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JOHN LENNON, SUNSET BOULEVARD AND THE PRICE OF FAME

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2020 marks two anniversaries. The first is the 40th anniversary of the murder of ex-Beatle John Lennon (1940 – 1980) by the social misfit, Mark David Chapman (1955 – ). The second is the 70th anniversary of the release of Sunset Boulevard. Although they are separated by some thirty years, each event acts as a reminder of what can happen when the desire for fame gets out of hand.

At 10.50pm on December 8th, 1980, Chapman watched as Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono (1933 – ) made their way through the entrance of the Dakota building, dropped into a combat stance, and fired five shots from his Charter Arms .38 Special revolver. Four bullets struck Lennon in the back and shoulder. The fifth missed and shattered a window.

Lennon was rushed to the Roosevelt Hospital where three doctors, two to three medical attendants, and nurse spent ten to twenty minutes trying to revive him. The doctors even tried opening his chest to perform a manual heart massage, but the damage to the vessels around his heart were too great. John Lennon was announced dead on arrival at 11.15pm.

Lennon had been shot at close range by four hollow-point bullets. Two had passed through his body, one had lodged itself in his upper left-arm, and a fourth had lodged itself in his aorta. The autopsy concluded that Lennon died of “hypovolemic shock, caused by the loss of more than eighty-percent of blood volume due to multiple through-and-through gunshot wounds to the left shoulder and left chest resulting in damage to the left lung, the left subclavian artery, and both the aorta and aortic arch.”

John Lennon’s murder and the plot of Sunset Boulevard mirror one another in many ways. Lennon was murdered by a deranged lunatic who believed he could achieve notoriety for himself by murdering a popstar. Similarly, Sunset Boulevard tells the story of a long forgotten, and equally demented, film star who achieves a return to fame by murdering her gigolo.

Sunset Boulevard was the product of a collaboration between Billy Wilder (1906 – 2002), Charles Brackett (1892 – 1969), and Donald McGill Marshman, Jr. (1922 – 2015). The story was based, in part, on the Evelyn Waugh (1903 – 1966) novel, The Loved Ones which recounted the author’s experiences in Hollywood and the funeral business. Wilder, who had become fascinated by American culture whilst living in Berlin, dreamt up a story about a long forgotten silent film star who resides in one of Sunset Boulevard’s grand houses. Brackett suggested making the story about the star’s comeback, whilst Marshman, Jr. suggested using it to explore the relationship between the forgotten film star and a young man.

Sunset Boulevard’s success was aided by three factors: the writing of Wilder, Brackett, and Marshman, Jr., the direction of Wilder, and the cinematography of John Francis Seitz (1892 – 1979). Seitz gave Sunset Boulevard a dreamlike quality in which fantasy and reality blend together almost seamlessly. The fantasy world Norma Desmond inhabits is shot in deep focus and made to look dark and ominous. By contrast, the real world that Joe Gillis inhabits is depicted as well-lit and filmed in a documentary-style fashion.

Numerous actors were considered to play Joe Gillis, including Fred MacMurray (1908 – 1991) and Montgomery Clift (1920 – 1966). Clift was originally signed to play the part, but withdrew from the project at the last minute. The role eventually went to William Holden (1918 – 1981).

Joe Gillis is a down and outer. Prior to meeting Norma Desmond, Gillis’ situation is so dire that he actually considers returning to his newspaper job in Dayton, Ohio. He is hounded by debt collectors, forced to use the telephone at Schwab’s drugstore because he cannot afford one of his own, and is even fired by his own manager. Gillis believes that he can live the life of an expensive playboy by reading Desmond’s script and entertaining her deluded fantasies. The problem is that he has to make a Faustian pact in order to do so.

The reason Gillis finds Desmond’s offer so tempting is that he has become jaded about the Hollywood system. He represents the writer as just a mere cog in the movie-making machine. He notes the general lack of recognition for the writer and his craft, the writer’s uncertain prospects, the likelihood of executive meddling, and the ever-present risk of plagiarism. He complains that Hollywood will reject your script if it is too original or if it is not original enough.

Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard’s antagonist, was based on a myriad of silent film actresses. The name is believed to be derived from the silent film star, Mabel Normand (1892 – 1930) and the film director, William Desmond Taylor (1872 – 1922), who’s sensational 1922 murder has never been solved. Suggested models for Desmond include Norma Talmadge (1894 – 1957), Mary Pickford (1892 – 1979), Pola Negri (1897 – 1987), Mae Murray (1885 – 1965), Clara Bow (1905 – 1965), and Valeska Surratt (1882 – 1962).

