Chapter 1: Ring-A-Ling (Keystone, 1915)
One of the strangest consequences of silence was that it destroyed consequences. A thing might be seen to happen, but no logical aftereffects necessarily flowed from it. Not only could a clown land on his head after a spectacular two storey dive and get up whole, but a comedian could be shot in the seat of the pants and never be wounded. The comedian taking the shot presumably felt it; he jumped. But we did not feel him feeling the shot; we simply laughed and asked no questions when he came down intact and begging for more. The fantasy of silence suspended our obligation to feel, whenever we wished to suspend it.
(Walter Kerr: The Silent Clowns. New York 1975.)
Max is falling from a roof when he sees her. The two events aren't connected. It's his job to fall of roofs at this point; he's working as a stuntman, allowed to show his face sometimes in front of the camera as well, not least because Mack Sennett is too cheap to hire two people for the same job if he can avoid it. It's not what Max dreamed off when emigrating to America, but it's a living, and besides, he is starting to find movies fascinating. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, making something out of nothing, like the shows in the suburbs of Vienna but not.
He falls from a roof and is instantly replaced by Fatty Arbuckle, who gets up and runs after a bunch of girls. The girls are all wearing bathing suits, and why they should when they're crossing the road is a mystery, but you don't look for logic in a Mack Sennett movie. Well, Chaplin did, but Chaplin, amazingly going from being some English music hall comedian to being an American film attraction within a year, has just departed Keystone for Essenay or Mutual, Max can't remember which one. He tries very hard not to be eaten up with envy. He came to America years before Chaplin did, he's willing to work tirelessly, and yes, he has some ideas about how to make all those run and chase flickers more interesting, because how could you not want to. But when he tries to talk about said ideas to someone, they pretend not to understand his accent. When Chaplin did, he got a better contract from a rival production company.
Still, there are perks. The girls in their bathing suits, for one thing. They're led by Mabel, who is the heroine, about to encounter Fatty as the unlikely hero, trying to replace Chaplin, and they're, fitting with Sennett's tastes, long legged, with full breasts. It's a sunny day, Max is dusting himself off watching the girls and Fatty Arbuckle, who wears identical clothes but doesn't have cushions to remove as Max does, and it's impossible to feel too bad about the world right then. This is far better than a factory at home anyway.
One of the girls stands out because she's smaller than the others, and also ridiculously young, with the baby fat not quite gone from her cheeks and knees. But she holds her head high instead of giggling bashfully like the others. Maybe she wants to stand out. Well, she'll learn that she's not here for standing out, that's what Mabel does, she's hear to provide some nice background.
Watching her run, unembarrassed about the fact she's wearing a bathing suit on a dusty road, Max suddenly wishes the film they're shooting would change. It would be something, seeing her run for longer. Towards the camera, from the camera. On a beach, maybe, a proper one, not some shovels of sand on the backlot. And then see her swim. Because of the effect of water on skin, yes, but also because of the contrast; those waves of the sea against the human figure. Not that Sennett will ever be making something out of that.
The quick chase scene is done, Fatty has fallen into Mabel's arms, and it's time for the next take, which doesn't require the girls or a stuntman. Max, having removed everything that makes his figure look like Fatty Arbuckle's, saunters over to introduce himself.
"Max von Mayerling," he says, so used by now to the lie that it comes out like a self evident truth. You can impress Americans so easily with a title, they think Europeans are default aristocrats anyway, and besides, people called Max Mayer are as common as sand in these parts. He needs people to remember him.
One of the girls laughs, another widens her eyes. The one he's been focused on looks him up and down and asks frankly: "Are you really?"
Against his will, he finds himself smiling.
"Why shouldn't I be?"
"Because you look like a Mayerling von Max," she says with a grin, elbows the girl next to her and runs away with her friend, laughing. She must be even younger than he had originally assumed. Fifteen, sixteen at most. Maybe she took this job as a lark. He shrugs and decides schoolgirls aren't to his taste anyway.
Later, when he shows up in the office to get paid, he sees the girl again. She's wiping her mouth while she rises from the floor and is shaking while one of Sennett's flunkies is zipping his trousers up. When she notices Max, the girl's disturbed expression becomes blank. She raises her head again, and leaves the room with a straight back. Her mouth is swollen. Max isn't sure whether he feels indignant, disgusted, oddly excited or all of the above.
"Won't her parents give you trouble?" he asks when she's closed the door.
"Nah," the flunky says cheerfully. "No parents, I asked, and it could even be true. She really wanted the job, that one. And if they have mothers, the mothers show up to ask for the cash first, so..."
It's not the first time Max has come across the trading of sex for jobs in this business, far from it. But part of him wants to punch the man right now. The other part has an idea.
"Speaking of cash..."
"Jeez, enough already, you'll get yours."
"Tell you what," Max says, glad he's so fluent in English by now he sometimes dreams in the language, because he really wants to get his point across. "You can save money. If you let me direct tomorrow, you won't have to pay more for today, and I don't want extra money tomorrow, either."
He repeats his suggestion, speaking very precisely. The accent by now is part affectation anyway, to make the aristocrat believable. Sennett's assistant looks confused, but intrigued at the notion of saving money.
"And you think you can do it?"
Max thinks he's watched often enough, and that if Mack Sennett, who doesn't care if Mabel is wearing a red skirt in one scene and a white one in the next, can be a director, he can, too, but what he says out loud is that he has learned from the great Max Reinhardt himself in the old country.
"I thought you were some count, pal."
"After my family lost the castle and the money," Max says with a stony face.
