33 JOE GILLIS
Sunset Boulevard, 1950, USA, Director Billy Wilder
You want a drink? Have a drink. You’re young. Enjoy it while you can. Let my secretary get you a cold beer. Janet, get the guy a drink and tell Betty I need a yes or no today on that Western script. No, Janet, I don’t want a beer, doctor’s orders. Son, my stomach gives me hell. Of course I don’t mind you writing a book about what happened between Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis, long as you don’t want me to make a film of the sorry saga. That would soon have them heading for the exits. You know, people say what happened between Joe and Norma must have damaged the studio and that was why we moved so quickly into television but it didn’t and it wasn’t. Despite what she thought, Norma Desmond had already been forgotten by our great cinema going public. And, by the time our publicity man had finished, well, Joe Gillis had not even worked here which was kind of half true because the guy never had a screen credit. One of his ideas might have been borrowed by someone somewhere sometime but no more than that. Here’s your drink. Taste okay? Good, you can have a real drink. No, okay, stick to the beer. Thanks for the beer, Janet.
No, I wasn’t shocked by what happened between Joe and Norma. There was a difference between their ages. So what? Think this through, my friend. This town has more young beautiful women than I’ve seen anywhere. And I don’t mean like Paris. These women here in Los Angeles are built. How many young beauties have I seen draped over the arm of some old well-dressed guy who believes his wardrobe and weekly haircut and manicure make him irresistible? I’ve lost count. I lose count in a day. Not that I keep track any more. Money, power and sex, it happens. Maybe it shouldn’t but it does. Look at that thing with Liz Short, the Black Dahlia girl. It was all over the papers a couple of years back. I saw Liz at parties, saw old men crawling over this beautiful woman and her just grinning as if they were doing her a favour. Liz Short finished up dead and almost cut in half. We all got a memo. Stay away from the funeral.
Joe Gillis was like the women I see every day. He was looking for a way into the movie business. More than a few mentioned him dying in the swimming pool, as if only they were the ones that understood irony. I don’t see many dead bodies floating on the surface of swimming pools but I see plenty of people like Joe Gillis around the pools and believe me they look great in bikinis. Norma had been a big star and she had money but she was lonely. I can see why the woman thought she was entitled. Beer taste okay? Good, you don’t have to sip it. I have a fridge full of them out there. You know, us talking like this has me thinking. Not once have I ever wondered if Janet has sneaked a beer. Why’s that you think? Maybe, I’m not sure what a beer drinker looks like.
Betty Schaefer was there on Sunset Boulevard the night Norma killed Joe. Betty still works for me as a reader and she’s still dreaming about being a writer. I tell her she is a kind of writer because the scripts won’t be the same after she’s read them. I just don’t let Betty anywhere near a typewriter. Betty was distraught after what happened to Joe. I can sort of understand how she feels. Sort of because I’ve never kissed a dame that later has been plugged in the back. There’s a couple I’ve felt like plugging but that’s another story. Betty rated Joe but whether she would have done if he’d had no hair like me, I don’t know. I liked the man. All he ever wanted was to be a writer, not even rich or famous, and, well, I’m a softie for that kind of ambition. Don’t grin at me. I’m not ashamed of having a tender heart. It helps me relax at night. Not enough but it helps.
Betty and Joe worked together on a script. No, it was never filmed. The thing had its moments but I couldn’t work it out. And if old Sheldrake is missing the point, then I can assure you our great cinema audience won’t find it either. I was at the preview of the Welles’ picture. That’s the one, The Magnificent Ambersons. I’ll never forget that night. It wasn’t even my picture, and I wanted to fall down into the ground. As I say to Betty every day, don’t even think about masterpieces. The truth is that Betty liked Joe Gillis. After her thing with Joe she took a break from her husband-to-be Artie Green which I kind of understand because I never took to Artie. Understand me, I see a lot of ambition. Even sweet Betty Schaefer two rooms down the corridor has ambition. But when that ambition is mixed with innocent eager enthusiasm, then it doesn’t work for me. I want writers and movie makers to see the world as it is. Artie Green was enthusiastic about everybody. You get me? That’s what I liked about Joe. He had the ambition but not that back slapping enthusiasm which just makes my stomach ache more than it does already.
Look, try and understand this. I have this friend, an ex-policeman here in Los Angeles. He decided he wanted to be a writer and, guess what, the man hits pay dirt. This was back when we were sparing with the four letter words. Well, these books by this cop were not. Critics said the public responded to the realism of life on the streets. Me, I think, the American public just wanted to read a book with a lot of four letter words. What am I trying to say? I’ve forgotten. Oh yes, this policeman said something to me one night. We were eating some Mexican thing in this out of town place. The cop thought it was wonderful. Me, it just made my stomach ache. This cop said that in his job he didn’t see the worst people but just people at their worst. George, I said, that was his name, George, you should work in Hollywood.
Look, think this through. Joe Gillis was offered a good deal. Norma was paying him $500 a week, he was living in a swanky place and he was doing what he wanted to do. He was writing a script. Okay he had to bang a dame that wouldn’t see fifty again but, you know, those old silent movie stars had to climb the same pole that starlets do today. Norma would have known a few bedroom tricks, I’m certain. One of these days I’ll tell you all about Mabel Norman and how she had fun. My God, what a woman. I know, that’s another book.
I know, I know. Betty has told me more than once about Joe having a sense of honour, how honourable Joe didn’t worry about not having his name on the script that they worked on together. Sure I know that Joe told Betty she could have the script as a present. And Joe was even loyal to Artie. Sweet little Betty made the first move, not Joe. And when Joe walked out on Norma, or tried to, he made sure first that Betty went back to Artie, our favourite back slapper. You’re looking at me as if I’m talking bull. I know what you’re going to say. How could a guy who knew how to do right sell himself to a woman twice his age?
You really want to understand? Stay in that chair and watch me work for a week. What did that cop who wrote all the four letter words say? In his job he saw the worst in people. And so do I, believe me. People will do anything to be in the movies. Those beautiful women I mentioned. Not only do they offer treats they shouldn’t, the men they’re giving the treats to don’t have a problem with promising me the same women. And I’m not just talking about the well paid ladies for the weekend. Men have offered me their wives if I could get them a part. No, you’re wrong, it’s not just the wannabes. I’ve had big time directors in here pleading for favours and promising what I’d rather not remember, big names that would shock you. Oh, but Sheldrake, I have to have so and so photograph the picture, or edit it, or add the music. One guy said he’d commit suicide if I didn’t get the guy on his last picture that had done the noise of the horses galloping. You want to hear the noise a horse makes? See, I can do it with a glass on a desk.
Look, when you work in a business that preaches what you do is more important than life or death, then you are going to see people, as the cop said, at their worst. And we now have these French critics analysing our movies from here in Hollywood as if they offer moral guidance. Give me a break. It doesn’t add up. Do you think it adds up? Sometimes, what kind of answer is that? Sometimes, well, maybe you’re right. Sometimes is how it added up for poor Joe Gillis and Norma Desmond. Don’t say anything but I’m not sure it’s adding up for Betty Schaefer and Artie Green. What did Oscar Wilde say? We can resist everything but temptation. Joe Gillis was an all right guy until he had the opportunity to be not all right. You know, I said before it was made that The Picture of Dorian Gray would be a turkey. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, now that was a good movie and popular, too. That book wasn’t by Oscar Wilde? I didn’t know that. I always thought. I do get those old English guys confused.
Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Go Break Bad is now available here.