Monday, September 9, 2013
First, Last, and Always a Star
There's nothing like a ten-hour flight to plow through a good book, and that's exactly what I did yesterday, flying back from Vienna.
Remarkably, Stephen Michael Shearer's Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star is the first major biography of Swanson, or at least the first since her own (ghosted, but flavorful) memoir, Swanson on Swanson. It's far from a perfect book, even by the somewhat, um, flexible standards of the Hollywood biography. As too many such books do, it frequently falls into the trap of simply laying out the career, film by film, quoting from reviews (and for a star of her magnitude, Swanson's were frequently surprisingly mixed) and then in just a line or two characterizing them (at least those that survive - a shocking number of her silents, even some of her bigger pictures, are lost). Given her highly colorful private life, Swanson's parade of husbands and lovers get much the same treatment. Sourcing, too, is variable, with citations to Wikipedia and the IMDb that make one a little nervous about some of the author's wilder assertions.
Still, it would be hard to write at any length about Swanson and not convey at least a measure of her outsize, unfailingly individualistic personality. Today, as Shearer notes, Hollywood makes stars; when the film industry was in its infancy, though, the reverse was true. Swanson rose quickly up from extra work in Chicago in 1914 to an unparalleled position at the very top, a run that took her from the dawn of features well into the early talkies, creating in the process any number of the tropes of celebrity (in its most extravagant form) that still hold true: furs, entourages, jewels, scandals, even her own camp theme song, "Love, Your Spell is Everywhere," from her 1929 hit The Trespasser. She was temperamental, profoundly narcissistic, wildly spendthrift, and, at her worst, almost unbearably grandiose. At the same time, though, she was enormously hardworking, frequently remarkably generous, highly intelligent, and, above all, durable.
It goes without saying, yet it always has to be said: she wasn't Norma Desmond. Even so, her Sunset Boulevard role is what gave her at the time faded career a booster shot that carried her for the last thirty years of her long life. It's a titanic performance, one that allowed her distill everything she had learned, on screen and off, in 40 years in show business - is there any other performance so totally of a piece, one in which every moment, smallest nuance to wildest aria, lands, and so perfectly?
Sadly, Sunset Boulevard was so all-encompassing that, in a way, it left Swanson with nothing else to do - except to be Gloria Swanson, endlessly. Fortunately, that was a pursuit at which she was supremely gifted and that she was boundlessly happy to do. She kept busy, and while there was never another Boulevard, she had her moments - well-reviewed on stage in vehicles like Twentieth Century and Butterflies are Free, a long run as the public face of a popular line of dresses for the shorter woman (Swanson was tiny even by silents standards, optimistically said to be 4' 11"). Too often, though, her work was only to pay the bills and allow her to show off her skill... at being Gloria Swanson.
What got lost in Norma Desmond is one simple fact: even if she had never had that last great chance, Swanson would still be a star beyond compare. If The Ultimate Star doesn't make that clear, it really doesn't have to. Andrew Lloyd Webber and his collaborators, in the mostly pretty awful* stage adaptation that achieved a longtime dream of Swanson's and made Norma a Broadway sensation, got at least one thing right. To understand Swanson, pull out one of her silents: all it takes is just one look.
* To be fair (but does one really have to be fair about Andrew Lloyd Webber?), I've only ever seen the stage show once, in a bus-and-truck that starred, if that's the right word, a truly lamentable Petula Clark...