Norma Desmond was played by former silent film star, Gloria Swanson (1899 – 1983). Like Desmond, Swanson had been a major silent film star and was known for her beauty, talent, and extravagant lifestyle. And like Desmond, her film career faded with the coming of sound. Unlike Desmond, however, Swanson was able to accept the end of her film career, moved to New York in the early-thirties, and pursued a successful career in theatre, radio, and television.

Norma Desmond has come to symbolise an entire generation of silent film stars whose were thrust aside by the advent of sound. When her star fell, Desmond retreated into her gothic mansion and built up a fantasy world where she was still a big star. At one stage she tells Gillis that she had the floor of her ballroom tiled at the behest of Rudolph Valentino (1895 – 1926), as though Valentino was still a big star. She speaks in melodramatic tones, acts like an infatuated schoolgirl in Gillis’ company, and engages in acts of emotional blackmail through mock suicide attempts.

Desmond refuses to admit that the “parade has long since passed her by.” Incapable of functioning in the real world, she has constructed a fantasy life for herself. Any attempt to bring her out of her stupor is met with either denial or indignation. Towards the end of the movie, Gillis informs her: “Norma, you’re a woman of fifty, now grow up. There’s nothing tragic about being fifty, not unless you try to be twenty-five.” And just like John the Baptist in Salome (the 1891 Oscar Wilde tragedy Desmond has chosen to adapt), Gillis pays for the faux pas with his life.

When Sunset Boulevard premiered, Louis B. Mayer (1884 – 1957) reportedly shouted at Billy Wilder: “You bastard! You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood.” Mayer had reason to be angry, too. Sunset Boulevard is perhaps one of the most scathing criticisms of Hollywood ever made. The film indicted Hollywood for its treatment of the writer, its obsession with youth, its toxic star system, and cult of celebrity worship.

In a world of social media and reality television, the murder of John Lennon and the story of Sunset Boulevard is more potent today than ever before. Thanks to reality TV and social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, it is far too easy for mentally unstable people to achieve easy fame. How long will it be before society produces another Mark David Chapman or Norma Desmond?

THE LEGACY OF MARGARET THATCHER

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Margaret Thatcher (1925 – 2013) is a titan of world politics. A conservative heavyweight who effectively championed the conservative ethos in the public sphere and, in doing so, managed to transform her country for the better.

Margaret Thatcher was born Margaret Hilda Roberts on October 13th, 1925 above a green grocer’s store in Grantham, Lincolnshire. Thatcher was an ambitious and driven student who won scholarships to Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ school and Oxford University. After university, Thatcher worked as a chemist but abandoned it to study for the legal bar after meeting her husband Dennis Thatcher (1915 -2003), whom she married in 1954. Thatcher became a fully qualified lawyer that same year. Thatcher became the Conservative member for Finchley in 1959.

During her rise to power, Thatcher was not massively popular. Facing oppositions because of her gender – when she was elected she was one of only twenty-four female Parliamentarians (out of six-hundred members) and, even more unusually, was the mother of twins – and her social class. The Conservative Party had not changed its structure since the 19th century. She was often denounced as the “grocer’s daughter”, one conservative politician even commented that she was “a good-looking woman without doubt, but common as dirt.” In spite of these barriers, Thatcher managed to rise through numerous junior ministerial positions to become the shadow education spokeswoman in 1967. She became the Secretary of State for Education and Science when Edward Heath (1916 – 2005) became Prime Minister in June of 1970. Thatcher became the leader of the Conservative Party in 1975.

Margaret Thatcher was conservative Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1979 to 1990 and in her time, she changed Britain and helped define the times she lived in. Thatcher became Prime Minister after defeating James Callaghan (1912 – 2005) with a seven percent majority. There were many reasons for the conservative victory, the main ones being economic failure and the lack of union control. Thatcher was seen as aggressive but also as something of a paradox. She was the first scientist in Downing Street and was enthusiastic in pushing Great Britain’s technological innovations forward, but was an anti-counterculture revolutionary who opposed trade unions and the socialism they represented.

During Thatcher’s first term, however, it was the economy that needed the most attention. By the late 1970s inflation in Great Britain had peaked at twenty percent due to rising oil prices and wage-push inflation. The once mighty nation had become known as the ‘sick man of Europe’. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, by 1980/81 Britain was suffering from downward trends in employment and productivity. The great industrial cities were in decline. Glasgow, for example, had seen a decline in its population from 1.2 million following World War One to eight hundred thousand in the early 1980s. In some areas of Glasgow, male unemployment would remain at between sixty and seventy percent throughout the 1980s.  The director of the Department of Applied Economics, Wayne Godfrey, stated on the prospect of the 1980s: “it is a prospect so dreadful I cannot really believe there won’t be a sort of political revolution which will demand a basic change to policy.”

