Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Twilight of the Idols: Performance, Melodramatic Villainy, and Sunset Boulevard

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Twilight of the Idols: Performance, Melodramatic Villainy, and Sunset Boulevard

Article excerpt

THERE IS A PARTICULAR VARIETY OF FILMIC EVIL that demands a correlative degree of imaginative simulation from a viewer: this is the villain of the melodramatic tradition. Any melodramatic villain worth the upturn of his moustache will be adept in the arts of trickery, disguise, and deception. In other words, he will be an actor. Indeed, in Victorian stage melodrama, the villain's willingness to adopt a false persona sets him apart from the virtuous characters, who shun deceptive behavior. Historically, these deceptive cads were reviled because they privileged their sense of a unique, private subjectivity above the social order. "Melodrama is an anti-intellectual genre which eschews subject-centered, psychological modes of identity. In melodrama, the villain is a threat because he is individualistic, valuing self before society" (John 49). By contrast, the imperiled heroine and her stalwart protector are little more than callow paragons of virtue, without recourse to the villain's protean gifts of duplicity. To put it another way, wickedness in nineteenth-century English melodrama is delineated by the mobility between a private self (one of undisclosed personal desires) and a public self (one of counterfeited sociality)-a duality that is antithetical to the hero(ine)'s singular altruism. Plots frequently turn on an act of mendacity perpetrated against an innocent whose virtue is predicated upon an utter lack of guile, which renders the hero(ine) vulnerable to the threat of corruption. Performance is more than a weapon in the melodramatic tradition; it is the very mark of Cain.

The coding of villainy as inherently histrionic extends beyond the silent melodramas of the early twentieth century, which ostensibly appear more indebted to Victorian theatrical conventions than their successors beyond the late teens. This conflation of performance and deception largely accounts for the secret frisson that often characterizes one's encounters with all filmic villainy influenced by stage melodrama's Manichean polarities. In performing immorality, a screen actor offers sets of signs that are interpreted and pleasurably reconstructed as villainous by a viewer. These acts of decipherment can be doubly captivating in films indebted to melodrama's lineage, whereby villainy itself is conceptualized as a kind of performance. Films inspired by melodramatic traditions posit villainy as a theatrical venture-a wantonly aesthetic enterprise that is an affront to bourgeois propriety.

The insidiousness of the villain's ostentatious schemes is a constant source of vexation for virtuous characters, yet it is often an unmistakable source of pleasure for audiences. )ust as a film's heavy adroitly deceives his or her naïve victim, so too does she or he seem to 'trick' the bemused spectators out of their usual or learned moral responses to immoral situations. A villain will be doubly practiced at the art of deception, and this adeptness is integral to the character-type's entertainment value. Delight in villainy is not always an act of overt moral disassociation-the familiar expulsion of breath hissing through the teeth; it is often a matter of illicit excitement. Taking pleasure from a melodramatic representation of evil is often a complex form of aesthetically oriented appreciation. Our fascination with these types of wrongdoers is often located in our relation to them as performers and in their aptitude for coaxing responses marked by a corresponding and commensurate degree of performativity.

Gloria Swanson's reflexive performance in Sunset Boulevard (1950) as washed-up film star Norma Desmond provides us with a particularly sophisticated model of the histrionic representation of wickedness. I argue that the reception of Swanson's signs of villainy entails an imaginative performance on a viewer's part in which she or he may become the appreciative recipient of a villainous transmission. A mildly perverse consanguinity, one's enjoyment of ostentatiously histrionic villainy is an aggregate of intertwining pleasures, including: (1) admiration for an actor's technical prowess; (2) delight in a film's mobilized formal antipathy between "theatrical" and "illusionist" performance styles; and most important (3) the satisfaction derived from entering into a virtual performative contract as an admirer of the art of villainy. …

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