PRINT February 1991


SPEAK, SPEAK. THEY ALWAYS wanted me to speak. Buzzing that microphone around my head on DeMille’s set like a mosquito trying to suck my blood. Fine. Now I’ll speak.

They think it was out of vanity that I refused to make talkies. But why should I mouth someone else’s words? I wasn’t such a fool as to fall into their trap. Women weren’t allowed to speak; why pretend otherwise?

Things are a little different in the older-women movies they’re making now—and somewhat the same. One thing is they’re pretty timid with these age differences. I mean I was 50 in Sunset Boulevard; Bill Holden—sorry, I mean Joe Gillis—was meant to be not even 30 yet. So now big deal—the women are what, fifteen, sixteen years older than the men? As Barbara Hershey’s Julia says in Tune In Tomorrow. . ., “Call the vice squad!,” which they virtually do, because even at the end, having resolved their personal difficulties, Julia and Keanu Reeves’ Martin are running from the law. When they hear the siren of that fire engine, they think it’s Martin’s papa the police officer—you know, the one who called her “that whore bitch” whom he’d have “up in front of a judge on a morals bust” for corrupting a younger man—and both of them scramble to hide the signs of their lovemaking. Now that’s cinema vérité.

Then there’s Susan Sarandon as Nora in White Palace, who has her lights punched out . . . well all right, her power cut off . . . and who has that climactic fight with the paterfamilias over Thanksgiving dinner.

They always try to punish the older woman. They punished me too: they said I shot Joe, my young man. They made me babble. They made me—me, Norma Desmond!—the writer of a bad script. But you only had Joe’s word for that, and he couldn’t sell a script to save his life. That’s why he came to me in the first place. And yet they gave him the last word too—he narrates the whole damn movie. Floating face down in the pool with a mouthful of regurgitated bile, the man’s still talking.

In a way, Joe was always floating. Thought he’d get the hint when I first boarded him up over the garage, but he kept on escalating, walking up those steps over and over. Notice that the only straight stairways Billy Wilder gave him to climb were the flights that connected him to his younger love interest, that screenwriter who worked up on the balcony.

Floating. But in the opening of Sunset Boulevard he is too grounded, equated through a series of shots with a golf ball that is “sunk” into the hole. His freedom in the world turns out to be as overly determined as the path of a golf ball hit by a club. Well, well.

The problem was that Joe refused to see that he and I were in the same nonposition—no place for either of us in Hollywood, in patriarchy, in language. I wouldn’t talk and they wouldn’t listen to him.

Joe told me to grow up, that trying to be 25 when you’re 50 is shameful. That was his mistake. He didn’t understand that we’re all children who must mother and father each other. Sarandon’s Nora, now, takes Marilyn Monroe as her spiritual mother. She’s all caught up with the similarity between Monroe’s real name and hers. But doesn’t she see how close “Nora” is to “Norma”? And at least they had the good sense to make James Spader’s Max into her leading man. I was never comfortable with the way they made my own faithful Max, Erich von Stroheim, into that ridiculously subservient butler. He was meant to have been my director, wasn’t he? As well as once my husband. Only the names have not been changed to protect the innocent. Ha ha.

Nora and I are alike in our vitality. You might say that poor as she is, Nora like me has oil in Bakersfield, “pumping, pumping, pumping.” And that off-the-shoulder trademark of Sarandon’s (as early as The Tempest in 1982, as recently as here and 1988’s Bull Durham)—she got that from me, of course. Now Nora’s Max he’s probably one of those types who cries over the humanity of the New York Times Book Review (especially if read in the morning, with coffee). Still, a decent enough guy. Impressionable. Gives you hope for the future. How droll that his best male friend, following Dickens, should call him Miss Havisham. That’s who Joe compared me to, or rather he compared my house to her house. Just like him not to realize that that made him Pip, the eternal orphan with great, even grandiose expectations, ashamed to be the son of a criminal. Mother as Miss Havisham is the virgin bride as death’s head—her food is wormy and rat infested, is it? Well, at least Miss Havisham was protective of those orphans. Even Joe could see that—his only moment of honesty was when he said that I was the one person in this town who had ever been good to him.