Inflation, particularly cost-push inflation, was seen as the biggest enemy. However, Thatcher knew that tackling inflation would require restricting the flow of money and causing mass job losses. It was a sacrifice she was willing to make. The government had a three-step process for tackling the issue. First, they increased interest rates. Second, they reduced the budget deficit by raising taxes and cutting government spending. Third, they pursued monetarist policies to control the supply of money. Despite great job losses, the economy slowly improved over Thatcher’s first two years in power.

In 1981, however, her policies caused a recession and unemployment peaked at three million. In fact, unemployment would remain a characteristic of the 1980s. Following the recession, Great Britain saw a period of economic growth with inflation dropping below four percent, although unemployment soared to 3.2 million before easing off a little. It is also of note that despite the mass unemployment, average earnings were, in fact, rising twice as fast inflation and those in employment had it better than ever. The Secretary of Transport, David Howell (1936 – ), stated in 1983: “if the conservative revolution has an infantry, it is the self-employed. It is in the growth of the self-employed, spreading out to small family businesses, that the job opportunities of the future are going to come.”  Thatcher’s biggest achievement in her first term, and the one which endeared her most to the British public was the Falklands War. Following the Argentinean surrender in 1982, Thatcher stated: “today has put the great back into Britain.” The Falklands War rekindled the British public’s pride in her navy and in the nation, itself.

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The Conservative Party won the 1983 election by an overwhelming majority. Thatcher had become the uncontested leader and saviour of the Conservative Party. Thatcher used the victory as an opportunity to change the configuration of the Conservative Party and reshape it in her image. She fired Foreign Secretary, Francis Pym (1922 – 2008) and sent the Home Secretary, William Whitelaw (1918 – 1999) to the House of Lords. Having ended the ancien regime, she refilled the front bench with dedicated Thatcherites. Only one old Etonian remained: Lord Chancellor Hailsham (1907 – 2001), who was eighty-five at the time. Thatcher then embarked on a policy of privatisation and deregulation with the intention of decreasing dependency on the government and encouraging personal responsibility.  Critics accused Thatcher of attempting to dismantle the welfare state and refusing to provide a base safety net for those down on their luck.  Unusually for an anti-socialist, Thatcher established the Greater London Council along with six metropolitan councils in an attempt to control local councils from Whitehall.

The conservatives won the 1987 election having lost twenty-one seats, but with a majority of more than one hundred. Thatcher focused on social issues and embarked on a program for social engineering. This was a seven-step process. First, the program actively encouraged women to stay at home and look after their children rather than join the workforce. Second, the program suggested putting the care of the old, unemployed and disabled into the hands of families. Third, the program suggested helping parents set up their own schools. Fourth, the program suggested providing support for schools with a clear, moral base, including religious schools. Fifth, the program suggested creating a voucher system to encourage parents to send their children to private schools. Sixth, the program suggested training children in the management of pocket money and the setting up of savings accounts. Seventh, the program wished to alter the way the public viewed wealth creation so that it would be seen as an admirable pursuit. Thatcher’s tenor as Prime Minister ended when she stood down from cabinet after her party refused to support her in a second round of leadership challenges. She was replaced by John Major (1943 – ).

After leaving office, Thatcher wrote two memoirs: The Downing Street Years (1993) and The Path to Power (1995). Thatcher was known as many things, including ‘The Last of the Eminent Victorians’, ‘New Britannia’, and, most famously, ‘The Iron Lady’. However, despite her many years in politics and her eleven years as Prime Minister, Thatcher was never a populist. This was probably because of her deep personal convictions which were stronger than her fear of the consequences. Thatcher did, however, demand and receive respect from the public. Satire almost always focused on her husband Dennis rather than on her. It is also worth noting that in her time Thatcher never lost an election. As a politician, Thatcher revolutionised political debate, transformed the Conservative Party, and altered many aspects of British life that had long been deemed permanent. Paul Johnson (1928 – ), a prominent English journalist, stated on Thatcher’s abilities as a politician: “though it is true in Margaret Thatcher’s case, she does have two advantages. She did start quite young. She does possess the most remarkable physical stamina of any politician I’ve come across.” In her time, Thatcher was determined to curb government subsidies to industry and to end the power of the trade unions. She made the trade unions liable for damages if their actions became unlawful and forced the Labour Party to modernise itself. Margaret Thatcher was an impressive and important Prime Minister whose political career and personality helped change Great Britain for the better.

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