Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Happy Ending?



In some ways, life imitated art for Gloria Swanson after her award-winning role in Sunset Boulevard. In the 1950 film, Swanson plays Norma Desmond, an aging silent film star facing her own descent into obscurity. Gloria Swanson, like Norma Desmond, was also a celebrated silent film actress who had difficulty making the transition into talking pictures. As Norma says defiantly, "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." Somewhat surprisingly, after the phenomenal success of Sunset Boulevard, Swanson's career also began to fade. All other roles seemed inferior to that of Norma Desmond. Swanson worried that she would become a "parody of a parody"--a description that could apply to the character of Norma Desmond.

Seven years after the release of Sunset Boulevard, Swanson began to develop plans for a musical called Boulevard! In this musical, Joe Gillis and Betty Schaefer continue their romance--with Norma's blessing. The audience is left to believe that Joe and Betty live happily ever after. Parmount, which was in negotiations with Swanson over the proposed musical, quashed all plans, stating that this production would damage the reputation of the existing film.

Do you agree with Parmount? Would Swanson's musical have altered popular interpretations of the original film? Could it have been successful? With this change, would you have considered Boulevard! to be an interpretation of the original film or a new work that should be considered completely distinct from the original?

26 comments:

Amanda said...

I think that Paramount was right to quash all plans for a musical. Sunset Boulevard is a true Hollywood classic and is placed in somewhat of an "untouchable" category. I believe that the creation of a musical wouldn't lower the credibility of the movie; however, I think that the musical would be immediately assumed as a failure, especially compared to the success of the film. I do think that a musical would have altered popular interpretations of the movie because adding music and singing to the characters would provide a completely different angle to the film. I would have considered Boulevard! to be a separate entity from the film as well.

Sarah Chang said...

I also agree with Parmount's decision to reject Swanson's idea for a musical sequel to the film "Sunset Boulevard." Like Amanda, I believe that most people would immediately recognize it to be entirely distinct from the original. For starters, it would not even make sense logically; at the end of the movie, Joe Gillis is killed as a result of Norma Desmond's obsession with superficial performances, and Norma remains trapped in these delusions even through her ultimate arrest. Furthermore, though Norma Desmond's actions throughout the movie were amusing, the overarching themes of the movie were much darker. I got a bit creeped out at the end of the movie when I saw the camera lights flashing through the pool around Joe's lifeless body and when Norma made a show out of her descent down the staircase of her mansion as if both events were just another performance. I really don't think that a musical could convey the same mood or draw out the same effect from the audience, so I don't believe that it could even be considered to be a true interpretation of the original film.

Rachel said...

I think it was smart that Paramount stopped the plans for Boulevard! the musical. The movie has many serious themes such as beauty and aging, forbidden love, insanity, as well as female sexuality. A musical may have caused these themes to seem comical and may have changed the tone from seriousness to satire. The background music is a strong example of auditory rhetoric and in a musical, with music as the primary form of auditory rhetoric, the music can't be as subtle and wouldn't have the same effect. Sunset Boulevard is full of body language cues that reveal the characters' feelings and emotions. In a musical, these forms of visual rhetoric would be overwhelmed by musical numbers and dance. A musical would not have captured the mellow dramatic feeling of the movie and it was a smart decision to nix the plans.

Shire said...

I think it is important to know that Sunset Boulevard was in fact eventually turned into a successful Broadway musical. In 1993, Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Sunset Boulevard opened in the West End starring Patti Lupone as Desmond and Kevin Anderson as Gillis. Although the musical did not receive critical acclaim, it was a commercial success, running for more than 1500 performances. I think the Sunset Boulevard musical was successful because it was true to the original movie and did not offer an alternate ending to the story. If the musical was a sequel that contradicted the ending of the movie, it would probably not do well because the great success of the original movie would overshadow the musical. In response to Rachel's comment, I think the musical was so successful because it added another layer to the story and allowed the audience to connect to the characters in a way that wasn't possible for movie audiences. The embodied rhetoric of the performers was probably even more effective in the theater setting because stage performances are live and immediate; a stage actor's emotional nuances do not get lost in the translation to film. There are plenty of wonderful musicals out there (for example The Light in the Piazza and Les Mis) which successfully and brilliantly utilize music as a means to convey pain, anger, despair, and sadness.

Nathaniel Williams said...

