Long before Orange is the New Black, there was the original Crazy Eyes- Norma Desmond. As depicted in this week’s Cinema Sips film Sunset Boulevard (DVD/Download), she really was the benchmark against which crazy should be measured. It wasn’t only her eyes; this lady dressed up like Charlie Chaplin, played poker with Buster Keaton, hired silent film director Erich Von Stroheim to be her butler, and held a funeral for her pet monkey. I know Halloween has been over for weeks, but I couldn’t resist one more ghoulish picture. This is a Hollywood horror story for the ages, and absolutely one of the greatest films ever made.
Released in 1959, Sunset Boulevard was written and directed by Billy Wilder. In a deliciously meta twist, it stars former silent movie star Gloria Swanson as former silent movie star Norma Desmond, an actress who was wildly popular during the 1920’s, but could never quite make the leap to talking pictures. This was the unfortunate case with many silent-era stars (ie. Mary Pickford and Clara Bow), and it’s been said that the character of Norma is an amalgam of many real-life actresses from the time. Struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (played by William Holden) stumbles into her time capsule of a mansion (which bears striking resemblance to Disney World’s Tower of Terror), and because he’s flat broke, he agrees to move in and help her with a terrible screenplay that she thinks will be the start of her career renaissance. Eventually, improbably, they form a romantic relationship, and things pretty much unravel from there.
For my cocktail this week, I’m paying homage to one of the great cinematic funeral scenes. No, I’m not talking about (SPOILER ALERT) Joe Gillis facedown in the pool with a few bullet holes. I’m of course referencing Norma Desmond’s other poor dead companion. Like Michael Jackson, this looney woman has an unhealthy relationship with her pet monkey and upon his death, decides to give him a proper wake in her bedroom. When Joe Gillis stumbles into her mansion in the middle of the afternoon, I’m sure a dead monkey was the last thing he expected to see. Thus this week, my cocktail has to be that old Hemingway favorite, Death in the Afternoon.
Death in the Afternoon
1.5 oz Absinthe
5 oz chilled champagne
Pour absinthe into the bottom of a champagne flute, then slowly pour the champagne over it. The mixture will emulsify, forming a cloudy liquid.
(Note: Be prepared to giggle helplessly for the rest of the night after you drink this. I did.)*
*(Side Note: Is this why Absinthe was illegal in the US for so many years? Too much giggling?)
There are so many wonderful, quote-able lines in this film, but I think my favorite has to be “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” This really is an unfortunate truth about Hollywood these days. I’m hard-pressed to think of a movie star that is as big as say Mary Pickford once was, and I could name about ten films just in 2014 alone that to me signal the apocalypse of the film industry (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, anyone?). Sure there are still great films being made, but every year it seems like they are fewer and farther between. Particularly when you hold up a blockbuster, or even Oscar contender from today’s era next to this genius script by Wilder, they seem so, so small. So follow my lead and enjoy a truly classic film noir with your Death in the Afternoon, and get ready for that close-up. Cheers!
(For an extra treat, visit the Cinema Sips Facebook page for a great clip of Kristen Wiig as Norma Desmond, posted on Halloween. I died laughing).