As Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard turns 70, a look at the psycho-biddy genre it preceded

Sunset Boulevard saw Gloria Swanson play Norma Desmond, an ageing silent film diva now forgotten with the advent of sound. She descends into madness when the screenwriter-turned-lover she hires for her epic comeback film, decided to leave her for a younger woman.

Prahlad Srihari August 12, 2020 14:35:21 IST
As Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard turns 70, a look at the psycho-biddy genre it preceded

She was Ruth and Terry Collins, the good and bad twins in Robert Siodmak's film noir The Dark Mirror. More famously, she was Melanie Hamilton, foil to Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. Even more famously, she was Catherine Sloper in William Wyler's The Heiress: it was a transformative, unglamorous role which earned her a second Oscar. But when I read of Olivia de Havilland's passing two weeks ago, I couldn't help but think of how her once-A-list career had been reduced to B-movie roles as she entered middle age. Not even 50 yet, she found herself playing a widow trapped in her home elevator and tormented by thugs in Lady in a Cage (1964). Going from tormented to the tormentor in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), she took on the role of the manipulative cousin to a wealthy shut-in played by Bette Davis. Robert Aldrich's film was intended as a follow-up to the surprise 1962 hit What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, which staged the murderous sibling rivalry between Bette Davis's Blanche and Joan Crawford's shut-in Jane. You see the trend?

Then-New York Times film critic Renata Adler called it "the Terrifying Older Actress Filicidal Mummy genre." Mad Magazine's parody called it, "Hack, Hack, Sweet Has-Been, or Whatever Happened to Good Taste?" Over time, it has been described in more demotic terms: hagsploitation, Grande Dame Guignol or more popularly, psycho-biddy. In essence, it was Hollywood's Golden Age glamour goddesses being ritually tormented for our viewing pleasure.

Though this subgenre combining camp histrionics and gothic horror became popular in the 1960s, its origin may have been more diagnostic than symptomatic of a throwaway Hollywood culture that discarded its once-worshipped women. Its antecedent came a decade earlier in Billy Wilder's 1950 classic, Sunset Boulevard. The film, which turns 70 this year, saw Gloria Swanson play Norma Desmond, an ageing silent film diva now forgotten with the advent of sound. She descends into madness and murder when Joe Gillis (William Holden), the young screenwriter-turned-lover she hires for her epic comeback film, decides to leave her for Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a young script reader. In a critique of the so-called Golden Age, Billy Wilder intended his film to reveal the murk in Hollywood's myths, and the fleeting and fickle nature of fame. Joseph L Mankiewicz did something similar in All About Eve, which released a couple of months after Sunset Boulevard. By staging a rivalry between Bette Davis's Broadway veteran and Anne Baxter's ingénue, he satirises a system which cruelly discards its veteran talent in favour of promising youth.

As Billy Wilders Sunset Boulevard turns 70 a look at the psychobiddy genre it preceded

Top and above: Stills from Sunset Boulevard

For Wilder, finding an actress to play the practically autobiographical part of Norma Desmond wasn't easy. Mae West declined the role. Mary Pickford and Greta Garbo did likewise. On George Cukor's advice, Wilder cast Gloria Swanson who had made all but one film since 1934. Pickford, Garbo, West and Swanson all had stellar careers during the silent era. They were endowed with an aura that elevated them to the rank of myths, and had built a persona that the public instantly recognised. Simply put, they were bonafide stars — bonafide stars slowly sinking into oblivion. So, in his takedown of the star system, he chooses a cast already vanquished by its mechanisms, a cast that the public once loved and has now forgotten. The name Norma Desmond itself is believed to be an allusion to Mabel Normand, a pre-talkies era actress who struggled with drug addiction, and William Desmond Taylor, a director she was briefly suspected of murdering.

As Wilder uses the star system against itself, there is a continuous interplay between the fictional and the autobiographical elements linked to the residents and the guests of the Gothic mansion. Ghosts from a silent past — or as Joe calls them "waxworks" — like Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and HB Warner appear as fictional versions of themselves in a cameo where they play a game of bridge. There's an added poignancy to Keaton's trademark funereal face when you consider how Hollywood exploited and abandoned one of its greatest talents. Chaplin too is evoked in an elegiac sequence where Norma impersonates The Tramp. Norma's fate thus resembles that of Swanson herself and all the other silent film stars like her.

Surrounded by portraits of her heyday, Norma rejects the idea of her obsolescence. So, she has built a temple for herself where she can maintain the illusion that she is still a star, and the illusion of her comeback in the sound era. When Norma visits Cecil B deMille on set, a microphone flicks the feather on her hat and she pushes it away in disdain, as if symbolically rejecting the reality of sound pictures. A victim of her own fame and success, she detaches herself from the real world, from a world where silent films were rendered obsolete — and she is enabled by those around her.