So much of the allure of the film is based on the twisted, surreal life that Norma and Joe share. A major aspect of that is Norma's eerie obsession with Joe and her hovering manner of monitoring him. His death is a representation of the phrase: "If I can't have him, nobody can!" If in the musical, she were to be supportive of he and Betty, a huge, dynamic dimension of the film would fall flat. I believe Paramount was right to block to production and performance of "Boulevard!". It could have easily destroyed the legacy of such a classic film noir.

Stacey Tan said...

I also agree that Paramount made a correct decision about quashing all plans for the musical Boulevard! Sunset Boulevard's originality would have been damaged because Norma's mental problems would not be evident anymore and isn't that one of the major points to the movie? The musical would have completely altered the movie not just by being more lively with the singing, but also because of the major change they would have made with Joe and Betty continuing their romance instead of having it ruined.

Jen Cole said...

I agree with the rest of the class in believing that a sequel to "Sunset Boulevard" would be a failure. Other people mentioned the major discrepancy in the plot (Joe is dead), but Norma Desmond is also insane. True, she was bordering on insanity at the beginning, but at the end she has lost a complete grip on reality. With this mental state, how could she fully recover, much less approve of a relationship that contributed to her ultimate insanity?
A sequel would also ruin the nobility of Joe's death. His decision to live his own life, after essentially being a lover and plaything, is an assertion of self which redeems his superficial lifestyle. He decides to be a free man and live honestly, with a job that does not entail whoring himself or selling his identity. To directly run away with his best friend's fiance would be a contradiction of his desire to be a more honest, noble and free person. Instead of being chained by Norma, he would be chained by guilt.

Nicole Weinrich said...

I too whole-heartedly agree with Paramount’s decision to reject the musical adaptation Boulevard! The film Sunset Boulevard filled with erring music and dark images would be interpreted differently and possibly more lightly as a musical. In my opinion it would be much less powerful than the original film. I also believe that it is entirely illogical for the show to end with Norma granting her blessing on Joe Gillis and Betty Schaffer’s relationship. Unable to accept the reality that she has aged as a star in an ever-changing industry, Norma goes to extreme lengths to preserve her star status and keep Joe within her reach. In fact, when Joe threatens to leave, she attempts suicide. In the final scenes she even murders Joe Gillis because “no one leaves a star.” She has obviously gone completely mad in trying to preserve her identity and has passed the point of no return. The dynamic of Norma and Joe’s peculiar relationship would be so different if in the end she supported his relationship with Betty rather than sabotage it as seen in the original version.

Jean F said...

I think that if Boulevard! was a completely new piece of work, then it may have been a success. Boulevard! reminds me of a play I read in class last year called "The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler," a sequel to the classic "Hedda Gabler." However, because this sequel was a complete parody of the original play with new themes and new characters, the sequel was really a work to be judged in a category of its own. Therefore, if "Boulevard!" was a work that could be judged as a separate work, that would be all good and fine. The problem with "Boulevard!" is that it seems as if Swanson wanted it to be an extension of "Sunset Boulevard" and a continuation of her role as Norma Desmond. Personally, I find the mixing of reality with fantasy -- how Swanson is acting just like Desmond -- is enough to drive me away from this musical.

Nicole DeMont said...

I definitely agree with the other comments in that Paramount was correct in stopping the production of "Boulevard!" The movie was successful because of the performance Swanson put on in the movie, and a less talented musical actress would not be able to imitate her performance. Furthermore, the central themes of the movie revolve around tragedy, guilt, and insanity, so a "happily ever after" musical would completely clash with the movie. Why would Norma ever give her blessing to Joe and Betty? The idea of the musical does not even make sense in the context of the movie. I do not think the musical would be an interpretation of the film at all; instead, it would make the audience question who the character of Norma really is, causing the original film to lose its core character. Norma has such a strong presence in the film that altering her character in any way would only lessen the lasting effect she leaves on the audience.

Brittany said...

No, It most definitely wouldn't have altered the ending of the film (which I didn't like anyways) to have a happier ending. Theatrical productions and movies are completely separate, as proven in Legally Blonde, Wicked, and many other mainstream shows. These shows can be just as successful, despite the discrepancies in the cold hard facts. Don't get too wrapped up in the decisions of Paramount. Despite this, I think the movie was already enough torture (sorry!) so whereas I may not have been someone to see the show, if Sunset Boulevard is such a classic, maybe people would have enjoyed Boulevard!