And now they’ve turned my mansion into Nora’s White Palace, a hamburger joint. Feed me, feed me. But how clever of them. Now it’s the young Max who’s Miss Havisham. A little role reversal never hurt anyone. It’s about time women stopped being gothic. Just because we invented the genre, just because we were smart enough to see that our domestic situation made us ghosts, wandering around dispossessed of the houses we lived in, doesn’t mean we have to stay in the attic. Let Max be the daffy old dame.

You think it’s funny living in a set like mine? All spiderweb patterns and gothic points—the stairs spiraling, and entwined with wreaths or vines. Bull Durham sticks it to older women the same way when it gives Sarandon’s house a touch of the Addams family, though I suppose her pad is homier. And now there’s the spooky isolation of Nora’s Dogtown house in White Palace, with the dark mess and litter of some lurid and squalid crime scene. Tacky. My place at least had flair. To suit it, I deliberately crabbed my hands, made them like claws. Why not camp it up? Wilder had already given me that silly cigarette holder, making me not so much carry that little phallic butt as display it like a parrot on my finger. That really scared Joe. No wonder—it scared me.

At least they’re a bit more hip now about the old castration anxiety. All those puns in White Palace—my dear, it’s hilarious! First Max is furious that some of the boxes from his order at the hamburger joint are empty of “meat” and “buns.” And it just so happens that his little outburst coincides with the stripper’s act at a stag party. Of course his rage is the boy’s primitive protest at the difference of female sexuality, at its lack. And genital horror vacui is immediately converted into an anal horror of inundation: “We’ve been crapped on,” he says. Needless to say, crap is forthwith converted to good-as-gold morality. “The trouble is you don’t give a damn about principle”—that’s Max’s parting shot at his cronies.

The joke is that, having eventually been picked up by Nora in a bar, and having cautiously buckled her into his car, he crashes into her malebox—can you believe it?—which he later comes back to repair, making restitution as she did earlier for the empty boxes. And then, right after he crashes into her malebox, he’s on the ground seeing only her feet, then her legs. Wouldn’t you know that in Tune In Tomorrow . . . Martin falls in love with Aunt Julia on gazing at her legs as he’s diving under the table to retrieve her napkin? I made a mistake not showing off my legs. Once those boys get into those fetishes they’re hooked. That’s what that old geezer Freud told me when I met him on location that time: “Thus the foot or the shoe owes its attraction as a fetish, or part of it, to the circumstance that the inquisitive boy used to peer up at the woman’s legs toward her genitals. . . .which ought to have revealed the longed-for penis . . . [this was] the last moment in which the woman could still be regarded as phallic.” That man talked just like he wrote. And some people thought I turned down the talkies because I couldn’t memorize a script.

So anyway, Nora and Max have great sex, right? And suddenly her boxes are no longer empty. Max searches her drawers after their liaison and finds a dildo and a picture of her dead son. (I’m proud to say that Nora and I are both self-starters. Remember how my pipe organ “vibrated” in the wind, playing itself?) Then, near the end of the film, Max rejects a yuppie woman because when he opens up her Dustbuster there’s no dust in it. Such a suburban metaphor for his acknowledgment of interiority, and of what is hidden from view being neither invisible nor nonexistent.

Now my Joe never got over his phobia of empty spaces. “There are no locks anywhere,” as Max told Joe about my doors, when anybody could see that what scared Joe witless was that there were only holes for knobs. He saw me as too empty, I saw myself as too full. Imagine—he said to me, “You used to be big.” “I am big,” I said. “It’s the pictures that got small.” (They never forgot that one.) I was just too large for the frame. Eventually even Joe realized that. My presence overwhelmed him: “How could she breathe in that house so crowded with Norma Desmonds?”

Wilder saw it too. When I was interrogated—after I shot Joe; if I did—he showed my face in a small round mirror, almost as if through a keyhole, which was also the camera lens, needless to say. I was framed all right—made to fit into this tiny, tiny frame. They gave me a hand mirror too, double mirrors to make me vanish, or so that I’d be a real gorgon, never to be looked on directly.

