Art Criticism / Gender Studies / Uncategorized

The Faded Woman, Part 1: Origins, Dickens, and Sunset Blvd.

The Faded Woman is a powerful myth and one that finds itself central to some of the most famous contributions in Western Culture, especially literature and film. She is a living phantom, one of a typically vampiric, manipulative and controlling nature. She procures victims, mostly young males, with the pretenses of money, prestige and seduction. If these attributes fail to work, they elude a vulnerability and need to protect that presumably keeps so many heterosexual men  helpless in literature and film. But what is it that makes her so potent and powerful a figure, especially in these two art-forms? Here, I would like to analyze and present exactly what I feel to be her power, her origins, her power to enthrall. By way of Billy Wilders classic film Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Fassbinder’s final film in the BRD trilogy Veronika Voss (1981), I wish to present my theory on the Faded Woman and her translation from myth, to literature, to Sadeian figure, to metaphor for Post-War horrors.

Achlys, the Greek Goddess of Death and Eternal Night, as seen in one of her Romantic interpretations


Her origins are vicarious and scattered. One might be quick to associate her with Witches, or rather, hags, but these mythological figures are typically asexual, though both the Faded Woman and the hag share a similar comic quality. One must look to Greek Mythology at the Goddess Achlys, one of the most ancient goddesses of them all, associated with death, misery and sadness, even being placed on the shield of Hercules in battle, her nails long and her shoulders covered in dust. In the Syrian Manuscript of ‘The Arabian Nights’, known as the most accurate version of the text, a seductive She-Demon lures a male hero behind an abandoned building to murder him, a sure-tell sign of a vampiric demon in Middle Eastern folk-lore, much like the abandoned wrecks Havisham and Norma Desmond reside in. She is scattered throughout both North and South American myth as well. A friend of mine from South America regaled me with a local myth of her childhood where a Seductive woman lures men into the forest to sleep with them, only to release her breast from her dress, turning into an evil crone in the process. In 20th century culture, The Faded Woman is above all, a reincarnation of Achlys. The Faded Woman can only be aligned with death, she is the very aura of it, infecting  all those she touches.

Miss Havisham as originally illustrated by Harry Furniss

Miss Havisham as most famously played by Martita Hunt in David Leans 1946 adaptation.

Great Expectations  

She is most famously and importantly portrayed in Charles Dickens’s seminal classic Great Expectations (1861) in the character of Miss Havisham, a bride jilted on her wedding day; rotting away in her mansion with her withering wedding dress and rodent infested wedding cake. Miss Havisham is the blue print of which all Faded Women are built upon such as Norma Desmond and Veronika Voss, and is one of the most powerful and effective characters in all Western Literature. Dickens describes Havisham  in almost Poe-like terror, calling her ‘a ghastly waxwork’ a ‘skeleton (that) seemed to have dark eyes that moved…’  Havisham is not only frightening but powerful and manipulative. People in Havisham’s universe are mere pawns of which to move in a game of psychological torture, such as inventing the  sexual tension between main love interests Estella and Pip, or controlling Pip with the power of money. But Dickens does not fully understand Havisham, nor is he able to decide whether she is an actual character or composite. While we see her as a highly stylized creation, we believe her to be dead once she catches flame when Pip finally confronts and challenges her power, concluding one act of evil after another. But we are given a melodramatic death-bed of apologies and over wrought explanations to her evil ways when we realize her burns are ‘far from hopeless’, eventually dying anyway. Here, Dickens wants it both ways. He wants a powerful myth and a living, breathing character and does not succeed in delivering either. If he were to follow the wiles of such a powerful myth as the Faded Woman, he would allow her to die in flames like a Wicked Witch. If Dickens were to have a fully fleshed character, he would have to let go of such Romantic, weary stigmas of the Victorian Woman in English literature, only available for marriage and general ninny-ness his women are so oft-accused of. But this brings an ultimate point to what Miss Havisham, and others like her, truly are, a pure invention. What is so keenly bizarre about the Faded Woman is that she could only come from the imagination of a male, she is never truly a fully fleshed woman, she is an entity, a composite, barely a noun or pronoun. She appears and disappears through culture like a witch in a puff of smoke. She is a fascinating, though only half understood representation of what a woman is. She derives from the male fear that that older women can, and more than likely are, sexual beings and that the motions of menopause hardly mean the end to sexual wants, needs and desires, whether it be Havisham’s sexual pawning of Pip and Estella or Norma Desmond’s sexual relationship with Joe.

