They make careers out of fooling audiences, but when all is said and done, they’ve only fooled themselves.
Movies that are in some fashion about movies are practically as old as the medium itself. The industry has always been ripe for satire and parody — the lifestyle excesses, the push-and-pull of competing agendas, the tendency to social and political pretension. Hollywood is its own little world where the curtain is occasionally pulled back to reveal strange things, including, sometimes, more curtains. Two of the most revered films ever produced by Hollywood studios turned their cameras inward, probing the least attractive facets of the Dream Factory. Each was an exposé draped in genre artifice: film noir on the surface and horror underneath. What these films uncovered — the conflicts between artistic interests and financial interests, the mistreatment of actresses both young and old — wouldn’t exactly shock anyone familiar with the movie business. These problems still haven’t gone away and may have even gotten worse. The profundity of Sunset Blvd. and Mulholland Dr. lies in their ability to take sordid facts and redeem them through artistry and entertainment.
To one degree or another, these films are about women, but their male writer-directors also devote some energy to more self-reflexive concerns. Screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) in Sunset Blvd. and director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) in Mulholland Dr. find themselves broke and adrift. Sinister forces pressure them to make artistic choices they don’t condone. Ultimately, they give in, but in so doing they make themselves commodities rather than creators. This is the artist’s worst nightmare, but what’s interesting about these films is the way they deflect those fears through ironic distance. Brackett, Wilder, and Marshman’s script for Sunset Blvd. is anchored by sardonic wit. It’s just the kind of script Joe Gillis would hope to write if he ever got angry enough. What David Lynch does in Mulholland Dr. is more radical. Every moment Kesher is on screen is played as a joke at the character’s expense. His scenes, in a movie otherwise characterized by mystery and psychological horror, get downright goofy. Then, when the movie emerges from its dream state in its final half hour, his plotline is wiped away entirely. Sunset Blvd. is very much Joe Gillis’s story, but Kesher is just one of Lynch’s phantoms.
The relationship between Gillis and Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) sums up the film’s genre ambitions and serves as the locus for its commentary on Hollywood. Superficially a case of the “wrong man” falling into the clutches of a femme fatale, the Gillis-Desmond pairing soon reveals itself as a new twist on the Dracula story, restoring the double meaning of the word “vamp.” The gothic trappings of Desmond’s lair are clear enough — pipe organ, rats, coffin. Swanson plays the newly revivified recluse with stark theatricality and unguarded emotion. The twist is that in this version Harker believes it is he who is the vampire, for a time at least. Gillis thinks he’s exploiting Desmond’s largesse for his own purposes, but she’s manipulating him at the same time. In the pivotal New Year’s Eve scene, Gillis descends toward the wounded woman’s neck, but only because she’s pulling him down.
Norma Desmond is a character freighted with unique allegorical weight. Not only is she an especially bitter portrait of “over-the-hill” actresses who can no longer maintain Hollywood’s standards of youthful perfection, but as a star of the silent era, she represents a lost culture. There’s always been an internal struggle in the movie industry between honoring the past and forging ahead. In the case of silent movies, though, the break with the previous generation was sudden, total, and merciless. The survivors (including Swanson) are the exception that proves the rule. Only Chaplin managed to delay the irreversible transition for more than a couple years. Sunset Blvd. never cloys its audience with nostalgia, instead emphasizing the foreignness of Desmond’s glory years. But the sense of generational disconnect, with the young never learning from the old because the old simply disappear, is still palpable.
Mulholland Dr. deals with the other end of that equation: the ingenue’s arrival in Los Angeles with dreams of stardom. Although Sunset Blvd. never regards Norma Desmond’s comeback plans as anything but a pipe dream, Lynch’s film puts Betty (Naomi Watts) well on her path to success before pulling the rug out from under her in the reality-bending, persona-swapping finale. There might not be another film that considers the word “dream” in every one of its various meanings the way Mulholland Dr. does. From the very beginning, with the dislocated jitterbug montage, the film rejects straightforward narrative development. Still, it’s hard to argue against the film’s closing passage as the “realistic” counterpoint to the strange but ultimately hopeful dreamscape of the film’s bulk. Even a boundless mafia conspiracy is strangely comforting when placed next to the heartbreak of personal betrayal. The young woman’s fate is sad, tortured, and unnoticed, in sharp contrast with Norma Desmond’s final deluded brush with fame.
By the year 2001, old Hollywood with its structural rigor was a distant memory. Mulholland Dr. is characterized by a postmodern mélange of ideas. Mingling with the noir and horror are elements of farce, musicals, westerns, and multiple generations of melodrama. It’s possible, on first viewing, for all the twists and non sequiturs to feel capricious. As the film burrows into the viewer’s subconscious, however, it’s the character interactions more than the overt symbolism that express the themes. The whiplash between scenes comes to represent the fragmenting of an industry, the breakdown of a massive machine.
Between them, these films cover almost the entire stretch of film history. The telescopic view of the Hollywood system reveals perennial concerns. On-screen talent will always be exploited, misused, and forgotten. Off-screen talent will always be undervalued, manipulated, and overruled. Beyond these misfortunes, the films unmask the fundamental illusions of filmmaking itself — without destroying them, somehow. Observe the wistful nighttime stroll among the studio facades in Sunset Blvd.; hear the numerous jabs taken at screenwriting clichés. Observe the two vastly different ways Betty can perform the scene-within-a-scene in Mulholland Dr.; hear the intense pathos of a live night club performance we’ve already been assured was previously recorded. Not the acting, not the script — nothing at all that is seen or heard is completely genuine. But it all holds together. William Holden gets away with offering the voice-over narration of a dead character. The bum behind the dumpster is still terrifying despite the absence of surprise required for a “jump scare.” At the movies, anything is possible. Anything can be made to feel real.