She called to me the other day, from a dusty pile of CDs. ‘New Year’s Eve Sunset Music’ had been hastily scribbled on one of them, and I gave a small smile at memories of the Minskoff Theatre. This is the time of the year when I first met Norma Desmond. It was 1995, and I was at Tower Records, perusing the Broadway musicals section, as any good gay boy does, when the silver-hued Andrew Lloyd Webber double-CD with Glenn Close on the cover came before my eyes. I don’t know what propelled me to purchase it, but I recklessly did. A double-CD? For a musical I’d never heard? Based on a movie I’d never seen? I bought it on a hunch, but didn’t listen to it for a few days.
The first song that caught my ear remains my favorite of the piece: The Perfect Year. In that brief jewel of a moment, all of Norma’s hopes and dreams rest on the love of another, and at the end, when it’s apparent that her love is not returned, it’s a devastation most of us have felt at one time or another. For me, it was a devastation that had not quite come to pass, only in that there was nothing concrete to destroy. Still, I felt a kinship to her predicament.
I also fell under the spell of her glamourous trappings, her outsize and at-odds-with-reality distorted view of herself. I knew what it was like to fall victim to your own ego, particularly when it was developed as a protection device, a way of making one’s mark on a world that really didn’t care. Sometimes that belief carried you through and brought you to a better place. Sometimes it had the opposite effect. Either way, it could prove dangerous and volatile. When Joe Gillis and his broken-down car rolled into Norma’s driveway, he tripped the silken chord of her faded web and was soon wrapped up in the luxurious temptations she had to offer, and possibly a few of the charms she had left. Nothing is ever so black-and-white; we reside in a world of grays, of noirish shadows and hesitant hope. There was something between them, and even if it was a case of one using the other, that doesn’t diminish the fact that two people came together, for whatever reason, and had an impact on each other.
As for ‘Sunset Boulevard’ – it was the musical, and ‘The Perfect Year’ that first captured my heart, even though most will admit the original film is far greater in terms of artistry and lasting merit. I came around to seeing it in that winter of 1995, drawn into Gloria Swanson’s eccentric performance as Norma Desmond – the original faded actress playing a part eerily similar to her own life, even if she was nothing like Norma, particularly in her later years, when she remained a vital and exuberant artist. William Holden played Joe Gillis – the stoic straight man who kept the whole thing grounded in a sinister shade of cynicism. Who was using whom? All these years later, it’s still difficult to ascertain for sure, and that’s one of the gorgeous complexities of the film.
All I know is that Norma Desmond played a pivotal part in my coming of age. She wasn’t the greatest role model for a young man to have, she wasn’t an ideal heroine for anyone to aspire to be, but she gave me a delusional grandiosity that somehow saw me through a few dark times. It almost wrecked me too, to be truthful, but we both survived. In the end, when the world does its damnedest to destroy us, simply surviving can be a feat of epic grandeur.Back to Blog