"And this Reinhardt is a director?"
"The greatest in Europe," Max asserts, not mentioning the fact that this applies for the stage and that he doubts Reinhardt regards the flickers as more than a curious novelty.
"Hell, why not. It's just Mabel getting pie in her face, you can't fuck that up, I guess," the assistant decides. "I'll talk to Mack."
The next day, Max is earlier at Keystone than anyone else. He makes sure every new arrival knows that today, he is in charge, and that there will be no accidental crossings of the road or bored cigarette lightings in the background. "But it's about a pie battle," protests one of the Keystone regulars, "nobody in the audience will notice anything but that. They won't care if someone in the background smokes."
"Mr. Sennett cares, and he is paying your salary."
"He cares since when?"
"Since today," Max says, and finds the mutterings about Prussian sadists somewhere between satisfying and amusing, given he's Austrian. He's long given up explaining to Americans that you might as well call a Texan a Canadian, and vice versa. But it is important they respect him and listen to him, and it seems they do; maybe just in order to get it over with, but they listen and take position. Even Mabel Normand, who is the star and the producer's lover, though she has a slight frown on her face when he explains he has an additional scene in mind before the great pie battle, that trademark of Keystone anarchy, can commence.
"We need one of the girls for that," Max says, pretends to be unsure, and then points at the girl he has had in mind all along. He'd been curious as to whether she would show up with a grim face this morning, but no; she'd been all smiles and laughter with the other girls again, as if he'd never seen her getting up from the floor, trying to wipe the results of a blow job from her mouth. It's remarkable.
"You! Come here."
She comes closer, and her smile flickers a bit, then steadies itself again. Only her eyes, which are widened, betray she might be uneasy or afraid instead of all early morning cheer, her eyes and the fact she holds her hands behind her back so he can't see them.
"We are in a store," Max says, "and Mabel is shopping for her wedding when the pie battle starts. But before that, she will try on her hat. Only she will not be standing in front of a mirror. It will be an empty frame, and another girl will be on the other side, with the same hat. Both coming closer, thinking they see their reflection."
"She doesn't look much like me," Mabel Normand interrupts while the girl forgets to smile and to look relentlessly cheerful and instead starts to look intrigued. "She is a brunette, for starters."
"You haven't washed your hear today and so it will photograph darker anyway," Max retorts; he has an eye for details, and not much consideration for Mabel Normand's feelings. "But you," he continues, addressing the girl, "you will have to imitate Miss Normand's movements precisely. Can you do that?"
"Yes, I can," she says, all youthful eagerness and determination. He hopes so. The gag depends on it. He makes them practice, Mabel Normand and the girl, once, twice, three times, and Mabel is starting to look indignant, muttering something about this not being bloody Broadway. It's not that they aren't good at executing his idea, she and the girl, but there is something in him that wants more, more than good, even for a brief gag in the latest Keystone film which no one will notice beyond a short laugh: he wants perfection. It is a miraculous and incredibly satisfying feeling, having the tools to demand it, even if it's just for a day.
The girl knows better than to complain, but he notices she watches him between practices, watches him carefully and with the kind of blank face she showed when exiting the office yesterday. It's such a startling contrast to the way she mirrors Mabel down to the slight sulkiness of her mouth when playing the mirror scene, when her expression is just as vivid as it should be. At last, he pronounces them ready, and the camera rolls.
They play out the mirror scene exactly as instructed, the girl and Mabel, until the end, when they're supposed to bump their noses and fall backwards. Instead, the girl leans forward ever so lightly and kisses Mabel on the mouth. Mabel is surprised enough to fall on her backside anyway, and the girl does the same. When he orders a cut and a new position of the camera so it can close in on Mabel, the girl turns and winks at him.
"I thought that was a better ending," she says innocently.
"We'll see," Max says, and gets on with the business of staging the big pie battle. At some point, it suddenly occurs to him that if he'd stayed in Austria, he would be busy fighting real battles right now, would be bleeding in the trenches. He shivers, dismisses the thought and is engulfed in the present again. By the end of the day, he finds the girl waiting for him when the others, glad to be finally done, have rushed home already.
"Thanks for giving me a scene," the girl says. "That was really nice of you."
"Mr. Sennett can still cut it if he doesn't like it," Max replies, taking in that she's without any adult escorts or any of her friends, but doesn't come across as flirtatious, either. On the contrary: no sooner has he finished speaking that she flares up in indignation.
"No, he can't!" she protests. "I was really good in it!"
"How old are you?" he asks, and she replies quickly, too quickly, that she's seventeen. Max raises an eyebrow, and she relents.
He suspects it might be more like fifteen and a half, but he doesn't press further.
"Then you are too young to know better," he says. "Sometimes being good isn't enough."
"Like you're that old," she mutters. "And it is, too. If - if you give me another scene, you'll see. He won't cut that, either. Will you give me another?"
"I am not sure I will get to direct again," Max returns, and sees her indignation for the second time in a short while.
"But you were good at it," the girl says. "Better than Himself yesterday. You really knew what everyone should do. You have to do it again!"
This whole time, he's not been sure what he wants from her, other than a short experiment to see whether he could make that fluid grace end up on screen somehow; whether he wants her on her knees, as that flunky had her yesterday, or as a sweetheart, like the girls of his half faded adolescent dreams where you courted them with flowers and weekend trips to the Prater. But right now, it seems she offers something else. She's seen him, as he has seen her. Seen that he can be more than a stuntman. He has not expected that; it's one thing to believe yourself capable of so much more, and another to hear from a stranger that you are.