Joe wouldn’t stand in the mirror with me. He was afraid he’d see himself in me. Too bad, when he could have seen himself as separate. Max in White Palace looks in the mirror all the time. He’s really more like me in that regard, once again. He’s framed repeatedly in mirrors, one of which shows a neatly made bed. From the frame of the camera to the frame of the mirror to the frame of the bed—what a recessional, echoing emptiness! Though we know that his bed is waiting to be filled. But then the woman who fills it, the older woman, is made to mirror Max’s mother. Both are fair-haired, tousled, and Mom’s neat little lower-middle-class home is only a notch above Nora’s working-class one. Moreover, both are social embarrassments for Max in front of his upscale friends. At some point Max has to get Mom out of the mirror. He must fill the mirror himself, step into it with Nora, face the gritty reality, his likeness and unlikeness to her, to have an identity of his own. As a result, at Max’s apartment, Nora is beside him in the mirror as she asks him how much rent he pays. It’s no surprise that the question’s about money, the reality principle par excellence.

Ah, yes. Money is always the dirty secret. They’re still not ready for me: the movies’ new older women are poor and careerless. They’re powerful only through sex, or through contact with powerful men. Part of Julia’s allure for Martin is her string of bohemian lovers and husbands.

Like my Joe, Martin wants to be accepted as a writer. Max is a sensitive type unhappy in an ad agency; we see him in a slide show as a child with a violin. What they’re telling you, you know, is that to be interested in an older woman, a man has to have an artistic streak. He has to be a little outside the norm—part noble individualist, part alienated baby. For Martin and Max, Julia and Nora are gateways to the alternative life-styles of Paris and New York respectively. But in the Paris of Martin and Julia he will write while she keeps him company. What a bore! She says she’ll sing, but though she claims she never jokes about singing, it seems that she’s learned to sing only at the moment of their doubtless perfect union. Career ambition is tentative here.

As for Nora, newly arrived in New York, she’s still waitressing, though in a more reputable establishment, and talking about making something of herself. Now I know that it’s never too late to reinvent oneself in leaving Saint Louis for New York, Nora is acting like her namesake, that great role in Ibsen I never got to play. And I suppose that a relationship (dreadful word) can be catalytic in this process. But why do these women’s lives have to have been put on hold for so long, until, in fact, the younger men of their dreams come along?

Besides, both Max and Martin still have the language, they have the culture. Martin’s going to be a writer, for Christ’s sake, though he’s really no more promising than my Joe was. Of course he will write a book, the book that will eventually become Tune In Tomorrow. . . . But how does he do it? Literally by stealing Julia’s words, poor dear. He learns that from Peter Falk’s Pedro the scriptwriter, who masters Julia’s words both by creating the situation to which she has to speak and by taking her words and turning them into a radio play.

Nora too is dumb on theory. But she’s shrewd, asking Max why he’s covered up his answering machine with a newspaper—which he did so casually you didn’t even notice. She’s smarter than you are. And she justifies my suspicion of the microphone. Max’s answering machine mainly records women’s speeches so that he can ignore them, turn them off, or speed them up. Nora is practically the only woman in the film who doesn’t leave a message on this tape. Atta girl!

Sarandon’s older woman in Bull Durham is smart, too, but there too her “culture” is exposed as second rate—the Kevin Costner character can match her literary quote for literary quote, which is a way of topping her, really, since as a teacher (though only part-time—another dig), she should be better at that than his baseball-player character is, right? Her taste is doubtful and Costner reproves it by asking who dresses her anyway. No film about baseball could ever construct a convincing woman, if you ask me. Durham’s fantasy of women servicing “the game” that they cannot play is a bit much. Albeit Sarandon tries to teach her younger men how to submit, in the end she is made to submit by the master player, Costner. He may be a loser, but he’s still her master. And at the end, she’s chastened, bedraggled but cleansed (of her makeup, for instance) by a purifying rainstorm.

Sarandon’s cleaned up at the end of White Palace as well, but there it’s by her own choice. There’s also a touch in that picture of the plucky little girl facing up to her “naked, unadorned” self, and I approve of that, because why should the older woman always be mother? It’s not just the naive roundness of her handwriting that tells me Nora is still a child. Her sister, Judy, gives us the story of her early abandonment; she’s looking for a mother. So eventually we get her reconciliation with the older sister. But it’s Max who does a lot of the mothering of Nora. He gets her to clean up her room, cooks for her, ties her shoelaces, bends over her protectively when she’s distraught in bed. Sarandon in turn mothers Max when she teaches him manners, making him say “please” for more sex. Shortly thereafter, when he’s in the cemetery with his mother and says “please” to stop her from embracing him, you just know he means the opposite. The extent of his revulsion betrays the extent of his desire.