Taylor Winfield said...

The production of Boulevard! would have been an interesting way to add a new dimension to Sunset Boulevard. Although, Boulevard! may have changed the audience’s interpretation of the original film, it would have been an opportunity for Paramount to delve deeper into the character’s twisted ways. Boulevard! could have taken the popular movie one step further and reiterated its arguments about the detrimental nature of narcissism. I do not necessarily think Boulevard! would have been “a box office hit,” but I’m sure a lot of fans would have enjoyed watching Norma Desmond, Joe Gillis, and Betty Schaefer indulge in forbidden love affair one last time.

aypak said...
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Albert Pak said...

So I think the general consensus is that Paramount was right to quash all plans for Boulevard!. I agree with this, and for reasons all mentioned above-- Sarah's point about the irrationality of having a sequel when Joe died and the point about the original eclipsing the musical, among others.

Just one thing though-- I would be careful not to state that the medium of a musical would be inadequate in portraying the serious, complex emotions in the movie. As Shire notes, there are many examples of great musicals whose music and musical-specific attributes masterfully conveyed to the audience deep feelings. Les Miserables also jumps out in my mind as an example of such musical.

I'd also like to add a side-comment-- sort of a meta-point. It's most interesting (and yet at the same time most disturbing) to me that Swanson developed plans for Boulevard!. In this, I see her trying to continue something that WAS good. She wants to translate something that WAS good into something that IS good. This sounds awfully like Norma Desmond. And, realizing that Swanson is much like Norma, I begin wondering about how there is a bit of Norma in me, too. I also self-deceive and perform. I am also obsessed with images (including self-image). Gloomy, huh?

Jasmine Lee said...

I agree with Parmount. Swanson's musical would have contradicted the ending of the film. How could Joe have died if he and Betty live happily ever after? The movie leaves room for no other interpretation. Boulevard! would have had to have been completely separate from the movie Sunset Boulevard in order to have been successful. The names of the main characters would also have to be different. By meddling with the contents of a Hollywood classic, the musical would have been viewed as a complete disaster no matter how ingenious it may have been in reality. Swanson herself could have lost some of her fame and reputation by producing a musical that could potentially undermine her success as Norma Desmond. Overall, it was better that Boulevard! was never produced.

Valerie Breanne Rosen said...

I would support Paramount's decision to refuse producing Boulevard! the Musical. Throughout “Sunset Boulevard,” Joe Gillis and Norma Desmond have contrasting views as to whether movies should be narrated by words or images. As Katelin Trowbridge's article emphasized, the movie ultimately concludes with both characters having an opportunity to shine. Joe is finally able to write a successful screenplay (the story of his murder), while Norma is able to remain in the spotlight during her arrest. As a result, this shocking ending becomes a very powerful statement about the difficulties that many Hollywood silent actors/actresses faced with the introduction of sound. Allowing the musical to end on a “happy note” would definitely weaken the desired purpose of “Sunset Boulevard.”

If Paramount wanted to pursue the production of Boulevard! , they would certainly need to consider it a separate piece. “Sunset Boulevard” consisted of a concrete ending, so it would be difficult to alter the conclusion without compromising the integrity of the original work. Additionally, having the musical be separate would allow people to distinguish between the intentions of the first movie, and the completely separate concepts introduced in the musical.

Jennifer Lang said...

I agree with Valerie that the ending of “Sunset Boulevard” is too important to the film to be changed and therefore, I also agree with Paramount’s decision to quash all plans of Boulevard! I think the ending of this movie in particular contributed greatly to its success. The movie sets up the viewer to believe that it will be your typical love story and that Joe will leave Norma for Betty and Norma will ultimately kill herself, finally giving in to the fact that she will never live the only life she desires to lead. However, the ending is so unique and peculiar. The final images of Norma walking down the stairs, finally getting the fame and attention she has been longing for, leave a lasting impression on the viewer. The music and Norma’s big smile and confident stroll in the final scene is frightening and makes the viewer feel uncomfortable. The story is no longer about the long destruction of Norma Desmond, but ultimately, it becomes somewhat of a victory for Norma Desmond. Like Valerie mentioned, both Joe and Norma get what they want in the end and in such a peculiar and upsetting way. While the viewer feels frightened and appalled, the characters of the movie end up having in some ways achieved their goals. This is what makes the movie so unique and I think is what contributed to its fame. Therefore, I think a musical with an alternate ending would take away from what made the movie great in the first place. It would never be able to reach any type of success even close to that of the original “Sunset Boulevard” and would just turn in to a more average plotline about a the destruction of a forgotten actress and a love story about an aspiring screen writer.

