When Norma Desmond Met Tommy Wiseau: The Hollywood Dreams of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and ‘The Disaster Artist’
At one point during Billy Wilder’s gloriously cynical noir masterpiece Sunset Boulevard, William Holden’s down on his luck screenwriter Joe Gillis finds himself in the crumbling mansion of Norma Desmond, the silent era’s biggest star. Older but no wiser, Desmond still lives the lavish life of a major celebrity, one whose status never fell from the stratosphere, and upon discovering the trespassing Joe is a writer, she instructs him to read the obscenely long draft of her vanity project adaptation of the biblical story of Salome. Joe reads it, curious to see just how bad it is, but also finds an opportunity for profit in its pages. He agrees to become a script supervisor to Desmond, seeing her as a sucker with deep pockets, or at the very least a fascinating story to tell in the future. Greg Sestero is no William Holden, and his tell-all book The Disaster Artist is no Sunset Boulevard, but his candid and frequently scathing about Hollywood, the endless misery of a jobbing actor, and the life he has found himself living alongside his own Norma Desmond. Well, at least at some point in the past, Norma was good at her job.
Sestero’s book is now a movie, directed by James Franco, who also plays the lead role of Wiseau. It’s entertaining stuff, and a rare example of Franco reaching Peak Franco levels and somehow pulling it off, yet its sudden splurge of Oscar talk has been unexpected. It may be a James Franco film, but it’s still based on an incredibly niche story whose appeal may be impossible to explain to those who haven’t seen nor heard of The Room. Many of the best moments are pure inside baseball in their specificity, but then again, such was the same for Sunset Boulevard, a film that Franco has cited as an obvious inspiration for his latest effort. He compares Wiseau in particular to Norma Desmond, describing them as ‘someone who thinks that the movies will save them, who is very out of touch with who he is, and whose onscreen and off-screen life meld into each other.’
Wiseau and Desmond are creatures of delusion: The embodiments of every true Hollywood story, the rags-to-riches narratives that help cultivate the film industry’s reputation as the place of dreams, the ultimate American fantasy. For Desmond, a shadow of her former self who lives life as if the good times never stopped, she’s already experienced the best of that dream and cannot accept the reality that it no longer exists for her. She spends all day in her stunning mansion that’s creeping slowly into mausoleum territory, drinking champagne and eating caviar and watching her old movies while surrounded by pictures of herself. She maintains a mystique for an audience who long abandoned her. Having Desmond be played by Gloria Swanson, the woman who essentially lived those glory days in the silent era before becoming a ‘where are they now’ question in the papers, was the icing on the intertextual cake.
Franco tries to replicate that in his mimicry of Wiseau, a figure of similarly grotesque qualities who shuns all notions of acceptable social behaviour. He speaks in broken English, avoids truth like the plague and has the kind of over-inflated ego that only mediocre white men can have. Fundamentally, he doesn’t seem real: If he wasn’t, James Franco, an actor who has dipped his toes into experimentation as a soap star, artist, professor and musician, would have had to make him up. It’s hard to judge his performance as such: Is this acting or an impression, and does it really matter? He still looks like James Franco, he still sounds like James Franco (albeit with a cold - Greg Sestero’s impression on the audiobook is miles better), and you struggle as a viewer to see him as anyone other than James Franco. You can’t help but wonder if he actually did film a shot-for-shot remake of The Room, Gus Van Sant style, and is waiting to have it installed as performance art in the MoMA. Where Desmond’s spectacle is one of pity, Wiseau through Franco’s eyes is a mirror.
Billy Wilder was famously described by critic Andrew Sarris as being ‘too cynical to believe even his own cynicism’, but it’s in this keen eye for the darker side of humanity where his style really shines. Sunset Boulevard isn’t quite as scathing about American life as Kiss Me, Stupid or his underrated masterpiece Ace in the Hole, but it remains the most potent interrogation of Hollywood’s false beauty, and the way it sucks people dry. Anyone who makes a movie about Hollywood today cannot help but follow in his footsteps, be it David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. or the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, or even Singin’ in the Rain. Hollywood loves to talk about itself, but the shadow of Norma Desmond will forever loom overhead, even during the most self-indulgent fantasies of the movie world.
The Disaster Artist gets pretty scathing at times, and Wiseau comes across as a real ogre, one who has bought hard into the notion that true art is made by tortured geniuses whose anger is worth the cost. When he humiliates the actress playing Lisa during their first sex scene, the crew revolts and it’s up to Sestero to tell him that’s not how it’s done. When Wiseau tries to use Hitchcock’s treatment of actresses as his defence, it’s Sestero who tells him that art is not worth the cost of human suffering or embarrassment, and it’s a moment that rings terrifyingly true in our current climate. It reminded me of the moment in Sunset Boulevard where, playing himself, Cecil B. DeMille becomes the voice of decency in Hollywood when Desmond comes onto the Paramount set under false assumptions. He is kind when few others are, explains that her diva reputation only came at the end of her career and wasn’t really her fault, and he does what he can to protect her when the truth of her visit comes out. Where Sestero hammers home reality to Wiseau, DeMille fights to keep Desmond’s fantasy in place, because the industry did all it could to foster that delusion for her and it’s not her fault she cannot live without it.
Ultimately, The Disaster Artist cannot maintain the necessary cynicism of its Wilder influence by the film’s end. As The Room premieres and the audience erupts into howls of laughter, Wiseau is embarrassed by the experience and it’s up to Sestero, the beleaguered and frequently exploited lackey of this madman, to reassure him that this new legacy for his masterpiece is as good as winning any award. He becomes a triumphant folk hero, which we see in real-life footage of midnight screenings, in-person appearances and special events where he is harkened as a mad genius. All the stuff that preceded the premiere becomes moot: The exploitation of the crew, the bad treatment, the misogyny, the embarrassment, it’s all fine because everyone’s laughing with him now. Franco likes Wiseau too much to do the story as it needed to be done, but that’s also emblematic of the current cult status of The Room, where screaming sexist slurs at Lisa is clouded in ‘irony’. Franco doesn’t dig much into the mysterious source of Wiseau’s seemingly endless income, or where he’s actually from or how old he is or he treats people, particularly women. That would spoil the fantasy, and it would make the triumphant ending where Wiseau becomes the all-American up-by-his-bootstraps Hollywood hero.
Norma Desmond gets to live her fantasy right up to the closing credits, but it will not shield her from the pain that will follow afterwards. Her intricately choreographed design will fall apart the moment it is shown to spectators. The dream of Desmond will not stand up to scrutiny, but for Tommy Wiseau, the shoddy theatricalities of his strange life have become the spectacle the world has reinforced. His close-up will never reveal the truth, because we prefer the show much more.
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