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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?