From a girl not yet grown up. He's in his mid twenties, aware that he has to exercise constantly to remain muscular instead of stocky, and already balding. But looking into her eyes, he has to think of mirrors again, and that Mabel today isn't the only one this girl is able to reflect.
"What is your name?"
"Norma Desmond," she returns, and he can't resist, he has to ask: "Are you really?"
She smiles at him, not with the relentless cheerfulness she cloaked herself in this morning, but with the delighted grin of a fellow conspirator.
"Yes," she says firmly. "Mr. von Mayerling, Sir, I absolutely am."
Chapter 2: Demons and Angels (Mutual, 1918)
Playing evil German officers while there is a war going on in Europe and Africa was very lucrative; playing evil German officers after the US finally entered the war enables Max to buy that house he's had his eye on for a while, and get a three picture deal with himself as the director to boot.
"There are other people playing Huns, you know," the producer tells him in what is a hollow bluff. Of course there are. But none the audience loves to hate as much as Max von Mayerling, not least because most actors can't resist the instinct to ask for at least a little bit of sympathy. They need to be beloved. Max, who doesn't see himself as an actor as much as he sees acting as a better way to finance the films he actually wants to make than doing stunts does, doesn't have that problem.
"And I want Norma Desmond to play the nurse," he says.
"Isn't that one of Sennett's girls? Do you want the audience to start giggling when they're supposed to piss in their pants?"
"They won't laugh."
Norma has lost the last of her baby fat a while ago, and has made it to leading parts, but Keystone isn't where you get to play dramatic roles. The best part she got was a Chaplin imitation, a female Little Tramp; hilarious, and extremely satisfying to Sennett because Chaplin can't sue, but nothing original.
"We've got Lina Lamont under contract and she still owes us one more picture at her old rate," the producer argues.
"I want Norma Desmond."
He gets her, too. She plays the Belgian nurse at the hospital the evil German officer attacks. In a scene that will make the audience gasp in terror and not so hidden thrills, he'll drag her to the floor, tearing the cap and blouse away to expose her long dark hair and young white flesh, photographed luminously. Then a baby in the nursery she's defending will scream and Max , topping every villain he ever played in evilness, will throw it out of the window before getting on with the rape.
"She should pretend to go along with it and should kill him then," Norma says when he tells her the story. This is why he loves her. In the original script, the brave British soldier wounded and hidden at the same hospital hears the cries, comes into the room and shoots the evil German, but that is expected, that is boring.
"Kill him how?"
With the pins in her hair that fall out when he grabs it to drag her to the floor, Norma suggests, and when Max points out they won't go deep enough, she says the nurse can stab the officer's eyes with them, then, as he tries to strangle her and can't see her anymore, taking the man's pistol and shoot him. It's cruel, extremely visual and exciting; the audience will eat it up.
They've been married for a year now. It became necessary when she started to be in enough comedies that a man claiming to be the long lost father who walked out on her mother and siblings when Norma was a baby showed up to be reunited with his still underage daughter and collect her earnings. Max never asks Norma whether the man was actually her father, or at least could have been. She never asked him about his lengthy tales of life as an officer in the Austrian Empire, either. Neither of them truly existed before they came here, after all. But he does ask her to marry him. The man who may or may not have been her father has seen enough films to look somewhat scared, as if he expects Max to pull out a whip at any moment, and never shows his face again.
They've been married for a year now, and they never had sex. Not because she refuses him, or because he doesn't want her. He tells her they can't risk her getting pregnant and thus unable to film, or ruin her health with an abortion. It sounds more sensible than the real reason, which is this: he finds it more satisfying to have her in the presence of the camera. You can have sex with any woman in the privacy of your own rooms. They become interchangable after a while, or at least they do for Max, who, ever since becoming "The Man You Love To Hate", finds himself never lacking interested female company. This kind of sex is easy and basically a better form of sport.
But. Putting Norma in front of the camera. Creating and recreating her there. Knowing she understands what he's getting at, takes it and makes it her own, creating herself; sharing that with her while making everyone in the audience desire her, while knowing no one, not one of them can have her in this particular way, not like he can and does - that is true satisfaction.
He finds a new way to light her face for the scene in which she kills him, sculpting her cheekbones like the work of art they are. Watching the rushes, he becomes aware that the focus of the film has shifted. The audience will still love to hate him, and they'll root somewhat for the British officer, but the one they'll worship, the one they'll come back to watch a second and third time, will be the nurse, Norma, lips glistening as she blinds him and saves the day.
He's made her a star, he thinks, and the hot satisfaction rises from his spine through the cranium until it reaches his mouth and burns him.
Chapter 3: Her Husbands (Paramount, 1920)
Norma wanting to work for Cecil B. DeMille would have hurt in almost any other circumstance. But Max has just triumphed by accomplishing what everyone has told him was impossible, to film an operetta in a silent medium. He's starting to eye the ultimate challenge, a film which will last not for one hours, not for two, but for six, possibly eight - why should there be limits, if a film is compelling enough? Of course, there will have to be a worthy subject. And someone to finance it, because by now he's grown fastidious. When someone eats caviar in a Max von Mayerling film, only real caviar gets served. He demands it, and it happens; a part of him which will be eternally fourteen and eternally running from a factory in Vienna will never stop being pleased and amazed.
In any case, he's basking in acclaim and filled with creativity, which means he can be generous. DeMille, admittedly, is a talented director, he'll serve Norma well, but DeMille is also someone who is playing it safe. Take that scenario of his. It aims for sophistication and sexual frisson, the story of a young woman who ends up at the altar three times, only to eventually return in the arms of her childhood sweetheart whom she thought lost in the war. The audience can feel simultanously dissapproving of a frivolous young woman and then reassured she only ever loved one man all the time; delighting in her flirtations while knowing she will end up in a wholesome marriage behind a white picket fence.