The Faded Woman in the 20th Century

What makes the Faded Woman so frightening to both males and females after the 20th century  is her alignment with the past. History, and the psychological effects of human experience are The Faded Woman’s daemonic familiars. Whether its Norma Desmond’s faded career or Voss’ Nazi Past, The Faded Woman plays on the fears we all have that events or people will ultimately destroy us, and that like magic, will curse us to a life intoxicated with failure and past achievements. It is the ultimate fear that one day, at any moment, we could not only never be the same again, but will stay permanently fixed to where we were, our lives accumulating dust as we are defenseless to change, much like the Wicked Fairies curse in ‘Sleeping Beauty.  The Faded Woman reminds us of our past and how close it may truly be, though we tell ourselves otherwise. This is essentially what makes the myth of the Faded Woman so powerful in mid to late 20th century film and literature, juxtaposing itself in the years before and after World War II. The Faded Woman is now not just  the goddess Achlys, but is now the ferry-man of death, taking the past and present with her on her river of death, Pre-War to Post-War.

Original 1950 Poster, notice Desmond depicted like a Creature of a monster movie, two youths cowering in horror.

Sunset Boulevard

The First Faded Woman to take power over 20th century culture is of course, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), a modern transitioning of Miss Havisham. though becoming a more potent and powerful cultural presence onto herself. Norma Desmond is a faded movie queen living in her decapitated mansion, dreaming of comebacks that never come and a fame that vanished long ago. Like Havisham, Desmond is in fact only middle aged though her environment and demeanor make her ultimately ancient. But what makes her so different from Havisham is her powerful sexual energy and ultimate goals. While Havisham is happy wallowing in misery, Desmond does so unknowingly, still determined to make a change in her life that never appears. While Havisham lives her sexual prowess through the sadistic relationship of Pip and Estella, Desmond is more than happy procuring sexual gratification through the young man who enters her web, Joe Gillis (William Holden.) While the culture of older women enjoying the company of men is far from frightening and even parodied or fetishized in such television shows as Cougar Mom or even Collete’s novel Cheri (1920), The Faded Woman introduces the horror that once the younger man has aligned himself with an older woman, she will not let go without a fight, even if it means death. Sunset Blvd. fully seals the myth of the Faded Woman with a culture of death, made possible by the contributions of writer and director Billy Wilder.

A Brief Note on Wilder

Wilder was born in Poland, his family ultimately moving to Vienna a few short years later. Writing and working on various film projects, Wilder made his way to Paris and then Hollywood once the Nazi’s came to power in 1933. Here, Wilder was one of so many German emigres fleeing the Nazi power such as Lang. The ghosts of a vanished Germany and the horrors of the Holocaust permeate through these emigres and whether they realized it inadvertently or not, cast a long and sinister shadow over their work. Wilder, was perhaps, one of the few of his colleagues to reluctantly admit this, in Cameron Crowe’s ‘Conversations with Wilder’, Crowe asks if there was a key event in life that continued to inspire him, Wilder almost reluctantly confesses, ‘To do something better than I did last time…But my life was kind of…Except for the fact that three-quarters of my family was extinguished in Auschwitz, I don’t really think that… Crowe further explains that ‘He decides to keep it at arm’s length…’
Confessions or not, a past before the horrors of Nazi Germany permeate far and wide in his filmography. Wilder, with this asset to his life story, imbues the Faded Woman with the vitality that will allow her to transition powerfully and vividly into the late 20th century.
This facet of his life, of history, permeate deeply in much of Wilder’s work, Sunset Boulevard being far from an exception.  A past before the horrors of Nazi Germany permeate far and wide in his filmography. Wilder, with this asset to his life story, imbues the Faded Woman with the vitality that will allow her to transition powerfully and vividly into the late 20th century.

