Last night I screened Sunset Boulevard for my film class. As always, I was dazzled by the bravery of Gloria Swanson in playing the role — it would have been too close for comfort for many performers in her situation. I also love the decaying mansion (at one point I said to the kids, “Tonight on Turner Classic Cribs…“), and of course, there are so many terrific lines in the movie.
Afterwards, I was talking to my friend/colleague/bassist Justin, who sat in on the screening — he’s a huge film buff, and would actually be a better teacher for the course than I am. I mentioned that one line hit me a little close to home.
It’s just before the film’s climax, when Joe Gillis tells Norma, “There’s nothing tragic about being fifty. Not unless you’re trying to be twenty-five.” This movie was made pre-baby boomers, so Peter Pannism hadn’t infiltrated the culture to anywhere near its current extent, and fifty doesn’t have the same meaning now that it did in 1950. Even stipulating all that, it occurred to me that here I am, a 47-year-old professor playing (mostly) original rock songs in bars. Am I (almost) 50, trying to act 25? Am I a Norma Desmond, delusively clinging to the trappings of a prime long past?
I don’t think so — but then, neither did Norma for most of the film. I mean, I’m not wearing skinny jeans or trying to pull groupies (not that I ever had any luck with either); I’m not trying to be famous or act famous. I’m just writing and playing a kind of music I’ve loved since I was a kid and hoping that people will enjoy it and want to hear it.
And maybe that’s the difference, and we can see it in another of Norma’s lines. Because I never got “big” (in her terms), there’s nothing wrong with the picture being small now.
But what if I’m wrong? I guess that as midlife crises go, this is cheaper than a sportscar and less shameful or wrong than an affair, and I don’t think I’m a danger to the William Holdens of the world.
I don’t even have a swimming pool.