"What, you don't think I can do wholesome?" Norma asks. She's only recently celebrated her twentieth birthday, and the fan letters arrive daily by now. They'll soon be able to move into an even bigger house. "I thought you said I can play anything."
She's teasing, but not completely. Norma will get up at five in the morning if the studio demands it and work till ten at night, but she needs her praise.
"Of course you can," Max says, mentally trying to calculate just how much a film version of Emile Zola's Nana would cost, Zola's story of a streetwalker turning high class cocotte, destroying every man around her until she rots away of small pox. Now that would be a true challenge, and no one but he would dare to master it.
"Well, then there's nothing to worry about, is there?" Norma comments a bit archly, and suddenly he imagines her still tied up in this lightweight thing by DeMille when he needs her for a true masterpiece. He decides that it couldn't hurt to keep an eye on things and asks DeMille, man to man, to give him a small part in the film. "Something to pass away the time while I decide on my next project," Max says grandly, and in the knowledge that since he's the one negotiating his wife's contracts, DeMille has no choice but to do him the favour if he wants Norma to star.
"Naturally," DeMille replies, and casts him as the butler of Norma's second husband, an English lord. If possible, it calls for even less variety of expression than evil German officers do, but it gives Max the opportunity to keep an eye on proceedings.
Satisfyingly, DeMille, while very good with detail, is cheap enough to accept dross for gold, literally. And does indeed play it safe. He dresses Norma in gorgeous clothes that tantalize, but only so much and not further, just like Max expected, and as if to prevent the embarassment of trying to flirt with her and being rejected, calls her "young fellow". Well, he could be her father.
Out of sheer generosity, Max offers to help him out with the directing of the ball scene.
"I know how to move people," DeMille says stonily.
"But you don't know what a real European ballroom looks like," Max says, deliberately allowing his accent to thicken, "do you?"
At that moment, he has utterly forgotten that his own idea of ballrooms in mansions and palaces is entirely derived from watching operettas at the Josephstheater. His past has been successfully rewritten. DeMille visibly seethes but says "Of course I'm glad to get the benefit of your expertise" nonetheless. What Max utterly misses is Norma's embarrassment, until they're alone again.
"Are you going to do that every time I shoot with another great director?"
"DeMille isn't great," he protests. "Griffith, now... but Griffith would be glad to have my advice in any case."
"I want a divorce," she says, utterly shocking him.
"Max," she says, "nobody will cast me again if they think they have to put up with you as a fellow director just because we're married. DeMille has made that quite clear to me today."
He hadn't believed it possible that anyone or anything could hurt him like this.
"Nobody," he says slowly, "can direct you like I can. Nobody."
She doesn't resemble any of the roles he's given her, or like that charming but ultimately harmless creature she portrays for DeMille when she looks at him. Instead, she comes across like a stranger, a young woman just beginning her life, when they both know her life already started years ago when the two of them met.
"Maybe," she says. "And maybe you won't find anyone to direct like me."
He wants to say that there are dozens and dozens of girls like her, all arriving in Hollywood eager to do just about anything, and he can make any of them a star, but he doesn't believe it, that's the trouble. He can only lie when he believes.
He imagines not directing her anymore, and the hollowness inside is unbearable.
"I will not act or interfere in any more of your pictures not directed by me. There is no need for a divorce," he replies at last, stiffly, and despite the pain and humilation, a part of him seizes this moment, and declares this must be what the signing of the treaty at Versailles felt like, and if he ever needs to play a German officer again, he can remember this moment. Norma senses it as well, the seismic shift of power that lies in his capitulation, and he hopes she'll remember the next time she plays one of her exquisite tyrants, because this is her expression exactly.
"Darling," she murmurs, and pats him on the cheek, despite being smaller, "of course there isn't."
Chapter 4: Nana (MGM, 1924)
The Maharaja who hanged himself with Norma's discarded stockings actually was the younger son of an Indian nobleman and has gambling debts, but the press doesn't care at all. Predictably, Norma Desmond stockings are all the rage; every fashion designer on the planet, it seems, besieges her to wear his robes, beads, jewels, peacock and ostrich feathers, nail polish, anything in her next movie. The only actress in Hollywood commanding higher salaries is Mary Pickford, America's sweetheart, the Iron Butterfly who co-founded United Artists with her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, and Norma has gotten it into her head she needs her own production company, too.
Which is fortunate for Max, because neither Paramount, MGM or any of the others wants to finance Nana. At least not the way Max wants to film it. Moral cowards, the lot of them. Louis B. Mayer, who makes Max glad they're not namesakes, even murmurs something about needing some self-censoring production code, and Zukor mumbled something about no movie who makes bums sore by its sheer length being able to bring in profit.
"Who's willing to sit down for six fucking hours, huh?"
"Everyone who ever shows up for a Wagner opera," Max says smartly, forebearing to mention that he had to stand for the three Wagner operas he saw because he couldn't afford tickets for seats back in the day.
"Well, this isn't some Hun opera. Flickers are supposed to be fun, damn it! No man has fun if he wants to pee."
Max is willing to gamble all of his own fortune on his masterpiece, but it won't be enough, not if he wants to rebuild part of 19th century Paris on the backlot and do some location shooting in France to boot. And Norma may not be a master mathematician, but knows that if she really wants her own production company, she's going to need more than just one director, and will have to finance more than just one movie. Besides, she's read the script and the part where Nana dies eaten up by small pox, her much coveted body falling apart.