Kristen Malinak said...

Paramount made a good decision in deciding to thwart Swanson’s theatrical adaptation Boulevard! This production would have somewhat tainted the beauty of the end of Sunset Boulevard. While there are several open-ended questions at the closing of the film, certain outcomes disappear as possibilities in order to emphasize the film’s exploration of words and images. Indeed, Joe Gillis dies at the end of Sunset in order to bring the story full circle and to stand as a physical example of Norma’s insanity, for “no one leaves a star.”

While every performance deserves to be judged as an individual work, the musical Boulevard! would have been deeply rooted in the plot and characters of the film. Because of this connection, the musical would be a theatrical farce, confusing an audience that is familiar with the relationships and fates of the characters in the film. I think viewers might have attended the play looking for a different type of closure to the film, ending disappointed in an unbelievable plot line. Sadly, Swanson faces the same track as Norma, recognizing impending disaster and making desperate attempts to salvage her star reputation.

Victoria Kwong said...

I agree with the consensus that Paramount was right to not create a sequel to Sunset Boulevard in musical form. In addition to the logical inconsistency noted by the majority, the opening scene would also have to be changed as the movie starts with scene where Joe is dead and floating in the pool since the rest of the movie is a flashback. However, the opening sets the eerie tone for the movie and immediately captures the audience. In my opinion, the creation of Boulevard! would mock the artistic components present in the movie as the most powerful moments in the movie occurred after Joe's murder. Without which, the intensity of Norma's insanity would not have been properly conveyed.

Nina Brener-Hellmund said...

Gloria Swanson really did evolve into her character, Norma Desmond, from "Sunset Boulevard." Her desire to make the musical "Boulevard!" exposes her desperation and fear of being forgotten. "Sunset Boulevard" appears to foreshadow her own downfall. The plot itself has many discrepancies as several others have already mentioned. There are several movies that can or should have sequels: this classic film noir does not fall under that category. Parmount wisely decided against Gloria Swanson's musical, just like Mr. DeMille in "Sunset Boulevard"

Justin L. said...

Would Boulevard! be considered an interpretation or an original work? For people who had never seen the original Sunset Boulevard before, Boulevard! would obviously become established as the original. First impressions matter a lot with regard to so called “original works of art.” More profoundly, while the context and background story of Boulevard! are contingent upon the plot of Sunset Boulevard, the case can be made that because the perspective and plot line of Boulevard! are so different from that of Sunset Boulevard, the two works of art are distinct. Furthermore, the rhetoric, actors, nuances of speech, photography, lighting, etc. would be drastically different between the two pieces. In addition, Sunset Boulevard is a talking picture while Boulevard! would have been a musical. Given that these two art forms are drastically different (for instance, musicals incorporate singing, dancing, and real-time technical theater), I no longer see Boulevard! as a parody of Sunset Boulevard so much as its own work. It’s true that Boulevard! would have had the same (or very similar) characters as the film. However, the perspective and plot envisioned by Swanson is different enough to distinguish Boulevard! from Sunset Boulevard. Even though its plot is based on a pre-existing one, Boulevard! inhabits a different medium and should be viewed as accordingly distinct.

Just because I view Boulevard! as its own work doesn’t mean that there is no tie between Boulevard! the musical and Sunset Boulevard the film. Swanson’s proposed musical could have and would have altered popular interpretations of the original Sunset Boulevard. Though Boulevard! has enough distinctions from Sunset Boulevard to make Boulevard! its own original work, Boulevard! of course is based on the Sunset Boulevard. As a side note, I don’t at all see why this fact would prevent a so-called “interpretation” from being classified as an original work if some aspect of “the interpretation’s” rhetoric made it unique. But yes, because both Sunset Boulevard and Boulevard! are closely related to each other, Swanson’s musical would undoubtedly have affected the way viewers viewed the film.

