For your courage, audacity, and madness. For the theatrical way you carry yourself, clawing with your hands at the air. That devilish sneer, the painted brows, the eyes that laugh in the face of adversity; your startling wit. Your fearlessness. For the way you devour love. For listening to the grand illusions of your soul, and not what others tell you. For being not just great or magnificent, but BIG (“it’s the pictures that got small”), and not settling for less. For the way you want and want and want. To be young, ageless, and beautiful. Because you are…relentless, tireless, indefatigable. You live for those who adore you. And we do adore you Norma. You will always be a star. No one will ever, ever forget that. Even you.
Norma, my idol.
The first time I came across Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” was in 1995 at the Shubert Theater in Los Angeles. The play was based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film, about a silent film star who lives in exile in her grotesquely opulent mansion working towards a comeback. My mother took my siblings and I, along with our significant others, to see Glenn Close try her hand at one of the greatest female roles of all time. By then, our late twenties and early thirties, my siblings and I had all moved to disparate parts of the country, but we still ventured home for Christmas (before kids made reunions difficult), and it was nice to see that not much had changed. For this is what my mother had always done for us, ever since I can remember, instead of giving presents she’d give events, experiences, the most important of those being culture by way of the performing arts. Forget the Barbie doll or backgammon set, I was five, I think, when I saw my first production of the philharmonic, eight when I attended The Wiz, and nine when I experienced my first professional ballet. Summers were spent at the Hollywood Bowl and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, or, worst case, on Olvera Street, where the players of a mariachi band might have been her ex-students.
This was no easy feat for her, given that her children were sports kids, thanks to their father, and she, who grew up in Hollywood with the hopes of being a dancer, didn’t know the difference between a spike and a dunk. The thought of entering a gymnasium terrified her. In some ways, I think, we terrified her.
Nevertheless. She had no intention of giving up.
I didn’t know then that my mother’s relentlessness would change my life forever. Meanwhile, back to Sunset Boulevard, I sat mesmerized in that theater, by Norma, by Glenn Close’s performance, by that glamorous stage, the gothic setting, all of it. I can still see Norma gliding down the stairs, clawing towards her audience. “There’s nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark. All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
I had not yet seen the Billy Wilder film, but my significant other had. He was and is a movie buff, having studied it as an elective in college. And, yet, at the time, he’d never been to the theater before. I found that odd, almost tragic. Clearly I’d taken my exposure to the performing arts, and my mother, for granted. I can still see the excited look on his face as we took our seats, the lights dimmed, and the curtain rose. Of course he adored it. We all did. We always did, no matter how reluctant we might have been beforehand.
Yesterday, I was scanning the paper and caught the words Sunset Boulevard. It was playing at the Film Forum, a one day only showing and part of their classics retrospective. My first thought was of my mother, she who would turn seventy-five in two day’s time, she who in no way felt or wanted to be seventy-five, but then Norma didn’t feel her age either, and she was only fifty; I looked at my watch. The next showing was at 1:30. I had twenty minutes to get there. I didn’t even brush my teeth.