"That's eight hours of make-up at least," she says, undoubtedly remembering the time she played Galatea for Griffith's Pygmalion and had to keep still for that long while being covered in bandages and plaster for the stunning scene where the statue comes to live. "And for what? So the audience can run away in horror?" She looks at him with narrowed eyes. "You don't want to make them hate me, do you?" she suddenly asks.
What he wants is more complicated than that. They don't speak very much these days, he and Norma. It's not that he minds the lovers, and he has several of his own, but the fact her pictures with DeMille are more associated with her than those she shot with him, that burns and eats him up inside. He wants to erase every cinema goers memory of any incarnation of Norma but those he created, and letting her transform in Nana from irresistable and cruel life force to rotting living corpse is going to accomplish that. But this isn't want he tells her. What he says is:
"No. I want you to prove to them, all of them, that you can make them love you with your eyes alone. And you can. Anyone can fall in love with a pretty face and a good body. But you are the only actress in Hollywood with the courage to do this. None of the others would dare. They'll come for the first hour and to see you break men. They'll stay because you'll force them to stare at you even when their every sense would scream to run away." He makes a pause. "Or are you afraid?"
He knows her well enough still to know he has her with that. She'll be his Nana. But she still won't put all her money into the film. So they decide to take advantage of the fact many rich people are looking to invest in the movies these days to become even richer. Except they, too, blanch at the thought of six to eight hours, even with Norma Desmond in the lead, or if they don't, they don't have the kind of money that would be genuinely helpful. None of them, that is, except for Noah Cross, one of the local Los Angeles industrialists looking to branch out. Not surprisingly, he's smitten with Norma. More surprisingly, because he's actually good looking and full of amusing stories, she takes an immediate dislike to him.
"Von," Cross says one evening to Max when they're both watching Norma dancing tango with Rudy Valentino, "how much do you want that movie to happen, hm?"
Enough that Max doesn't mind being called "Von", which he has always thought was a stupid nickname; people don't refer to DeMille as "De", do they? He goes again into his spiel about what a masterpiece the film will be, and Noah Cross lazily waves his assertions aside.
"You're still fucking around," he says in what sounds like an Irish drawl, certainly not Californian, but then, Max has good reason to know that everyone who makes it in this place was born elsewhere. "How much do you want that picture?"
He's still looking at laughing, dancing Norma, and his meaning is clear. It is a strange moment of clarity for Max. Which fits with Zola and his tales of buyable love, of course, except that this isn't about love, it's about immortality, his and Norma's both. And maybe, just maybe, it's also about payback, and that sense of impotence he gets every time he passes another ad for her in someone else's movie.
When he later tells Norma that she could be kinder to Noah Cross, she assumes he's joking and laughs. Maybe it's the champagne, or the amphetamines that mean she can dance through the nights and still be on set in the morning, but she's still gliding on a wave of unreachable giddiness, so he decides to make his meaning so clear she can't miss it even when drunk and says: "After all, you did it before. And you won't have to be on your knees this time. I'm sure Mr. Cross won't insist."
The amusement drains out of her quicker than she can draw breath. She stares at him, chalk-white. They have never, ever referred to that scene in the producer's office at Keystone, but he knows she hasn't wiped it from her memory the way she sometimes does with life's unpleasantnesses, because Sennett's flunky sought employment at Paramount just two years ago, and she made certain that everyone knew she would never work in any movie where he as much as changed a light bulb. He'd meant to draw blood, but as the silence grows and grows between them, he knows he made a terrible mistake.
"I want you out of the house tomorrow," she says.
She means it, too. He gets a letter from her lawyer about the divorce at the hotel he's moving in at the same time as he gets a phone call from Noah Cross telling him the production of Nana can start whenever Max wants. By the time the production does start, the divorce has gone through. But Norma is still playing Nana. Because she believes, Max thinks, because she knows it will be their masterpiece. Because nobody can direct her like he can. As long as they still have that, does the rest matter?
As it turns out, it does. She doesn't speak a word to him that's not professional, but in her eyes he sees no longer a genius, he sees a pathetic man who has taken on more than he can chew, who bullies his cast and crew not because he's a perfectionist who can't stand sloppiness but because Noah Cross' constant visits on the set gall him, and he has to take out the fact he can't tell the man to get lost on someone.
Watching the daily rushes is the only time he feels as convinced as ever this will be what makes them immortal for good. Norma will understand then. Of course she will. She will be grateful, too. But when he makes the mistake of inviting her to watch the rushes as a gesture of reconciliation, she brings Cross along, and from that point onwards, Cross insists on watching the daily rushes as well.
"Von," Cross says one evening, "this is getting out of hand. Shooting a mass scene again because a fucking waiter in the background didn't wear white gloves? That's how you waste my money?"
"The illusion must be perfect," Max replies stonily.
"Buddy, the only guy under illusions here is you. Get your act together. And while you're at it, nobody wants a depressing ending where the leading lady makes you throw up. If you want to punish her, fine, then let her become a nun. She'll look great in those veils."
"The whole point..." Max explodes, grateful for an excuse to finally vent his outrage and self disgust at the man he blames for his current state, but Cross cuts him off.
"The point," the industrialist says pleasantly, softly, "'is that I'm bankrolling this sucker. And you know what that means? I decide how it brings in the cash. You know what makes the audience come in? Not some waiter and his white gloves. Norma. So Norma gets to stay, but you, Von, buddy, you're fired. Directors are a dime a dozen in this place. And I see no point in your sour face hanging around if you can't bring in the goods."
