Recently, President Trump was giving another one of his amateur stand-up routines when he decided to weigh in on the recent Academy Awards. “How bad were the Oscars this year?” is a perennial (and often justified) question from cinephiles, but in this case the President was operating in his usual culture war mode. In his Cranky Uncle voice, he bemoaned the fact that the South Korean film Parasite won a host of awards, including Best Picture, and hinted at some kind of ongoing trade war with South Korea. Warming to his theme, Trump harkened back to the golden age of cinema, wondering whatever happened to good old movies like Gone With The Wind and Sunset Boulevard.
Given that the President reportedly responds solely to visual media, his idea of what constitutes a “good movie” might be indicative of more than just his taste in film. It’s not an overstatement to suggest that one can tell something about a person’s character based on their favorite movies, who their favorite characters are, and why. And the issues with name-checking Gone with the Wind—a movie that valorizes the old Southern aristocracy and indulges in fairly blatant stereotypes about African-Americans—as a symbol of the Good Old Days are almost too obvious.
But referencing Sunset Boulevard, which happens to turn 70 this year, is telling for reasons that Trump himself might not consciously realize.
The first is that he probably assumes that Norma Desmond, a former grand dame of the silent era now lost in delusions of grandeur, is the hero instead of the villain. It isn’t hard to imagine Trump nodding along with her immortal declaration: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” And the similarities between these two wealthy, image-obsessed egomaniacs don’t end there. Desmond’s world, as with Trump’s, is built on wealth accumulated in the entertainment industry, coming mostly from name recognition rather than distinctive talent.
Desmond’s exile in Tinseltown does illuminate a particular contrast with Trump’s previous claim to fame, which is that Hollywood is actually more unforgiving than reality TV. The movies may abandon you unless you’re still young and beautiful, but reality TV will happily milk your brand as long as you’re still freaky enough to attract an audience. The bigger you get, the smaller the pictures tend to be.
Gloria Swanson, whose Hollywood career eerily overlaps her character’s, imbues Desmond with a world-weariness that alternates between glamorous and creepy. Because Desmond’s exalted self-image craves constant flattery to sustain itself, her whole world is almost entirely transactional in nature. Joe Gillis is a hack screenwriter, played by William Holden, who winds up in Desmond’s forlorn estate. Desmond’s shabby genteel residence is all decked out in faux Italian grandeur, reminiscent of Trump’s gold-infested Tower or his chintzy Florida getaway, Mar-a-Lago. Gillis becomes a kept man, watching Desmond’s old movies on an endless loop (which are, rather poignantly, Swanson’s own films from the 1920s), knowingly keeping the wheels of her delusion running so that he doesn’t lose his meal ticket. It’s reminiscent of the captive nature of the current GOP, which is often all too happy to turn a blind eye to the President’s flagrant disregard for the rule of law. If everything in life is ultimately transactional, why ruin a good thing?
Arguably the only truly human character in Sunset Boulevard is Max Von Mayerling, played by famed director Erich Von Stroheim (best known for his lost seven-hour film Greed). Max is Norma’s butler and former husband, who faithfully writes and hand-delivers hundreds of fan letters every night so that Desmond can keep feeling like a star whose audience hasn’t abandoned her. Stroheim’s Max is a deeply poignant portrayal; he knows full well how utterly, hopelessly bonkers Desmond is, but nevertheless is so captivated by her that he dutifully supports her fantasy. It’s a dynamic that would be familiar to our current President, as Bill Maher pointed out a few years ago. Trump, like Desmond, is surrounded by enablers like Max who will tell him whatever he wants to hear and who perpetuate the illusion that he is all-knowing and omni-competent.
Desmond and Trump share one more important trait, which may suggest something about his downfall. They are each in their own way media creations, existentially reliant on others seeing them in a certain light. This is because of vanity, certainly, but it also masks a deeper anxiety. Without the crucial support of the audience, the claim to authority disintegrates. Once the celebrity’s image gets effectively challenged, criticized, and torn down, all that remains is anger, desperation, and paranoia. In the film, Desmond’s impulsive self-destructiveness leaves a dead man floating in the pool, wearily narrating the tale of his demise, with the cops on the way. As the narrator puts it, “the dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her.”
Desmond comes slinking down the staircase like Medusa, having conclusively lost whatever grip on sanity she previously had, convinced that she’s ready for her greatest closeup with Cecil B. DeMille. An actress to the last, she delivers one of the greatest closing monologues in movie history, uttered directly into the camera. Implicating the viewer with gritted teeth and a dramatically curled hand, she declares that she will keep making pictures because “you see, this is my life. It always will be. There’s nothing else. Just us. And those cameras. And all those wonderful people out there in the dark.” There’s a little snarl of contempt in her voice; even in her madness she knows who is at least partially to blame for her fate.
Desmond’s whole life has been defined by holding an audience’s collective attention; now that she’s lost it, there’s nothing left. The audience ultimately takes as much as it gives. Considering how popular entertainment and political life have now fatally overlapped to the point of indistinguishability, maybe someday we’ll see the President in a similar position, once the crowds stop cheering and the votes aren’t coming in. Then it won’t be DeMille who’s ready to give the final closeup, but Sean Hannity.