Animals and Humans are one of the same in Desmond’s Sadeian world.

Desmond as Sadeian Figure

While moralism permeates in film in its more congratulatory moods, Cinema, especially American Cinema, is Sadism. While Art cannot truly exist without the assistance of commerce, Cinema cannot exist without both Commerce and Art working together, one cannot live without the other, fighting one another’s elements and compounds like oil and water. Art is the sacrificial male spider to Commerce’s black widow, continuing  a vicious cycle of sadism, pleasure and pain, success and failure. No Censorship, No Hays Code or Legion of Decency no matter how powerful, can truly prove otherwise.

If film is sadism in its most vivid practice, no one director understands this better than Billy Wilder. While McBride and Wilmington foolishly credit him ‘with a remarkably moralistic attitude, rather like Fellini’s’ (2), Wilder’s moralism is really a non-judgmental eye, watching sadism and moralism battle one another in a never-ending cycle. No better example of this battle shines brighter than in Sunset Boulevard, especially in the archetype of Norma Desmond.

Death for The Faded Woman is a constant exercise in irony, sadism and delusion, she herself is a Sadeian  figure. What made Sunset Boulevard  so unprecedented in 1950, and what continues to make it so potent, is that WIlder and Brackett write the script in what could be called a ‘Sadeian  cycle.’ Characters in Sade’s novels permeate and thrive in cycles of sadism, death and cruelty. The plot of Sunset Boulevard could easily be a tale regaled by one of the prostitutes who hold court in the massive palace of captured innocents in Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom (1785). While one prostitute believes she has power, she is proven wrong, but is undeterred, murdering or conning a trick or two for financial gain, until she is eventually murdered, or by luck, survives. The Sadeian  cycle in Sunset Boulevard has not gone completely unnoticed by some, though they  observe it without acknowledgment. In Joan F. Dean’s analysis of the film, she reminds us that both Norma and Joe ‘mistakenly believe that they control their situation, that they have the freedom to walk away from their trade when they choose (91) and that, much like Sade’s characters, live in ‘patterns of reversals’ ‘corroborated by the feelings the film elicits for its character- feeling…rarely wholly negative or positive.’

Desmond’s Sedan qualities are shown from the beginning of the film, when she mistakenly thinks Joe Gillis is a funeral director; she provides suggestions for an elaborate, decadent coffin lined with satin, for a dead monkey. While many credit this particular plot device to Writer and Director Billy Wilder’s keen sense of dream logic and surrealism, it is easy to lose  the ultimate construct of The Sadeian cycle in the process. While Norma and her servant Max lovingly bury the dead chimp with decadent love and ornate care, one is supposed to wonder if Norma values human life at all? Animals and people are synonymous in Norma’s world, and can be as easily be manipulated and controlled as one or the other much like Dickens’ Miss Havisham. It is certainly no surprise the early Dadaist movement idolized Sade, Bunuel paying tribute to Sade’s Juliette in his The Milky Way (1969). But while one credits Wilder’s work to Sadism, or even Edgar Allen Poe, it belongs to the grand ancestor to both, Sade. Sadism in Norma Desmond, and in the cycle of the film itself, is what makes the film so particularly horrifying, and is the reason Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM physically assaulted Billy Wilder after a screening of the film. She of course, ends the cycle in the only way it can possibly end, in death, by murdering Joe Gillis, who is begged by his young lover, Betty, to leave and come with her. The Faded Woman must take, or attempt to take  the most potent assets of all art, love and youth, and do whatever she can to destroy it.

