Hey everyone! I know it’s been quite some time since I’ve posted on here (again, I’m going to try and update this more frequently) but I wrote this essay for one of my film classes. I thought it would be a good essay to post on here because I am very interested in what other’s think of this idea of gender control in Sunset Boulevard. Please feel free to give comments and constructive criticism! I’d love to have a good discussion!
The question of gender control and power is complex in Sunset Boulevard. At a quick glance, it is seemingly a typical noir film of a femme fatale (of wealth rather than beauty) power over the male; however, in close study, it is truly patriarchal control over women. Of particular interest is the role of Max, Norma Desmond’s servant and previous husband. As seen through the dominating and central shots of Max, complimented with his dialogue, Max’s actions prove to be just as controlling and detrimental as Paramount and Joe’s are to Norma Desmond.
Central placement, balanced shots, and close-up shots of an individual typically communicate dominance and centrality. Wilder uses these aspects quite subtly to comment on Max’s role in the Desmond household. Max is introduced as Norma’s servant, thus the viewer subconsciously places him in the background in comparison to Joe and Norma. However, Wilder does the exact opposite of this subconscious thought. Max’s role is just as important to Norma and Joe, as his centrality is linked to his control over Norma’s perception of her life and his role as an “organ grinder” to Joe “the chimp.”
Norma Desmond’s current life is a fantasy supplied by Max’s exhaustive effort to bar the reality from her. As he supplies to the falsity of her life, Max continues to take orders from Norma. The dichotomy lies in this idea; when Norma orders Max to do something, he does so knowing that her “reality” is not real. In practice, servants are subordinate and have no control over their masters. However with Max it is the opposite. Norma is not in control of her own life because so much of it is filtered through Max. An example of this is Norma’s fan letters and photographs. The photographs are compositionally balanced with Norma, thus an important aspect of her life. The photographs could essentially be read as Max, as he later reveals to Joe that he sends Norma the fan letters to supply her fantasy of still being a star.
Another example of these concepts occurs when Betty Shaffer calls the mansion to speak to Joe. When on the phone, Max is shot at a center close-up. This shot, along with his slow-paced, staccato-like dialogue and stern tone, communicates authority and seriousness. Yet, once he hangs up and tells Norma that it was the pound calling, the pace of his dialogue is much smoother and fluid, and his tone much lighter. Norma depends on her servant not only for everyday routines, but also for her world to spin as it normally does. For otherwise, Norma would fly into a jealous rage and possibly commit suicide.
While he is able to control much of the information that reaches Norma, Max also utilizes Joe to maintain Norma’s dream world. Joe’s voiceover narration in the sequence when he arrives reveals the organ grinder and monkey metaphor. As the organ grinder, Max’s job is to use another living being to entertain Norma. Joe is presumably the chimp as the previous, actual chimp is deceased. The dominance and hierarchy of their relationship is established in the shot of Max as Joe goes up the steps. Framed at a centered, in-focus close-up, Max’s prescience is overwhelming, overbearing, and almost menacing. Max’s dialogue to Joe that he is “not properly dressed for the occasion” means that he is not dressed for the role he is about to take on.
As Joe supplies the metaphor, Max carries out the actions that reaffirm it. Joe wakes up from Max playing the organ to see his personal belongings in his room. The camera cuts to an off-centered, close-up shot of Max’s hands at the organ. The shot following it puts Max in the center of the frame where Joe is off to the side. Max’s dialogue continues to indicate authority and dismissal of Joe’s outbursts. This spat between chimp and grinder continues until the camera cuts to Norma, sitting on the couch, listening to Max play. It is clear, then, that everything Max does it to entertain and make Norma happy, and does so by being the controlling organ grinder to the voiceless and chained chimp.
As previously mentioned, balanced shots and close-ups define centrality and authority. For Max, these close-up shots and frequent presence are clearly explained when Max tells Joe that he was once Norma’s husband. Taking this into account shifts Max’s role and motive in the house. As he was once her husband, he was once, in stereotypical terms, the head of the household. In response, he takes on the role of servant and gives Norma a fantasy to rely on, something she cannot live independently without. To further Max’s dominance in the house, Wilder shoots both Joe and Max at a full, low angle shot when they are in the room over the garage. The angle holds much more power than any shot of Norma’s. The fear of losing control of the home, and perhaps control of his wife, is further annunciated when Max reveals that he was Norma’s director in the silent days.
While Max was once Norma’s husband, he was also one of the three promising directors of the silent era. The shot of Max as he reveals this information is quite creepy; Max is tucked in the background of the frame, deep in the shadows with only a side light to light part of half of his face. It communicates an eerie and unsettling control over Joe as well as Norma, for the first thing Max says is, “you must be careful as you cross the pathway, Madame may see you.” Max is controlling and demanding of others in order to control what Norma does and does not see. This scene of dialogue demands a close comparison and contrast between him and the men at Paramount Studios.
Just as Max wants to continue to maintain control over his ex-wife’s life, he also reveals, at that same shot, “[he] discovered [Norma] when she was 16. [He] will not have her destroyed.” This quote and shot of Max calls into question Max’s motives and intentions. An important aspect to establish is that, unlike Paramount Studios, Max’s control is not evil and disheartening. What is important is to establish with Max’s role is that, as a man who was once her husband and director, he is still directing her life, one detrimental to her mental health. However, the connection of movies allows the comparison and contrast of him to the men at Paramount Studios.
What both Max and Paramount Studios (using Cecil B. DeMille a representative) have in common is their gentleness towards Norma. It is only when she is gone that their true selves of reality show. Both men are kind to her but the shots used to communicate it are different. Shots of DeMille are close-ups and close to Norma that correlate to his gentleness towards Norma. Shots of Max and Norma are full shots that usually have a great distance between them. What separates them is their true attitude and feelings once Norma is out of the picture. The intimate shots of DeMille prove to be bogus as he tells his assistant that he will buy five old cars if necessary, just so that he does not see Norma again.
While Joe and Paramount Studios are destructive to Norma, Max proves to be so as well because of his control over Norma’s reality. He is the organ grinder to entertain her fantasies of her stardom, the barrier of reality to her fantasy, the head of the household, and the man who directs her final close-up. Despite Max’s good intentions, his control over Norma’s life does more harm than good. Each of things crumbles in the final scene, when Norma shoots Joe and officially looses her sanity.