As disturbing as Sunset Boulevard came across, I’d see Boulevard! It’d have been interesting to compare with Sunset Boulevard. I don’t know how many people would agree with me. Yet, I feel Paramount made a mistake because they stifled a legitimate work of art, squandered a commercial success, and lost the opportunity to further interest in Sunset Boulevard across additional mediums.

Jake said...

Enough has already been said here about why Boulevard! was rightly canceled. Knowing very few of the facts, it is easy to dismiss it as Swanson's attempt to gain her fame by making the dark ending more palatable for a mass audience. I for one would like to know more about her plan for Boulevard! How much would the musical retain the atmosphere and dialogue of the original movie? If the answer is none, if it is a different fundamental story, then I am glad Boulevard! never made it to the stage, as it would be a shallow, nonsense drama. However, if Boulevard! was well done and retained some elements of the original, I believe it would be worthy of praise. By well done I mean that it enters a conversation with the previous text to debate a point, and not just to make money or to drum up fame. The ending change need not be some shallow affair but some part of the rhetoric that argues for whatever point Swanson chose to argue. Either way, I do not think Boulevard! could be considered in a vacuum without comparing it to the original, and there is no way we could predict the success of it.

Victor said...

I would have to agree with Paramount on this decision. The musical might have worked if they had instead tried to give a different take on the movie. Instead from what I read it seemed like only the end would have changed (with some musical numbers thrown in of course). Not only would this have been a weird idea, it would have also created a lot of inconsistencies in the story of the musical. Norma after being so possessive the whole movie would not so suddenly have a realization of her own shortcomings and give up something she has tried so hard to maintain. Anyway, it seemed to me that Norma was outside the borders of sanity by the end of the film a main theme that would have to be quashed if Boulevard! were actually realized.

Holst said...

I think Paramount's decision to quash all plans for a musical was wise. "The War between Words and Images - Sunset Boulevard" explains how the ending completes the parallelism between Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis. In the end, both characters finally realize their goal of reaffirming their choice of medium. Norma Desmond is arrested believing she is shooting her next movie film reaffirming the power of images. Joe Gillis finally writes a creative artistic screenplay from the dead reaffirming the power of words. Changing the ending would do damage to the themes of Sunset Boulevard. Striped of the parallelism and conflict between words and images, Sunset Boulevard would become, in the words of Betty Shaffer, "plot 27 A, make it glossy, make it slick." One last comment. Sarah mentioned Norma Desmond's obsession with superficial performances. Indeed, the event of Norma Desmond's arrest is masked in a superficial performance of Salome. It is noteworthy, however, that Norma Desmond breaks her bondage to superficial performances by actually shooting Joe Gillis.

Anonymous said...

I truly believe that we have reached the point where technology has become one with our lives, and I am fairly confident when I say that we have passed the point of no return in our relationship with technology.


I don't mean this in a bad way, of course! Ethical concerns aside... I just hope that as the price of memory falls, the possibility of downloading our brains onto a digital medium becomes a true reality. It's one of the things I really wish I could encounter in my lifetime.


(Posted on Nintendo DS running [url=http://kwstar88.livejournal.com/491.html]R4i SDHC[/url] DS Qezv2)

Richard Prevett said...

Sunset Blvd is one of my favourite films, but last night I saw it for the umteenth time and was disappointed by the Gillis character. I was disheartened by his lack of self-interest and self-preservation. He came off as less than sympathetic in his treatment of Betty and in his treatment of himself. He should have seen that through Betty he could find a way out of his predicament.
In fact, worse than the sinking feeling that Gillis was a loser was that this dark ending is not plausible plot-wise. As Dustin Hoffman would say,"My character would not do that." It doesn't make sense, and I can understand Swanson's frustration with the pool death. I would not be surprised that there may be a popular demand for an alternate ending.
The idea that the Betty-Gillis couple's dynamic would not carry through to the ending seems to be contrived artificially to be dark but, unfortunately, merely in a trendy way, as if Wilder were trying to prove something to Peoria.
I am not one to criticise Wilder who was a fantastic writer-director, but I think that here he may have missed an opportunity to square the circle and remain dark and funny but with a twist ending which provides a follow-through for a plausible outcome for the young couple. In many ways the film resembles Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One, especially with the dead chimp. Both stories are droll, caustic and dark portraits of Hollywood by expats.
It is too late now of course, since a remake of such a great movie would be suicide for any director. But maybe a new musical comedy would work with a reworked ending.