The Real Housewives of Sunset Boulevard

I recently re-watched Sunset Boulevard. You know, Sunset Boulevard: that 1950 Billy Wilder noir? A hacky screenwriter (played by an altogether unlikable William Holden) conveniently stumbles onto a dilapidated mansion and its eccentric inhabitant (a haunting, toothy Gloria Swanson). Swanson plays the iconic Norma Desmond, an ex-silent screen star sidelined by the talkies. Desmond is a craggy, decrepit old lady who stalks around her cluttered Xanadu of a mansion obsessively watching her own old silent movies. She is obsolete, needy, unsexed, implicitly disgusting. She is an ancient, pathetic, demented caricature of a woman clinging to her long-lost youth. And in the movie’s third act, Holden reveals her unthinkably-old age: 50.

She’s FIFTY! Norma Desmond, who lives her life in Baby-Jane pancake make-up, dragging her dressing gowns around her lonely mausoleum? Norma Desmond, who slits her wrists in suicidal temper-tantrums over being irrelevant and unlovable to a younger man? Norma Desmond, whose very name is met with gasped horror by passersby: “she’s still alive!?” She’s fifty  five-zero — years old.

Y’all, Meryl Streep is 69. Jane Fonda is EIGHTY. Mind-blowingly, Courtney Cox is 53. Robin Wright is 51. Nicole Kidman is 50!  Nicole Kidman, who just won a Golden Globe for a miniseries in which she portrayed a decidedly beautiful and frequently nude character, is the same age as the defunct, derelict Desmond.


So it got me thinking about age, specifically women’s ages, and how the definition of worth and usefulness and sexual availability have aggressively pushed back the barriers of “age appropriate” over the intervening 80 years. What is it that made Norma Desmond may-as-well-kill-yourself worthless at 50 when I would trade my soul to have Helen Mirren's 72 year-old body for a day?

We’re all familiar with the “Blank is the new Blank!" trope that has inched up women's perceived fertility every few decades. ("Forty is the new thirty!" But, "fifty is the new forty!" So, is fifty the new thirty?) I'm not saying that the way society or Hollywood treats older women is perfect or even good, but you'd be hard-pressed to disagree with me that Nicole Kidman has it better than Norma Desmond. (And not just the character; Gloria Swanson was only 53 when she played Desmond and Sunset Boulevard was Swanson's last major starring role in American movie; she faded into obscurity after her most memorable role.)

So, how are we all inside this collective time machine? What's changed since 1950 that's redefined what age itself means? I have a few theories.

Some of it is that we're just living longer. Researchers say that “old age” means having 15 or fewer years left to live. By today’s statistics, that means old age doesn’t start until 74 years old. In 1950, "old age" started more than ten years earlier, at 63.

We're also waiting longer to do things. In 1950, the median marriage age was 20 for women and 23 for men. Today, it's 27 for women and 29 for men.

In 2017, for the first time ever, the CDC reported that more women had their first child in their 30s than in their 20s. The birthrate of women over 40 has doubled since 1990!  In 1950, the majority of women had given birth to their first child before 25 and less than one fifth gave birth to a first child between 25 and 30; the median age was somewhere around 24. These age differences aren't numerically huge but they're extremely significant, both in the way we think of age and in what late childbirth lets women accomplish before children.

Right or wrong (hint: it's wrong), we tend to link the idea of desirability with fertility. So, the fact that women are having children later, being fertile later, chasing toddlers later, being grandparents later, these factors themselves push back the looming desert of barren obscurity.

But it can't just be the numbers, because in 1950 "old age" was 63, yet Norma Desmond was sidelined more than a decade before that. There's a telling piece of dialogue later in the movie where Holden's character, the misanthropic journalist, dryly remarks: "There's nothing tragic about being fifty. Not unless you're trying to be twenty-five."

Despite our advances, there's no denying that society punishes women who cling to their youth. The entire Real Housewives franchise is premised on our sick voyeurism of aging women in denial about what's age-appropriate. Bravo! knows we love to tsk-tsk at the botox and the Spanx and the old ladies tottering about like ancient Bambis on their Louboutins. Yet, who among us doesn't secretly worship at their Lisa Vanderpump shrine of collagen and rosé before bed?

(Come to think of it, Norma Desmond would've made a fabulous housewife. All the money, insecurity, narcissism you could ask for. She would've thrown the weirdest game nights.)

Technology has allowed us to live longer and to look younger; maybe science is the real benefactor to society's increased ability to tolerate older women. Of course, this hasn't changed a damn thing about our values themselves. We still tie worth to youth and beauty; we still demand that women be attractive and sexual to be televised, even on the much-maligned reality kind. (Bravo! has built an empire exploiting those who overshoot their attempts at eternal youth and land in the grotesque.) We've just managed to engineer youth and beauty that, with a cut here and a snip there, lasts a little longer.

What I'm saying is: we've made great strides since Sunset Boulevard, strides that make it preposterous to consider a remake with a 50 year-old Desmond; that story just wouldn't make sense anymore, and that's great. (Lordy, Janet Jackson had a baby at 50 and girlfriend looks amazing.) But pushing back the finish line hasn't changed what crossing the finish line means for women of a certain age, or what new self-torturing backflips we require of women to stay in the race.

In the movie, Norma Desmond storms Paramount Studies demanding an audience with famed director, Cecil B. DeMille. An assistant comments: "She must be a million years old," to which DeMille replies. "I hate to think where that puts me. I could be her father." This discrepancy is not lost on anyone, and it's still alive and well in today's Hollywood (the post-Weinstein Mark Wahlberg/Michelle Williams pay grade disparity is a recent sad, presumably ubiquitous example).  Fifty is not the death-knell it used to be, but we're far from ageless and and even further from being ungendered.

Yet, there's hope. In 1993, Andrew Lloyd Webber adapted Sunset Boulevard into a Broadway musical. Norma Desmond was played by then-46 year-old Glenn Close, a role that received rave reviews but hardly challenged the notion of 50's decrepitude. The show received a brief Broadway revival last year...and Close, now 70, reprised her role to much acclaim. There's great poignancy in this casting; Desmond, played iconically by 53 year-old Swanson, then by 46 year-old Close, is finally played by a 70 year-old. And not just a 70 year-old, but the same, still-wanted, still-hirable, still-selling-tickets-24-years-later Glenn Close. There is some lovely sense of progress in this casting choice. Finally, maybe, perhaps, Desmond is ready for her close-up.

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