…and those wonderful people out there in the dark…

Sunset Blvd. as Post-War Myth

But unlike a wishy-washy Dickens, Wilder allows us to feel sorrow, true sorrow for Desmond, something of which was a gradual process through production. While Wilder was initially given the green light at Paramount for making ‘a comedy about Hollywood’ that initially would have starred Mae West about a humorous has-been, Wilder immediately understood the sadness of a star with ’30 Million fans who gave her the brush off.’  One anecdote on the making of the film is an especially fascinating point. While Brackett wanted a scene of Norma Desmond getting a make-over to be simple, short and even funny, Wilder filmed the process as strenuous, grueling and cruel. Even Ebert in his review of the film reminds us of ‘how smooth Swanson’s skin is.’ The screening of the scene caused one of many screaming matches between Wilder and Brackett that would eventually end their working relationship. While Desmond is by all means, sadistic and cruel, she is neither good or evil by films end, we are merely terrified of her, she is a dark nebulous of those two emotions, sorrow and revulsion. Desmond’s delusions of grandeur, her inverted ego and alignment with death march down the stairs, cameras catching each terrifying step down the stairs, where even dowdy Hedda Hopper yelps a tormented sob. While Desmond’s final words of ‘Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up’ have embed themselves deeply into the cultural zeitgeist, another facet of the end come into play, and a powerful one that makes the Faded Woman a powerful metaphor.

Wilder, like Norma Demond, has a deep, perhaps less obsessive pre-occupation with a time in history right before the Nazi Occupation,  a time of which he spent many wild and rambunctious years as a cub reporter in Weimar-era Berlin, eventually shifting into film. His first screenwriting credit was on the immortal UFA production Menschen am Sonntag (People On Sunday) (1930), our first clue. The semi-documentary is a dreaming ghost of a film, showing a care free Berlin filled with roaming streets of people long dead, many soon to be dead in only a matter of years. Care free images of sunbathing beauties and beach dwellers linger darkly with what we know, and what an audience of 1930 does not. This exactly is how Wilder treats the era, not as as carefree nostalgia such as the 1900’s of Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), but with what he, and we, know now. Many of Wilder’s most famous films abound throughout the 1920’s, Some Like it Hot (1959), and especially the 1920’s Paris of Irma La Douce (1963). While one might think this is Wilder’s dreamy nostalgia for a time he mournfully weeps for, it is exactly the opposite. Wilder represents a 1920’s with the knowledge of its inevitability to fail and fall apart. Even in his frothiest treatment of the era in Some Like it Hot, shows the 1920’s with a grittiness and violence balanced with a frothy comedy  that even David O. Selznick was shocked by, warning Wilder that audiences ‘would leave in droves.’
Sunset Boulevard is by no means, an exception to the rule. Desmond, one of Wilder’s favorite creations, is the 1920’s reincarnated, she is the reminder of how truly frightening nostalgia can be, falling upon Desmond like various cancerous tumors. Let us return to the climactic scene yet again. Desmond, as directed by true life director Erich Von Stronheim as Max the Butler, is dressed in full 1920’s attire, it is especially shocking visually because designer Edith Head insisted during production that Norma would only wear current fashions. In the final scene, Desmond even resembles Nazimova in her epic production of Salome (1922), her make up is garish, her performance pure pantomime. Morris Dickstein is right to call Desmond a ‘Sleeping Beauty’ waiting to be brought back to life. Desmond is the fairy tale diabolically reversed. All of her subjects awoke from the spell long ago, experiencing the horrors of WWII, the holocaust, the Atom Bomb, the ever looming Cold War, but Sleeping Beauty, tragically, is the very last to awake, glistening in her ignorance of the passing time, the others looking to the past in emphatic pity and sadness.

This is essentially what makes the myth of the Faded Woman so powerful in mid to late 20th century film and literature, juxtaposing itself in the years before and after World War II. The Faded Woman is now not just  the goddess Achlys, but is now the ferry-man of death, taking the past and present with her on her river of death, Pre-War to Post-War.

End of Part One…


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