There’s also a dead-child fantasy in White Palace. Nora fabricates leukemia as the cause of her son’s death because she blames herself for not protecting him from the abuse, substance abuse, that really killed him. She was probably right in sensing that Max would have blamed her too. But Max’s own dead wife is also seen as a child, in some of those sweet dreary family photographs. Both Max and Nora are tied to the dead, making both of them the dead child looking to be resurrected.

My Joe was just as confused about children. If he made me into mother, that made him into boy. He saw Max and me burying our pet chimp and he fantasized that we were burying the child (him) whom we’d murdered before he could enter manhood. He felt we’d plotted to stunt him, to make him no more than a homunculus in the Oedipal circus. Was I really that much of a threat? It’s almost flattering. You can see why they felt they had to make the older woman in Tune In Tomorrow . . . into a real baby. “You’ll never grow up, will you?” asks her sister. “No, I guess not,” Julia replies. Nora and Max’s version of this is to go back to school he, literally, to teach; she, figuratively, cleaned up into a hybrid schoolmarm/schoolgirl.

I hated the way they made me represent the past in Sunset Boulevard, and I’m afraid Julia may have fallen for that misrepresentation. It’s an old image of the menopausal woman that frightens her. That’s why she identifies fearfully with Blanche du Bois, and asks Martin what he’ll do when she gets her hot flashes and mood swings. She gives her thing with Martin five years because that’ll still leave her time to find an older man to support her. And because that lets the little people in the audience imagine a healthier future for the hero with someone, you know, closer to his own age. No comment.

Joe thought I was dragging him into the past. But who was the anachronism, me or him? He had that pocket watch with the gold chain, like a gilded umbilical cord to history. He got it caught in my door once as he tried to go off to a party of his contemporaries—to his own time. Still, I’m the one who’s meant to be old hat. You know how technology is always presented as paternal? Linear progress, control over the future, all that? Well, it looks like anachronism is supposed to be maternal—the outdated machine. Puhleese! Let’s not be petty about this. Why is Julia equated with outdated radio? When that scene-stealer Pedro announces his intention of making the leap into the future, television, they make her say, “Television? Are you sure?” And I, bien sûr, am the essence of the superseded silent film: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.” Well, yes and no.

“At the cinema we all regress to the infantile, pre-oedipal phase, submitting ourselves to and identifying (fusing) with the overwhelming presence of the screen and the woman on it.” Someone named Gaylyn Studlar wrote that. (Rumors of my senility have been greatly exaggerated.) So is film itself a great mother? And does it follow that the mother figures in movies are allegorical stand-ins for film? If so, as mother Marilyn Monroe, Sarandon in White Palace is again an anachronistic vision of film—a second-class sex goddess in need of the audience’s class and sophistication. And Max is that masculine audience, old-fashioned, resistant, but finally addicted, an uptight workaholic who has to be blown away by film. Yet White Palace feminizes Max, a little. That’s what’s different since me and Joe in Sunset Boulevard: he, not she, becomes the focus of the camera. We see his face in close-up right away, for example, but the camera merely grazes Nora at first. And both Nora and her sister make pointed comments about Max’s beautiful face, the face of the child and the Madonna. Joe Gillis resisted being drawn into an outdated technology, but he also rejected the spunky young writer who spoke for herself. The decades since our stroll down Sunset prove it: like so many guys, he wasn’t ready for the feminist future. I was meant to signify the claustrophobic past, but deep down, that was really what he preferred. He was nostalgic for the silent film, nostalgic to recapture the blissfulness of the period before entry into language, into the symbolic.

And I was supposed to be the eternally returning repressed. Thanks a lot. I don’t believe all that nonsense about woman’s time being cyclic, as if we didn’t have deadlines too. Not cyclic time, no. Maybe a defiance, occasionally, of time, a willingness to reinvent ourselves. “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety,” ma chère. Was Mark Antony a younger man?

They said I wanted to stay in the past. That’s not true. They tried to keep me there, Joe projecting his own childishness onto me, telling me to grow up. I was always growing. It unnerved them. They stuck me in that tiny frame and then as compensation I had my concluding close-up—I got bigger and bigger until I dissolved. They probably thought I devoured them.

I had projects. I had plans. I was writing a new script. I’m still trying to get it read.

Are you ready for my close-up, Mr. De Mille?

Or as my protégé Nora said in her last line, “How’s your mother?”

Jeanne Silverthorne is an artist and a writer who lives in New York.