Ah, the struggling screenwriter’s fondest fantasy: to find a “sugar mama” (or “sugar daddy”) with money to burn and Hollywood connections to exploit. What would I do with that setup? What would happen to me? Nothing but disaster, if the stories of “Sunset Blvd.” (1950) and “Maps to the Stars” (2014) provide any clues about my likely fate.
Although more than sixty years separate the premieres of these two films, there are remarkable similarities in their depictions of relationships between wannabes and the powers-that-be in Hollywood. There are also significant differences between the films in the ways they portray the balance of power between these two groups. The “Hollywood whores” of today (at least the fictional ones) appear to have more ability to wreak havoc than their 1950s counterparts. When “the party’s over,” the elite of today’s Tinseltown (more accurately, those of its on-screen version) suffer more harm than those who prostitute themselves to them.
“Sunset Blvd.,” the classic, black and white, noir film directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, is a cautionary tale about the elusive and transitory nature of Hollywood fame. It’s also an ode to the bygone days of silent film. Gloria Swanson (a former silent film star herself) plays Norma Desmond, a depressed, deluded, former star of the early days of Hollywood filmmaking who was cast aside during the transition to “talkies” in the late 1920s. A wealthy woman, she lives in a decaying mansion while entertaining unlikely fantasies of a glamorous return to the screen.
William Holden is Joe Gillis, a former Ohio newspaperman who flees to Hollywood to try to his luck as a screenwriter. He has some success before falling on hard times when he loses his writing edge. Close to eviction from his apartment and repossession of his car, he considers giving up on screenwriting and returning to Ohio to resume his former career as a reporter. He meets Norma by chance after using the garage on the grounds of her mansion to hide his car after being chased by repo men. This stroke of apparent good luck underlines the importance and ambiguity of serendipity in a Hollywood career.
Fate is also a prominent theme in noir stories, where it is often arbitrary in its effects on the characters’ lives. Joe’s luck seems to get better after he realizes the opportunity presented to him by Norma’s request to help her with the screenplay she has written for her comeback film. He can stay in Hollywood, albeit as a script doctor for a faded star, instead of leaving and forfeiting his dream. After he chooses the former, he comes to realize its price, which is his pride, dignity, and independence. He becomes Norma’s “kept man.” This decision seals Joe’s fate.
In the days of the Breen Code, a character arc like Joe’s — with its “immoral” implications — could only make it onto the screen only if he is punished in the end for his transgressions. However, the real “crime” in this film is betrayal, not extramarital sex per se. Joe tries to “have it both ways,” spending his daytime hours with Norma during the day and working nights developing a spec screenplay at Paramount with script reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson). Betty does not know about Joe’s arrangement with Norma, who herself is unaware (at first) of Betty. It is only a matter of time, however, until this house of cards collapses.
The attractions of Joe’s previous life as a screenwriter prove to be too powerful for him to resist. He falls in love with his screenwriting project and with Betty, even though she is engaged to marry his close friend, Artie Green (Jack Webb). Although Joe realizes that he is living a lie and decides to reveal the truth to both Betty and Norma, the way that he does so deeply hurts both women.
The punishment for betraying both of them is inherent in the crime. He dies trying to escape his entanglement with these women, who represent the past and present of Hollywood. Thoroughly tainted by his experiences, he cannot recapture his past life because he is no longer the man that he used to be. Having chosen to become a Hollywood whore, he finds that the “party is over” for him.
Norma also is punished for her choices. The final scene implies that she will be arrested and put on trial for Joe’s murder. Her fatal flaw is her inability to accept that Hollywood no longer wants her. Unable or unwilling to perceive this message in Cecil B. DeMille’s graciously polite refusal to direct her comeback film, she sets herself up for a much worse fate than she already endures by persisting in her efforts to regain her past stardom. Her quest is futile. Like Joe, she is also no longer the person she used to be. In a way, she has also become a Hollywood whore, one who has overstayed her welcome at the festivities.
Compare David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars” (2014), which is, in many ways, a modern sequel to “Sunset Blvd.” By the time the closing credits roll, fading star Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) also has been punished for her desire to revive her faded glory. Like Norma, her “sins” are not due to her sexuality, although its complications and conflicts are clearly presented in the film.
Instead of a gigolo, Havana has a “chore whore,” Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska). Like Joe, Agatha hides her real agenda for agreeing to prostitute herself. Havana and Agatha share an obsession with another faded star, Clarice Taggart, who just happens to be Havana’s mother. Unlike Joe, Agatha’s hidden agenda does not involve a desire for Hollywood fame and fortune. She has a very troubled Hollywood past, of which Havana is not aware when she hires Agatha, who has returned for the purpose of vengeance. When Havana betrays Agatha by seducing her boyfriend and then humiliates her, she becomes an additional target for Agatha’s wrath.
Havana’s duplicity is just one example of the betrayal portrayed by this film. In the contemporary Hollywood of “Maps to the Stars,” everyone is deceitful and nobody is innocent. Unlike in “Sunset Blvd.,” there is no relatively “good” side to Hollywood. There are few characters like Betty and Artie (Carrie Fisher’s character, for example, is an exception that proves the rule). There are no easy let-downs from the powers-that-be, no gentlemanly figures like Cecil B. DeMille. Instead, Hollywood has grown incestuous, as represented by the metaphor of Agatha’s parents’ relationship. As in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” incest here is a sign of decay, a symbol of creeping corruption that can lead only to death and destruction.
What is Hollywood telling us about itself in these films? There’s a clear trajectory of decline, but also some constants. Fading stars still grasp desperately after their glory days. Outsiders will still do almost anything to “make it.” What’s different is what the Hollywood whores of today can do to those who thwart their dreams.