Nana is mutilated into something lasting less than two hours, released through MGM, with a fake happy ending, and there is nothing Max or his lawyers can do to prevent it. Neither critics nor audience can make much sense of it in this form, and so it flops. It doesn't damage Norma, whose latest DeMille picture opens not long after and who manages to delight the papers with her whirlwind romance and marriage to a genuine French Marquis which started during the shooting of her next film, a Napoleonic romance. But the only film which gets offered to Max as a director is a third rate Western, and when he declines , he gets nothing at all.
The fact Noah Cross these days is seen with some young actress from Minnesota on his arm instead of Norma doesn't help. The fact Max discovers he can still make a living playing sadistic villains doesn't help, either. One day he hears people gossip that Norma will stay in Europe, because isn't her life a fairy tale come true, and why should a Marquise want to work as an actress anyway? This is the worst. He torments himself with the idea of her in some French garden cutting roses which can never look as French as those from the Universal backlot anyway, never shooting a film again, and one night seriously considers committing suicide.
Then one day he opens the papers and reads she's back. Divorced from the Marquis, very fetching in a new haircut, and still determined to beat Mary Pickford as the highest paid actress in Hollywood when negotiating the contract for her next film.
He still can't be sure she didn't put up Cross to ruin his movie in order to get her revenge, but at least something is still right in the world.
Chapter 5: To The Limit (United Artists, 1927)
Her interlude as a French Marquise has changed Norma. Gossip reaches Max that she, once a tireless worker, has become demanding in her conditions; she won't show up before ten at a set, and not at all if her astrologer, something else she has acquired abroad, declared it unfortunate.
"Look, we want her at United Artists," one of Max' old acquaintances says, because Norma has decided not to renew her contract with Paramount, and, the project of establishing her own company having started and ended with the Nana/Cross disaster, has signed up with UA instead. "But not like that. Pickford doesn't behave like that. Chaplin doesn't. Who does she think she is? Talk some sense into her."
"She's Norma Desmond," Max says gravely, and, inwardly glad for the excuse, allows himself to be begged to visit Norma. The occasion is the party she gives at her new villa at Sunset Boulevard, build specifically for her; it happens both to celebrate Charles Lindbergh's landing in Paris and the new house, and as half of Hollywood is invited, it isn't too difficult to find someone to take him along.
The party is in full swing when he arrives with Don Lockwood, who is that rarity, a good natured actor not minding that Max had once called him a lazy grin on gymnast's legs too idle to actually act on a set. Lockwood mixes and mingles, and Max, discreetly approaching the terrace where Norma holds court, hears her say, "you know, it's darling that Lindy crossed the Atlantic all on his own, but really, if you'd been to Paris you'd know it's not worth all the bother".
"Come on, Norma," one of her admirers cries, "Paris?"
"Boring and stuffy," she declares firmly, but she doesn't smile or twinkle as she would have in previous days.
Which is when he understands that gossip has cause and effect of Norma's behaviour completely wrong. It isn't that the French aristocracy has spoiled her. On the contrary. Max can see it as if he'd been there. She hadn't been a glamorous American movie star to them, just a girl who never finished school, can't speak one foreign language, and has learned all she thought she knew about the world from other films. They hadn't adored her. They'd treated her with contempt, and that is why now that she is back, she needs reassurance that she really is the goddess the papers have declared her to be. Because she has seen herself in strangers' eyes as insignificant, and that is unbearable.
Max, who has been very careful to never, ever, return to Austria even at the height of his success, understands that only too well, and because he understands, he suddenly knows there is a way he can have her back.
He doesn't speak to her at the party. He just watches her from afar, and waits, and does not leave when the other guests are finally starting to. Then he puts the fear of God into the people she has hired who of course are busy helping themselves from the leftover buffet.
"But... who are you?" stammers one of them when Max orders him and the others to clean up before Madame wakes up.
He could have said his name, or called himself Norma's former husband, or even lied and said he was her lover, but he doesn't do any of this. He does what will be most effective.
"The new butler," Max says grimly, and as opposed to any other claim he might have made, this is believed at once.
There is some insignificant pretty musician she'd danced and then had sex with still at the house, dozing away in one of the guest rooms, but Norma hasn't let him sleep in her own bed, and so she is alone when Max brings her breakfast. She sits up and obviously realises she isn't dreaming at once, hangover be damned. He is proud of her.
"You can't come back," she says quietly, but she accepts the tray. "You made your choice, Max. When you asked me - you made your choice."
"I did," he acknowledges. He has betrayed her then, and she has broken him in return. But they can still be each other's mirrors, she and he. See what none of the rest of the world could reflect to them. "I am choosing now, too. I never was the actor you are, and I think my roles are played out. As a husband and a director. But the greatest star in the world needs someone to make sure the world acknowledges her as such, and this, my dear, I can still do."
They look at each other, and he knows she can see it on his face, the acknowledgment of her power, her utter and complete power over him. Whatever they did to her in France, treated her with disdain, laughed, or just offered a reality too different from what she had expected: he is reality, too, he has known her from the start, and if he sees her as divine, she is.
"I heard you are shooting with Raoul Walsh at United Artists," he says. "It is beneath you, having to argue about working conditions. Let me simply state them. That is what assistants are for."
"Assistants?" she asks slowly.
