Whether you are in the mood for letting loose some pent-up histrionics, or just want to give voice to your delusions (whether they involve grandeur or something more problematic), here’s the mask for you.
The Norma Desmond model honors Gloria Swanson’s greatest achievement: her role as the reclusive silent film star in Billy Wilder’s classic film “Sunset Boulevard.” It tells the story of the tragic affair between struggling Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis (played by William Holden) and an aging, forgotten actress who still believes she’s the greatest star of them all.
While you will be wearing a mask, the parallels between the actual Gloria Swanson and Norma Desmond were only too apparent. After starring in more than 70 Hollywood films and becoming the first actress to command a $1 million annual salary, Swanson’s star had diminished and her age had sidelined her from the bright lights for years.
Nor was she the director’s first choice for the role. Mae West, Mary Pickford, and Pola Negri all rejected the role. At that point, Wilder thought of Swanson, and asked her to take a screen test. To which Swanson replied: “What the hell do you have to test me for? You want to see if I’m still alive, do you? Or do you doubt that I can act?”But test she did, and was thrilled to get the part despite its nihilistic tone and unflinching critique of the business that had put her name in lights. (Wilder’s too.)
Upon completion of the picture, the reaction from the show business industry was mixed. As legend has it, studio head Louis B. Mayer confronted Wilder at the premiere of his film and bellowed,”You befouled your own nest! You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood, you goddam foreigner son of a bitch.” To which Wilder replied, “Why don’t you go fuck yourself?”
Of course, Mayer’s critique was not shared by the public. Today Sunset Boulevard ranks 16th on the American Film Institute’s list of the Greatest American Movies.
So put on the mask and act out with abandon. Become a reclusive silent film star, or simply channel your inner thespian and take on whatever scene-stealing role suits your fancy. After all, Swanson played many more roles than Norma throughout her fabulous career. So can you!
Thanks to Joan Walter for requesting Ms. Desmond. If you have a visage you’d like us to feature on Wear-a-Mask Wednesday, write us in the comments section below. We’d be happy to oblige.