Wilder cast the legendary Erich von Stroheim, who directed Swanson 20 years earlier, as Norma's husband-turned-butler Max von Mayerling. In a memorable scene with a meta-textual layer, Norma screens one of her old films called Queen Kelly, which happens to be an actual Von Stroheim film starring Swanson that never saw the light of day. Harking back to a bygone era, Norma bemoans: "Still wonderful, isn't it? And no dialogue. We didn't need dialogue. We had faces. There just aren't any faces like that anymore. Maybe one: Garbo. Oh, those idiot producers. Those imbeciles. Haven't they got any eyes? Have they forgotten what a star looks like?" It is a scene which makes you question where the Hollywood fantasy ends and reality begins, as it's not just Norma's rant, but Swanson's too. Norma then stands up in defiance and steps into the projector's spotlight, proudly declaring, "I'll show them. I'll be up there again, so help me." But the story is not of an ascent to "up there", but of a descent: a symbolic and literal one as is evident in the film's conclusion.

Swanson's misery comes through in its most obvious way: through her face alone. It's a performance which feels largely different from Holden or Olsen's, actors who developed their craft through talkies. In the transition from silent to sound, the importance of conveying emotion through dialogue supplanted that of pantomiming. There was no room for extreme physicality and exaggerated expressions. The transition to talkies was of course inevitable, but one of its inevitable consequences was that this once unparalleled ability had lost its indispensability. Like it were a reinterpretation of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, the film thus feels like a life-and-death struggle between Hollywood, old and new: an old industry faced with a new industry like itself and thus sees it as a threat. Joe symbolises the future of the medium, Norma the past.

Unable to differentiate between the past and the present, the illusion of celebrity and reality, Norma eventually ends up excluding herself from the real world altogether. Her downward spiral reaches its nadir as she kills Joe in the end. In the dramatic epilogue, we see her staring into a mirror, seemingly oblivious to the presence of cops ready to arrest her, and photographers ready to document it. So, on Max's instructions, they all play along with her delusion that she is filming a scene for her comeback project. As she descends the staircase of her villa, she launches into a monologue, declaring she will never abandon cinema like it abandoned her. "You see this is my life. It always will be. There's nothing else: just us and the cameras and those wonderful people out there in the dark", she says before uttering those famous last words: "All right, Mr DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."

In the final scene of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the titular character descends into a similar fugue state as she dances on a beach surrounded by police and curious bystanders. What Wilder did in Sunset Boulevard, Robert Aldrich multiplied it by two. He brought together two aging Hollywood stars whose careers were on a downward slope, doubled the ensuing melodrama and psychological horror. In the proto-psycho-biddy classic, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford play washed-up actresses trying to fill the void in their lives once the limelight went out. Clinging to the glories of their past, Davis's Jane and Crawford's Blanche are similarly obsessed with impossible comebacks. Jane was a child star whose career fell apart on reaching adulthood; her sister Blanche, who spent her childhood in Jane's shadow, went on to grow into an admirable Hollywood actress. However, a car accident cuts short her career and confines her to a wheelchair. As they're forced to share a home together, Aldrich sets up the stage for their shared descent into madness.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was an unexpected success, fuelled by Davis and Crawford's own bitter rivalry (which recently got the Ryan Murphy treatment on FX's Feud: Bette and Joan). The press distorted their words to feed a hate-fuelled narrative that the readers gobbled up. It gave the producers, Warner Bros., the free publicity they needed to market the film. Even if it helped Davis and Crawford mount a comeback, it meant they would be typecast for the rest of their careers. The film soon became a recipe for a new subgenre, what we now know as psycho-biddy. After Crawford dropped out, De Havilland joined Davis in Aldrich's follow-up, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Barbara Stanwyck too ended her near four-decade-long career with a psycho-biddy called The Night Walker. Davis went her own way with Dead Ringer; Crawford did likewise in Berserk! At the turn of the decade, more punctuated imitations followed with other veteran actresses: Geraldine Page in What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, and Shelley Winters in What's the Matter with Helen? and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?

In Feud, Jessica Lange's Joan Crawford drops a truth bomb about how women were typecast in Hollywood's Golden Age: "Everything written for women seems to fall into just three categories — ingénue, mothers, or gorgons." Studios at the time offered few to no roles for middle-aged women, and accepting these roles meant they would be typecast for the rest of their career. In Movies about the Movies, Christopher Ames writes: “Mae West and Mary Pickford refused the Norma Desmond role for that very reason, and Swanson admitted that her performance in Sunset Boulevard typecast her for the rest of her career. More than any other film, Sunset Boulevard demonstrates the cost of motion picture fame, the transformation of the self into ageless but insubstantial images, and the tyranny — especially for women — of a culture of youth and physical beauty."

Psycho-biddies were a symptom of Hollywood's larger problems with ageism and sexism. The excessive make-up hiding these actors' middle-age physicality, if anything, revealed the sordid face of show business. Even if derogatory, "hagsploitation" is an apt description of the subgenre because it addresses a certain truth: exploitation. Personally, I much prefer "Grande Dame Guignol" because it acknowledges the star power and position they once held in Hollywood. Like Norma says, "The stars are ageless, aren't they?"

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