He can't direct anymore. A part of him believes that even if some studio would give him all the money and all the liberty in the world, he wouldn't be able to. Because she has been his mirror, too, and she had stopped believing during Nana, or she wouldn't have been able to let Noah Cross butcher the film, revenge be damned. And playing villains, while paying his bills, does not make him feel alive. He simply goes through the motions. This, however, will return life to him. Hating her, loving her, worshipping her, and making her unable to live without him again, one way or the other, until she gives him back the belief she once has had in him.
"I told your servants I was the new butler," Max says. "If that is a title you prefer."
Chapter 6: Three To Conquer (United Artists, 1929)
Experiments with sound have been going on for decades, but until The Jazz Singer, none of them has lasted or made a difference. Two years after The Jazz Singer, it is clear that this time, sound won't go away.
"I won't do it," Chaplin says in the meeting they have at Mary Pickford's bungalow, he, Fairbanks, Griffith, Mary herself, Norma and Max. "If the Tramp speaks, he's dead."
Max knows what he means. The Tramp, silent, is universal and can be of any nationality. Chaplin's voice, even after decades in the US, is distinctly English, ties him to a place and a time, even a class. Not to mention that half of the gags won't be funny anymore if they come complete with huffs, cries and sighs.
"That's all very well for you, Charlie," Mary Pickford says sorely, "but the rest of us make more than one film every three or four years, and honestly, if the studio is to survive we need to produce more talkies. With stars."
"Well, I'm too old for elocution lessons, that's for sure," Fairbanks comments, "but we could hire some of the kids from Broadway."
"Or you could have faith," Norma explodes. "Faith in the audience. Faith in us. They haven't suddenly gone blind, have they? They still know what is good. They still love..."
"They love you a little less each time a new young face shows up, honey," Mary says brutally, "and me, too."
Norma gives her a disdainful look. "I play grown up women, not children. My audience expects me to look like an adult."
In the end, they agree that they will produce future films in two versions, silent and with sound, and hire some new scenarists who have dialogue expertise from theatre plays. Norma's first film to exist in both variations will be the adaption of a current Broadway hit, Three To Conquer.
When negotiating her contract, Max insists on the right to review the daily rushes, and as soon as he does, he knows they're in for a disaster. The ones from the silent version are fine; Norma is as great as ever. But the ones from the sound version are grotesque. Norma's voice doesn't have a distinctive regional drawl, in that she's lucky, but she hasn't been trained to use it as an instrument. Even worse, the combination of her expressive gestures, so poetic and wonderfully ambiguous in the silent version, with some banal every day statement like "but Robert, I do love you!" comes across as over the top and insincere instead of seductive and mysterious.
"The sound version must not be released," he tells her. At this point, she's married to some swimmer who won a medal in the most recent Olympics and is mostly harmless, except if he fancies himself entitled to voice an opinion.
"Don't be such a sourpuss, Max, old man, they'll love it. It's Norma!"
"You have to insist," Max says to Norma, ignoring the man, and he can see fear in her eyes, because he has never doubted her ability to triumph in any film before. Then the swimmer, curse him, interferes yet again.
"I don't know about you, hon," he says to Norma, "but if I don't show up for a race, people say I'm chickening out and I can kiss those medals goodbye for good."
The sound version of Three To Conquer gets released. It's a resounding flop. Some people even call it box office poison. It is the only one of her films of which Norma never possesses a copy.
"I'm not doing any more talking pictures," she declares in an interview with her friend Hedda Hopper, defiantly. "They're just an inferior fad, not worth my attention."
When she celebrates her thirtieth birthday, she doesn't know she will never work again.
Chapter 7: The Norma Desmond Revue (unreleased, 1941)
Norma spends the early Thirties travelling incessantly, and acquires a menage of exotic pets from all over the world while she does so, but as Europe and Asia are working themselves up to new wars, she stops. For a while, she still goes to premieres and dazzles at parties, but then she stops that as well, because every time she attends any kind of public outing, she inevitably gets asked when her newest picture will be released.
Better to stay with the Siberian tiger and try to teach him new tricks, though Max has trouble disciplining the staff into feeding the animal, until he decides they don't need that many servants anyway, and he might as well do it himself. The tiger respects him. Norma, it loves.
It's still not enough to fill all the not working hours, and men aren't, either; there are longer and longer intervals between her attempts at love affairs, and she stops trying marriage at all. Playing bridge and visiting some of her old friends like Buster Keaton or H.B. Warner who are in similar positions just serves to emphasize the difference between then and now. By 1938 she's bored enough with her life that she accepts an invitation from Noah Cross, of all the people, not least because Max has speculated out loud that if Cross, who still holds the rights for Nana, were to agree to release an uncut version, it might usher in a renaissance of the silent film. Why not? Chaplin is still holding out. There was dialogue in Modern Times, granted, but minimal, and not from him. Which proves an audience is still there. It could happen.
Noah Cross of course is doing splendidly, - he would -, though his daughter died the previous year under dramatic circumstances. He barely even blinks when seeing Norma arrive with her pet tiger. This turns out to be a mistake, because the tiger, possibly picking up on Norma's and Max' feelings for the man, takes an immediate dislike to Noah Cross and proceeds to go for his throat.
When the Los Angeles police shoots the tiger while it's mauling what's left of Cross, it breaks Norma's heart. It also buries any hopes Max had for a release of the real Nana, because Cross, wouldn't you know it, has left the film rights to some petty lawyers from the East Coast.
