins, a long line of cars are headed down Sunset Boulevard towards a murder scene. This opening is accompanied by a voice-over delivered by the victim, Joe Gillis (William Holden), a failed Hollywood scriptwriter, who stumbled by chance into Norma’s life.
Swanson plays Norma with a histrionic excess that contrasts with the jaded cynicism of Holden’s Joe and the uncomplicated cheerfulness of Betty (Nancy Olson), the fresh-faced rival for Joe’s affections. The exaggeration and over-embellishment of Norma’s self-presentation is reflected in the design and décor of her house. Stuffed full of ornate furniture, expensive trinkets and souvenirs of past glory, the grand mansion is more mausoleum than house. Locked within this lost world, Norma is at once Miss Haversham, femme fatale, vampire and black widow spider, a lethal combination expressed through a range of film noir conventions and in the gothic claustrophobia of the mise-en-scene.
Sunset Boulevard is premised on the perception that there is nothing more horrifying than the lost glamour of an ageing female star. This horror is emphasised by the narcissism displayed in Norma’s regular viewings of her past performances. In her role as Norma, Swanson watches her actual performances in a disconcerting breaking down of the line between fiction and reality, and echoes Norma’s own confusion about where fantasy ends and reality begins. An unsettling blurring of fiction and reality is knitted into the viewing experience, through the casting of renowned figures from the silent era such as Eric von Stroheim and Buster Keaton and the appearance of director Cecil B DeMille playing himself directing a movie at Paramount, the studio producing Sunset Boulevard. Through this self-reflexivity and referencing of the past, classic Hollywood glamour is revisioned as worn-out and parochial. In this context, the future is represented by Betty, Joe Gillis’s youthful writing partner. She spots the kernel of authenticity in Joe’s otherwise hackneyed script and suggests that authentic filmmaking lies in the small pictures and stories that Norma despises.
In fact, rather than getting smaller, in the 1950s the movies literally got bigger as a result of the wide-screen technology that was the film industry’s riposte to the intimacy of television. According to Edgar Morin, the industry’s other secret weapon was “super-stars like Marilyn Monroe”(2). It is at once ironic and prophetic that while incumbent Margo/Bette Davis and pretender Eve/Anne Baxter face off in All About Eve, this future superstar is hiding in plain sight. Monroe plays the ill-fated Miss Caswell, a Broadway hopeful destined for the ignominy of TV. Monroe’s performance is inevitably viewed through the lens of her subsequent fame, but she is given some of the film’s funniest lines and has a charm that sets her apart from the uncharismatic Eve, whose lack of humour is a sign of the emptiness of the celebrity culture she represents. Monroe made a powerful impact in the 1950s because her persona embodied and reconciled conflicting discourses of the period around female sexualities and identities. As both icon and brand, Monroe has since accrued new meanings, many of which relate to her very human vulnerability to suffering and personal tragedy, as well as her manifestation of the broken promise of fame and stardom.
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- James Reid, ‘The most maligned woman in Hollywood’, Modern Screen, Dell Publishing Inc., December 1940, pp. 69
- Edgar Morin, ‘Genesis and Metamorphosis of Stars‘, The Stars, Grove Press, Inc., New York, 1961, pp. 6