Rocky Boulevard: Sunset Boulevard at 70
There are numerous ways that a classic movie can echo through time. We can see the ripple effects of innovations in technique or storytelling show up in later films; we can watch compelling stories that are told over and over again; we can see moments that are so iconic that they are copied and parodied relentlessly, while still other movies can be both so distinct, yet familiar, that they bubble to mind in similar moments in other films while you’re watching them. There’s a sense in which the story you may be watching can’t help but get entangled in your mind with your own experiences, or with all of the other stories you’ve ever heard.
It’s something like this last idea I experienced recently while watching Billy Wilder’s film, Sunset Boulevard for its 70th Anniversary. I have seen the film a few times, and enough of it is always simmering in the background of pop culture that it has never faded from my memory entirely, but one scene unlocked the film for me in a peculiar way on my most recent viewing.
Our protagonist in Sunset Boulevard is Joe Gillis (William Holden), a down-on-his-luck screenwriter trying to evade creditors from repossessing his car. Eventually, quite literally evading the would-be repo men in a high speed chase, Gillis manages to escape them for a time by hiding out in the driveway, and then the garage of a seemingly abandoned mansion after a tire on his car blows out.
While watching this scene develop - Gillis becomes aware of the mansion attached to the driveway he pulled into, and begins to explore the grounds of the property - I unexpectedly thought of a similar scene at the beginning of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The context is different, but our protagonists there, Janet Weiss and Brad Majors, seek help at a dark looking mansion after the tire of their car blows out. The thought is fleeting, and might have gone right out of my head had the next few scenes not prompted similar connections. Right away, Gillis meets the enigmatic majordomo of the house, Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim), in a manner not entirely dissimilar from when Brad and Janet meet Riff Raff - at least that’s how I saw it once primed to see things that way.
Once I began actively looking for parallels, they came pretty easily. One of the more overtly odd elements of Sunset Boulevard is that when Gillis arrives, he is initially only let in because Max thinks that he is there to handle the arrangements of burying a dead pet chimpanzee. Later that evening, after Gillis is given a room for the night, he watches a somber procession as that chimp is carried in a white child’s coffin to be buried in the backyard garden. This was especially noteworthy to me at this point because coffins feature prominently twice in Rocky Horror: First, also right as Brad and Janet are arriving at the house, a skeleton falls out of a coffin to start the song The Time Warp; and second, in the dinner sequence where everyone eating discovers that the table they have been eating at was actually a coffin containing the remains of Eddie - who was also something of a dead pet.
Where the parallels grow the strongest for me are where they might perhaps be least expected. I don’t know if I’m the first person to argue that Norma Desmond and Dr. Frank N. Furter are characters cut from the same cloth, but now that I have seen these similarities, they are so clear to me that I don’t imagine I could ever unsee them.
Both Norma and Frank are commanding, self-possessed divas that draw people into their orbit like a cult leader. Both are fixated on films and figures of a bygone era - heroines like Fay Wray and classic sci-fi movies for Frank; silent movies and their stars like herself, Rudolph Valentino, and Douglas Fairbanks for Norma. Both have assiduously crafted an image of themselves they want to protect and project, but one that we watch unravel by the end of each film. We meet both characters in the act of creation - Norma having written the screenplay for her comeback film, Salome; and Frank, with the man he brings to life, Rocky.
As Frank literally makes a man out of Rocky, Norma remakes Gillis into the image of what she thinks a man should be: outfitting him in fine clothes and jewelry, training him to be responsive to her needs. As Frank traps Brad and Janet, preventing them from ever making the phone call to get their car repaired, Norma allows the repo men to take Gillis’ car so that he can’t leave. Both Norma and Frank begin to fall apart over jealousy: Norma when Gillis seems to fall for Nancy - the woman he’s been secretly writing a screenplay with - and he tries to move out, and Frank when he catches Janet and Rocky together in the lab. Both stories are bookended by a narrator telling the story of a tragedy, and both stories end with a gun and swimming pool - Frank and Rocky being shot with a ray gun by Riff Raff and falling into the swimming pool, while Norma shoots Gillis as he’s trying to leave, causing him to stumble into the swimming pool that we see him being fished out of at the top of the film.
What we’re talking about is something different from mere allusion. Another film having an anniversary this month is John Waters’ 2000 film Cecil B. Demented. That film explicitly recreates the famous closing line from Sunset Boulevard in its own finale, but just as reference for reference’s sake. The connection between those two films goes no further than this one allusion. Rocky Horror is itself a movie deeply steeped in reference and allusion, but very specifically working with a toolbox of classic sci-fi and horror films. To extend beyond that universe to deliberately reference a film like Sunset Boulevard would seem to be muddying and undermining to its project to a degree, so no deliberate reference seems intended.
It’s in this sense that I think the connection between Sunset Boulevard and The Rocky Horror Picture Show is better understood in terms of the echoes of folklore and storytelling that can arise spontaneously from shared human experience, or the incidental ways that past culture can unconsciously seep into present culture in ways we aren’t aware of. I have no reason to believe, and I have found no evidence so far, that Richard O’Brien had Sunset Boulevard at all in mind when writing Rocky Horror, but having grown up in a world in which it existed, and deliberately referencing material that was made around the same time, the cross-pollination that we see between these two radically different films begins to make some sense.
For example, Gillis shares a similar story arc to Brad and Janet, in that they each find themselves walking willingly into their situation. They begin to feel themselves trapped once they are there (which they are), they start to become more open and receptive to the positive parts of what’s happening to them, and then they almost immediately come to deeply regret everything about the experience as someone they care about is drawn into the situation trying to save them - Dr. Scott in the case of Brad and Janet, and Nancy in the case of Gillis. How much we read into the parallels here is interesting, because now we are dipping into what are considered more universal tropes of storytelling. Countless stories follow an identical arc to this one.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell discusses the shared symbolic grammar that all stories share. It’s in this sense that I think the connection between Sunset Boulevard and Rocky Horror are most salient. Like two pieces from different puzzles that happen to fit together, it doesn’t make much sense that these stories share as much in common as they do. They are two radically different works in terms of tone, content, and intention. Neither is striving to convey some great shared moral or truth. What they have in common is being stories, that, however heightened they may be, are rooted in human emotion and experience, and happen to be created from many of the same ingredients. It’s a happy accident that they can be connected in the way that they’ve become for me, and it’s a small bonus that these connections have genuinely changed how I see these characters and their stories.
The part of this that I find most interesting is not the forward-looking sense in which my having seen Sunset Boulevard informs my experience of the later Rocky Horror, but rather the backward looking way in which a film released 25 years later has irreversibly changed my experience of watching the film that came before it, and makes me look forward to the potential further evolutions to my experience of this film that are yet to come.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in New Windsor, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.