When war breaks out in Europe, he's suddenly contacted by relations whom he hasn't heard of for decades, yearning for visa and needing people to declare they have guaranteed employment in the US. Norma gives them jobs as gardeners and maids for a while, and it is strange, so strange, to be called "Uncle Max" and realise that he's forgotten much of his own native language. It occurs to him that he could work again. German villains are more in demand than ever. They might even grant him the right to direct once more. But if he worked, and Norma couldn't, it would kill her. Though the truth is more complicated than that. He would be one of many on a film set. What he does here is unique. He is directing, in a way, directing Norma, creating and organizing the setting in which she lives her life, the life of a goddess, even if it is a goddess in retreat. It is the most elaborate production he ever oversaw, and he still is a perfectionist.
When America enters the war, Norma tells him she has had an idea. So many of the actors do their bit for the troops, revues, cabaret performances, recitations; she can do that as well. And he can direct. She's filled with enthusiasm and fire, so much so that she makes him believe as well, and they pour endlessly over the possibilities. No speeches, of course, but pantomime. She can still do her old routines from the Keystone days, down to and including her piece de resistance, the Chaplin number, and when the two maids who are Max' second or third degree cousins and have lived through the daily horrors by the Nazis in Europe laugh and applaud spontaneously, the haughtiness that forms much of Norma's daily demeanour these days melts into graciousness and delight.
The Norma Desmond Revue is ready to dazzle the troops and the world. Except for the part where no one wants to see it. Not one of the studios who organize these things says yes, and the fact that Marlene Dietrich, who is only a few years younger, started in silent film as well and is German to boot, is gratefully accepted makes it even worse. "Well," the army official Max talks to when he's out of studio people to see, "she can sing."
He tries to keep it a secret from Norma and spends an incredible amount of her money on hiring a camera crew and a soundstage so they can film the revue, pretending the result will be sent to the troops overseas. It's the maids who give him away, under some delusion that gratitude to Norma for employing them means telling her the truth.
She tries to kill herself for the first time that night. Not with pills; she has remembered their film together about the Empress Poppea, and Seneca's death scene, Max hiring a doctor who explained about the Romans cutting their veins in a warm bath and made it look as real as possible. It's only then that he realises it hadn't been realistic enough. The colour of blood would have photographed far darker mingling in the hot water than the red paint they used for H.B. Warner to smear himself in.
Max stays with Norma that night, stays in her bed for the first time since those earliest days when he decided he would not have sex with her.
"Let me go," she says, when she wakes up at some point during the night. "I've got nothing left. Let me go."
He lets everyone else go instead. Not just his interfering relations, who weep and protest they only meant well, but everyone. Cleaning women and a gardener come once a week, and Norma still does her health regime of exercises with a trainer, gets her manicure and coiffure, but all those people come only to do their specific service and leave again. No one stays in the villa but Max. They're alone together, he and Norma, and maybe that is how it was always meant to be.
Chapter 8: The March of Time (weekly news, third July week in 1950)
For a writer, Joe Gillis is a singularly uncurious and unobservant creature. Norma shows him her old films for months, and he never realizes Max directed many of them, starred in several, until Max spells it out to him. Even then, there is never a question about any of the films, how they were produced, what the idea was, what the obstacles were, how a particularly tricky shot was accomplished, oh no. Joe Gillis has the chance to talk to the other giants of the silent age like Keaton every week when they come to visit Norma, but does he use it, ever? He does not. Instead, he pouts about the horrible fate of being Norma's lover, and when he does ask something, it's a silly question like "but if you were her husband, how can you bear letting her treat you like that, like a servant? What kind of man are you, Max?"
Max says nothing, rather pointedly, and Joe Gillis flushes and wanders off, undoubtedly mentally composing some self loathing quips about his own situation with Norma. You'd think Joe considers himself to be the first person ever paid for providing his body and company. How he gets that idea, living in Hollywood, is beyond Max. Norma at fifteen, rising from her knees at that producer's office and showing up the next day for work full of cheer and determination, showed more maturity than Gillis does at - what age is the man anyway? He has to be at least thirty.
But he is something new, and as opposed to the chimp, the last of Norma's pets, he can at least talk back. He renews Norma's hopes, which makes Gillis not completely useless, and as opposed to the Olympic medal winning swimmer from yesteryear, he doesn't give idiotic advice on matters he cannot possibly understand. Still, Max can't see it ending well, and end it will. He wishes Gillis would hurry things up and return to wherever he came from .
Of course, it's likely that some part of Gillis realises his current form of employment is the only one he actually has talent for. Max has taken the trouble to see what few films Gillis has scripted after the man entered Norma's life. They have the occasional witty moment, but are otherwise mediocre standard. In a way, Gillis reminds him of DeMille; both capable of producing entertainment, but nothing truly daring, nothing deep or revolutionary. Gillis is a third rate hack who presumes to pass judgment on the genius actress and genius director in whose company he is privileged to exist for a few months for the way they spend their lives, and Max never can decide whether he finds this presumptous or funny.
He should have known better. He should have remembered that mediocrities can still do great damage.
Still, by the time Joe Gillis ends up as a corpse in the swimming pool, Max doesn't have the energy to resent him anymore. All the willpower he has is focused on one thing, and one thing only. "You're on the stairs of the palace, Norma," he says, calling her "Norma" again instead of "Madame", and in the middle of policemen and reporters, she hears him. It is there again in her eyes, the belief, the utter faith in everything he is and can do, and with every inch of his old authority he commands the camera men who don't know him from Adam and haven't done a real movie, as opposed to newsreels, in their lives.
"Lights! Camera! Action!"
They obey. Norma doesn't get dragged out of her own house as a criminal. She descends the stairs of a film setting. No one can direct her like he does. No one can act for him like she can. This is their life. It always has been. At long last, it has been given back to them.