Trump and “Sunset Boulevard”: Faded Glory and Projection
How my grandfather’s Oscar-winning movie found its way into a red-meat MAGA crowd
Trump’s speech landed with a thud on my screen
One would think that having a sitting president mentioning the name of a movie your grandfather wrote and produced — resulting in three Academy Awards — would be a big plus for your day. In almost any other universe I’d be inclined to agree…except in the toxic universe of Donald J. Trump.
Earlier this week, Mr. Trump, speaking to a rally of his followers in Colorado Springs, bemoaned the Oscar-nod to “Parasite.” Quoted in The Washington Post, Trump said,
“And the winner is a movie from South Korea, what the hell was that all about?” Trump said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “We got enough problems with South Korea with trade. On top of it, they give them the best movie of the year? Was it good? I don’t know. Can we get like ‘Gone with the Wind’ back, please? ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ So many great movies.”
Various news reports highlighted “Gone With the Wind’s” Academy Award for Best Picture, in 1940, and went on to say that “Sunset Boulevard,” while not winning a Best Picture nod, did receive three Oscars in other categories.
For the record, “Sunset Boulevard” is one great movie
Let me be clear on the point of “Sunset Boulevard’s” Oscar nominations: the movie received 11 of them, including Best Picture, and it won three, including “Best writing, story, and screenplay.” I’m sure of that one, because it was my grandfather, Charles Brackett, who, along with collaborators Billy Wilder and D.M. Marshman, picked up his golden statuette during the Academy Awards presentation in 1951. The “Sunset Boulevard” Oscar, along with three others awarded to my grandfather during his Hollywood career, is part of our family’s vast collection of Charles Brackett memorabilia, which I donated to the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles. The Oscars were not included in the donation, preferring to remain on our mantles and office desks.
What is most interesting about Trump’s shout-outs to “Gone With the Wind” and “Sunset Boulevard” is his selection of those two films, most notably “Boulevard.” While his choice of “Gone With the Wind” seems pretty obvious — a movie about a long-lost, burned-down, hollowed-out South, praying for resurrection and rehabilitation — and which falls squarely into the Trumpian worldview of desired old times, there is much more food for speculation in his mention of “Sunset Boulevard.”
The film opens with the body of dead man floating face down in a Hollywood mansion’s pool. The narrator, Joe Gillis (played by William Holden), is the waterlogged deceased, a writer who proceeds to guide the audience through the last days of his life under the bizarre control of the mansion’s owner, Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson). Bizarre is a bit of an understatement, considering one of the earliest scenes in the movie is of a midnight funeral for Desmond’s beloved monkey.
Madness then, madness now
The film is so well-known that it’s not necessary to rehash every scene here, but the draw of the film — the underlying story of a faded silent-movie star going mad — parallel’s Donald Trump’s mad goal to cling to his reality-television stardom and former (and imagined) real estate glory while longing for every camera to give him his “close up” moment. In the movie, Desmond, who has engaged Gillis to help her write her comeback film, “Salome,” is never satisfied with Gillis’s work, never satisfied with Gillis’s appearance or manners. Eventually, she takes over his life — out of love and her need to control Joe — housing him, dressing him, dictating his every daily activity and becoming obsessed, nearly berserk, with the idea that he might have another love outside the crumbling walls of her mansion.
Excuse me, but 70 years after “Sunset Boulevard” premiered, are we not seeing yet another Norma Desmond — pancake makeup and all — prowling around a mansion filled with skewed and shadowy memories of a time that never was? Is that not Trump, who is trapped inside a White House that once an icon of stability is now beginning to crumble at the edges?
Look into the mirror, Mr. Trump
It is clear that Trump’s reference to “Sunset Boulevard” is a projection of his own insecurities and desperate reaching out for past glory. His desire to control events and people around him mirror Norma’s equally frantic need to control Joe Gillis and woo new affection from the powerful mogul of the film medium, Cecil B. DeMille (hello, Fox and Friends). Unlike Desmond, who only utters her famous line once, Donald Trump daily — hourly — tweets, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille,” to his equally lonely and insecure fans.
Trump’s gang of cronies with whom he parties and shares state secrets down at Mar-a-Lago is eerily reminiscent of Desmond’s “waxworks” bridge-playing guests, all of whom are faded movie stars. And there can be no mistaking that Desmond’s butler (and former husband) Max — played perfectly by Erich von Stroheim — is every Trump subordinate, from his chief of staff to his Attorney General to his pet chimp Rudy Giuliani (who may well one day have his own midnight funeral).
The Desmond/Trump duality, played out in the movie’s climactic scene where Desmond pumps several bullets into Gillis’s back because he has fallen in love with a younger woman and is leaving Norma’s care, must have pleased Trump who insists that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and no one would notice. I suspect that had there been a President Trump in “Sunset Boulevard’s” time, he would have pardoned Norma for her crime: killing a journalist.
Words can hurt as much as sticks and stones
When I first heard Trump mention “Sunset Boulevard,” I was angry that he’d chosen one of America’s most important films to share with his rabid rabble. I was angry because that movie represents one of my grandfather’s finest achievements in a long career of achievements, and to hear Trump says those words struck me as almost blasphemous, coming from a man who didn’t like “Parasite” because he can’t read sub-titles (I have a hard time believing Mr. Trump even watched the film — his rant was just a red-meat moment).
There are far more pressing matters for Americans to worry about, and a rally speech calling for a return of great films like “Gone With the Wind” and “Sunset Boulevard” is of little import in the long run. But, as we say here in Washington, “All politics is local,” and when an aging, out-of-touch, fame-hungry president uses my grandfather’s movie to whip up his base, that becomes a very local political issue for me.