Sunset Boulevard is the most famous (and probably the best) movie about Hollywood ever made. So now it’s virtually impossible to write about Hollywood without at least being aware of the movie, either to pay homage or to avoid looking like you’re ripping it off.
In the case of my 2015 book Barefoot in the City of Broken Dreams, I’m definitely paying homage. It’s not necessary to have seen the movie for the book to make sense, but if you have seen the movie, here are a few of the Easter eggs:
Spoiler alert! Don’t read this unless you have read the book!
(1) The book begins and ends with Russel floating “dead,” facedown in a pool.
(2) Joe Gillis’ apartment in Sunset Boulevard is 1851 North Ivar Street. Russel and Kevin live right next door (in a non-existent address).
(3) Like Norma Desmond, Issac Brander lives just off of Sunset Boulevard, in an old house with an unmaintained yard.
(4) Like Norma, Isaac has an enigmatic assistant, Lewis, who isn’t exactly what he seems, and who ends up ultimately telling Russel the truth about Isaac.
(5) Some of the objects in Isaac’s office include a stuffed monkey (like Norma’s dead monkey, which opens the movie) and a package of Melachrino cigarettes (Norma’s brand).
(6) Like Norma, Isaac lives in the past and dreams of being important again. Their friends are all from a past era too: Norma knows Buster Keaton and H.P. Warner, and Isaac knows Sally Field and Sean Connery.
(7) The “ghost” of the dead screenwriter in Russel’s apartment is named Cole Gordon. Gordon Cole is the man from Paramount who calls Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.
(8) Russel talks a lot about all the movies filmed in and about Los Angeles, but he never mentions Sunset Boulevard, the most famous Hollywood movie of all. There are two ways to look at this: Subconsciously, Russel doesn’t want to accept that he’s living this movie (which ends in tragedy, and Russel would know that). Or perhaps the movie doesn’t exist in the Russel Middlebrook universe.
(9) Norma gives Joe Gillis valuable cufflinks; Isaac gives Russel a valuable edition of The Glass Menagerie. After being seduced by Norma and Isaac’s promises of fortune, both Joe and Russel prove that they’re leaving the world of illusion by giving those items back again (and by doing so, they invoke their patron’s wrath).
(10) When Russel meets Isaac, he imagines a tango, which is Norma’s favorite music. Later, during the dinner party, a tango plays.
(11) At Norma Desmond’s New Year’s Eve party, Joe Gillis is surprised that he’s the only guest. Likewise, Russel and Kevin are surprised to be the only guests at Isaac’s dinner party. (Fewer people to disturb Norma and Isaac’s delusions.)
(12) Like Norma, Isaac moves in and out of a world of fantasy. But also like Norma, Isaac is (hopefully) more than a pathetic stereotype — there is much to admire about him — and he doesn’t go outright crazy until Russel finally accepts reality, and forces Isaac to see reality too.
Despite all this homage (and probably more stuff that I’ve since forgotten about), Russel isn’t Joe Gillis, and Hollywood and the world have changed a lot since 1950. As a result, my story ends up going in some very different directions, and the ending is different too. In fact, here is the final line of Barefoot in the City of Broken Dreams:
I was thinking about Kevin, and all that had happened to me in Los Angeles, and I’m totally realizing the irony even as I’m telling you this, but I can honestly say that in my entire life, I had never felt so fucking alive.
In other words, Joe Gillis dies, but Russel Middlebrook’s experience in Hollywood ends up making him feel more alive than he’s ever felt. This is by design: Sunset Boulevard is a tragedy, so I was determined to confound reader expectations and give my story a happy ending.
P.S. Even more interesting? Much of the story of Barefoot in the City of Broken Dreams is based on my actual life; almost everything that happened to Russel really happened to me, when I was in my 20s. But like Russel, I couldn’t see, or accept, that I was living the Sunset Boulevard story until it was all over.