Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Life Imitates Art on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams

By Steve Evans

Legendary music producer and convicted murderer Phil Spector was an 11-year-old boy when Paramount released Sunset Boulevard in 1950.

I have no idea if Spector ever saw that seminal Billy Wilder picture about demented silent-film star Norma Desmond and her kept man, the much-younger, failed B-movie screenwriter Joe Gillis, who is shot to death by Norma (played by Gloria Swanson, right) when he rejects her and attempts to leave. But I am fairly certain Spector won’t be watching the picture any time soon following his April sentencing to 19 years to life for the murder of B-movie actress and cocktail waitress Lana Clarkson, who a jury agreed was shot to death by Spector on Feb. 3, 2003, two months shy of her 41st birthday.

Like the fictional Joe Gillis, Lana Clarkson (left) lived and worked on the Hollywood fringe. She appeared as an extra in films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Scarface, moving on to B-movie exploitation trash like Barbarian Queen and Vice Girls. She hadn’t worked in pictures for two years before meeting Spector at the nightclub where she was serving drinks and, reportedly, agreed to go home with the aging record producer to his mansion, Pyrenees Castle, in Alhambra, California. Speculation was that Clarkson hoped to use Spector’s connections in the music business to jump-start her flagging career. Some wags wondered if she was there to turn a trick for some fast cash. Whatever her motivation for rolling up to Spector’s hilltop mansion, it was there, in the wee hours of Feb. 3, 2003, that Spector put a gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger after several hours of hard drinking.

Two months before the night of the crime, Spector (below, right) in an interview with the British Daily Telegraph said he had bipolar disorder and that he considered himself “relatively insane.” His sharp legal team tried unsuccessfully to withhold that interview and other damning comments from the jury at Spector’s murder trial. But many saw Spector’s odd appearance and peculiar behavior throughout the case as clear evidence of serious mental problems.

One of the prosecutors called Spector a “demonic maniac,” telling the jury the record producer’s history of violence against women was like a game of Russian roulette that ended with Clarkson’s shooting death.

The jury in Spector’s first trial deadlocked in September 2007. During his retrial this year, the second jury visited the crime scene, mulled testimony from Spector’s ex-wives and returned a guilty verdict April 13 on second-degree murder. The conviction is on appeal.


I love cinema because great films often reveal life lessons that can expand our awareness of ourselves and enhance our appreciation for being alive. Like any work of art, a classic movie can nurture the soul, challenge our convictions, or offer a warning we would do well to heed.

I watched Sunset Boulevard last night for what was probably the 25th time, and was struck by the parallels between delusional Norma Desmond, a faded silent-film star; and Spector, whose greatest success as a record producer was more than 40 years behind him by the time of his murder trial.

Spector (in better days, below right) created aural masterpieces like the Ronettes’ Be My Baby (used to memorable effect a decade later in Martin Scorsese’s 1973 breakthrough film, Mean Streets) and The Beatles’ swansong album, Let it Be (which Paul McCartney is on record as hating). Even Spector’s fleeting flirtation with Hollywood ended four decades ago. He made an impression as the curiously mute cocaine buyer with the shiny Rolls Royce in the opening scene of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), perhaps an example of art imitating Spector’s life. Some 33 years later the cycle would reverse itself and Spector’s life would imitate art.

The fall of Norma Desmond and Phil Spector from celebrity to reclusive eccentricity is perhaps less interesting than the plight of their respective victims, Joe Gillis and his real-life counterpart Lana Clarkson. Their thirst for fame in the notoriously fickle entertainment industry led them to make unwise and ultimately fatal choices.

This observation gets to the heart of the American obsession with fame and wealth. We buy gossip magazines and log in to lurid websites to read about the Spector murder trial. A wealthy oddball kills an aspiring actress in the dead of night while swimming in alcohol and floating on a whole rainbow of pharmaceuticals. It’s a compulsively fascinating read that appeals to the prurient instincts that each of us harbors, to varying degrees, as we process our love-hate relationship with fabulous wealth and adulation.

Millions of people watch Oprah on television, held in rapt fascination as some fallen actress or disgraced personality tearfully reveals transgressions, repents, and, often enough, is miraculously forgiven after basking in the glow of Oprah Winfrey’s carefully choreographed compassion.

I like to think of it as salvation in 15-minute sound bites. It’s all nonsense, of course; a quick fix of feel-good gibberish that changes nothing except, perhaps, gullible people's perceptions.

And that’s a frightening thing.

Whether we like to admit it, most of us are powerfully drawn to dreams of a much better life, a life manifest in the things money can buy, in the praise and worship of fans who would follow our every move, clamor for our autograph, emulate our sense of fashion.

Fables like the classic film Sunset Boulevard, and the real tragedies of ruined lives like Phil Spector and Lana Clarkson, are compelling moral tales that suggest the things we covet will ultimately consume and destroy us, while bypassing true happiness along the way.

What is true happiness? Do we answer this question for ourselves, or do we buy the relentless sales pitch in spite of all the evidence that suggests fame – even the pursuit of fame – will kill ya if you don’t watch out?

Still, we obsess and struggle and fight to reach some idealized notion of success hammered into our hearts by a culture that fuels itself with the marketing and promotion of consumption, beauty, fashion, and the pursuit of wealth to make all these pleasant things possible.

We crave them because we are taught to do so by inexorable advertising and a thousand other pressures – both subtle and overt – that permeate society: like the allure of sex, the availability of easy credit, the coveting of all that we see and hear and smell and desire to taste for ourselves.

This desire is as addictive as any drug. Yes, and even more intoxicating than the sweet champagne that Norma Desmond keeps on ice in the screening room of her mansion on that forlorn hill overlooking Sunset, the boulevard of broken dreams.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Parallel Lives

    What a fascinating connection you've made between the trials of the deranged diva Norma Desmond and the murder trial of the maniacal mogul Phil Specter. With regard to your musings on American culture and our obsession with celebrity - I think perhaps we just like a good show. Why else would we buy the tickets and albums that elevate the Desmonds and the Specters to Acropolesque stature on that beckoning Hollywood hillside? Why else would we later buy the tabloids that exploit our fallen idols when gravity takes its toll? We keep our VIPs on Sunset Boulevard for the vicarious thrill of it all - whether things are going well and we like their music or films, or we simply enjoy following the train wreck of their lives. (A train wreck beats the hell out of the mundane and gives us something to talk about - water cooler gibberish for the non-sporting crowd).

    The underlying theme Sunset Boulevard and our obsession with celebrity is fueled by our desire to see how the other half lives. Joe Gillis (William Holden's character) tried all his life to hack his way into the big time so that he could afford the kinds of material goods that a life with Norma Desmond provided him. But after he landed in the proverbial lap of luxury, he desperately wanted to escape.

    Ironic, isn't it? We put them on the hill, watch them struggle to the top, plummet down and sometimes we put them back after they crash - all for a good show and to see how the other half lives.

    And they live pretty well - thanks to us (Trust me, I know -- I just saw Lindsey Lohan's spread on Inside Edition. Did you know she has a beach house in Malibu and a townhouse in Beverly Hills?).

    Ad infinitum. Thanks for a thought provoking read.


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