2019 Film Essays

Ghosts in the Hills: On the Haunting of Hollywood

Hollywood’s obsession with itself is nothing new. The year 2018 featured the fourth telling of the A Star Is Born story; before it, The Artist and Singin’ in the Rain were tales of Hollywood’s past and future. But this tendency to look inward isn’t always an attempt at recapturing something from history, or just navel gazing. Sometimes, films set in and around Hollywood manage to capture a sense about the place that’s strange and uncanny, a place in love with its past and afraid of its future, leaving nothing but ghosts behind to haunt the hills, and to walk the empty mansions.

The oldest, and possibly most famous example of a film like this is Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder’s masterpiece about a faded actress and her attempts to recapture the success of her past. The film’s ghostly narrator — Joe Gillis, first seen face-down in a swimming pool, the light faded from his eyes — immediately places viewers in a strange version of the past. After all, he communicates from beyond the grave, describing a world gone by; in a way, each person in his story is a ghost. It’s no wonder that the story with which Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond wants to relaunch her career with is a retelling of Salome, a script that Joe describes as “look[ing] like several very important questions.”

Of course, Salome is “for DeMille to direct,” and, more tellingly, the film is silent. Norma’s career faded out as the use of sound in film faded up; she is literally a relic of a bygone era, and the same can be said for her Hollywood mansion, with its empty rooms and ornate staircase, which she fatefully descends at the climax of the film, ready for her close up, as if she could never have been anything else. She is adamant that Salome couldn’t be a comeback, insisting that “it’s a return.” But the question that’s interesting here is what exactly it is that Norma’s returning from; the gothic shadow of her mansion, and the looming, Mrs. Danvers-esque spectre of Max (Eric von Stroheim) imply something different to a simple career exile. It feels like Norma is returning from the land of the dead, hoping that the shine of the spotlight on a movie set will be able to revive her. She, like the inhabitants of her house, seem to exist outside of time, waiting for their cue to step back in front of the cameras, always needing to be ready for their close-up

This sense of being in a time that’s out-of-joint is reflected in some of the clever postmodern touches that allow the ghosts in Sunset Boulevard to really come alive. The clearest examples of this are in the way that both Swanson and Stroheim are cast. Both were renowned as a performer and director, respectively, for their prowess in the silent era, with Stroheim even casting Swanson in one of his films. To have them play a faded actress and her manservant/ex-husband/ex-director serves as a stark reminder of just how much Hollywood had changed from the heydays to the release of Sunset Boulevard in 1950. Then there’s the infamous poker game, featuring plenty of the stars of yesteryear, including Buster Keaton — another luminary of early Hollywood who never quite managed to shine quite as bright in the age of sound. Norma Desmond’s mansion takes on the feeling of being a sort of haunted house; these ghosts walk the corridors, go through the motions, condemned to an eternal repetition until they can find some kind of rest or respite. When Norma travels from her mansion to a Hollywood set to meet with DeMille (playing himself), she seems out of place. The feather on her cap is brushed aside by a boom mic; when her old colleague casts a spotlight on her, she seems ethereal, not entirely human in the pale light. Beyond the gates of Norma’s mansion, Hollywood, and the rest of the world, has moved on. Her dissonance comes from this, from never moving on with the rest of the world, living in a time that had been consigned to history as if it were still the present. Night after night, she watches her old films again, recapturing her youth, her success, the world that she called her own.

The faded movie star reappears across Hollywood films, with the haunted mansion and the successes of the past playing major roles in the true grand dame of Grande Dame Grand Guignol, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The film’s warring sisters truly live out of step with the rest of the world; haunted by the traumas of the past, and by one another, time seems to be an element that exists only slightly for the Hudson sisters. Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) is, like Norma Desmond, constantly trying to recapture the success of her past. But while Norma’s success came in her adult life, Jane’s came when she was a child star on stage. Not that this stops her from still inhabiting the persona of Baby Jane; wearing layers of makeup, searching for a pianist to accompany the act she hopes to revive, and using Blanche’s pre-accident Hollywood earnings to fund the costumes for the act that she believes will be her return to stardom.

The climaxes of both Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Sunset Boulevard strike similar notes; for the lost, haunted leads of both films, the past finally overwhelms the present, and they each find themselves mentally transported back to a time in their lives when they were successful. Like ghosts unable to find peace, they repeat their motions eternally. For Norma, this is aided and abetted by Max, who convinces her that the camera crews — there about the fact that she has shot and killed Joe — are filming her descent from the staircase of the palace. For Baby Jane, this takes the form of thinking that she truly is Baby Jane again; no longer a traumatised woman with a life she didn’t want, she is successful, she is adored, she is surrounded by fans. So, she performs for them. The small speech that Norma gives before delivering her iconic last line feels like it plays to the idea of Sunset Boulevard, and film as a medium, being haunted. Actors are called on, sometimes from beyond the grave, to repeat dialogues and motions, whenever a film is screened. Norma calling out to “all those wonderful people out there in the dark” is about more than just her thinking that she’s back on a movie set; it feels like she’s calling out to those who have come before her, and those who will view her haunted repetitions in the future.

The last two features films made by David Lynch are both obsessed with Hollywood, but of the two, it is Mulholland Drive that best illustrates these ideas of timelessness and ghosts inhabiting the Hollywood hills. The film plays with tropes and clichés in a typically Lynchian way, taking Hollywood stock images and filling them with a kind of otherworldliness. It’s no wonder that the house in which Betty/Diane (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Harring) find themselves staying in has a Gilda poster from which the amnesiac Rita decides to begin piecing together a new aesthetic.

Like Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the idea of a certain kind of psychic break plays an important role in Mulholland Drive. But where it is about the past overcoming the present in the first two films, Mulholland Drive is about the present becoming unavoidable. Naomi Watts’ character(s) in Mulholland Drive share common DNA with the deluded Norma and Baby Jane; they are trying, with all that they’re worth, to hold on to something that has been taken away from them. This leads to the strange anachronisms of much of Mulholland Drive; the modern aesthetic is offset with an old-fashioned version of studio filmmaking, and musical numbers like ‘I’ve Told Every Little Star,’ with the bright dress and diner-esque set dressing bringing to mind “Beautiful Girls” and “All I Do” from Singin’ in the Rain. Music is a portal into both past and present in Mulholland Drive, a way of showing just how haunted the world of Hollywood is. In the ‘I’ve Told Every Little Star’ sequence, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that it takes place in some form of the past. Then there’s the Club Silencio sequence.

The scene is full of the declaration that “there is no band,” and yet there is still music. Betty is still driven to tears by what she hears, as she is seemingly torn apart internally by a strange, Italian version of “Crying.” The building feels literally haunted; the patrons and non-existent performers take on a spectral quality, the onset of an inescapable reality wakes Betty from her dream, changing her to the downtrodden Diane. All three of these films show the delusions that can be caused by La-La-Land, the strange timelessness of a town that is always moving forward and what happens when the spirits of the past can’t find peace. Time doesn’t exist in Hollywood in quite the same way as it does in other places; the film industry is constantly returning to itself, reviving or remaking the past in a new image. Sunset Boulevard, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Mulholland Drive explore this idea in a greater level of depth, showing what happens to those who are waiting to be revived, who are remaking their histories and futures as if their lives were simply the latest major studio release.

Sam Moore (@Sam_Moore1994) is a writer, artist and editor. Their writing on the intersections of culture, queerness and politics has been published by The Los Angeles Review of Books, i-D, Little White Lies and other places both in print and online.