In Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, what happens if burnt-out screenwriter Joe Gillis stays with deranged ex-screen star Norma Desmond? He has his answer in the form of Max, her ex-husband who has now been reduced to the role of butler and chauffer, forced to watch her pursue younger men.
For that matter, when Joe first arrives, Norma is arranging the burial of her longtime pet monkey, insisting that he be buried right there on the grounds, even if it’s against the law. This won’t be the last time she’s willing to break the law to keep one of her “pets” on the estate.
But wait, here’s another: Norma is writing a screenplay about the biblical character Salome, who did the dance of the seven veils to get John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Later, when Norma is dancing with Joe, she throws her own veil on the floor. Hmm …
And then there’s the ultimate clone: Norma herself. Joe tells us his goal was always to be successful enough in Hollywood to get himself a pool, and then he meets a superstar who has one, but at what price? If he finds success, will he end up like her?
In Sunset Boulevard, the heavy hand of fate hangs over everything, but all stories benefit from the use of parallel characters as a subtle way to set audience expectations.
Rulebook Casefile: Parallel Characters in Raising Arizona parallel characters. As with any new father, Hi is freaking out. Who is he now? How much should he change himself in order to become a better father? What’s the worst-case scenario, either way?
As always the best way to externalize these internal fears is through the use parallel characters. The movie centers around three couples: Hi and Ed in the center, Gale and Evelle (brothers, not spouses) on one extreme, and Dot and Glen (Ed’s sister and brother-in-law) on the other extreme.
Gale and Evelle represent Hi’s worst instincts writ large. When we first meet them in prison, they deliver the movie’s Hi’s false philosophy:
- PRISON COUNSELLOR: Most men your age, Hi, are getting married and raising up a family. They wouldn't accept prison as a substitute.
- GALE: Well, sometimes your career's gotta come before family.
- EVELLE: Work’s what's kept us happy.
- GALE: It’s just the beginning of a spree to cover the entire southwest proper. And we keep going until we can retire. Or we get caught.
- EVELLE: Either way, we're fixed for life.
If we had just one contrasting couple or the other, then the answer would seem too easy: a Goofus-and-Gallant choice between the right way and wrong way, but seeing these two equally-awful outcomes stresses how hard it is to choose the right path.
This movie has lots of voiceover, but we don’t need to hear what Hi’s worries are, because we see the two lives he fears most manifest themselves before his eyes.
Rulebook Casefile: Parallel Characters in Sunset Boulevard
In Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, what happens if burnt-out screenwriter Joe Gillis stays with deranged ex-screen-star Norma Desmond? He has his answer in the form of Max, her ex-husband who has now been reduced to the role of butler and chauffer, forced to watch her pursue younger men. (And don’t forget another version of that outcome: When Joe first arrives she’s arranging the burial of her longtime pet monkey, insisting that he be buried right there on the grounds, even if that’s against the law.)
So what happens if he tries to leave her? She’s writing a screenplay about Salome, who demands the head of John the Baptist by doing the dance of the seven veils. Later, when Norma’s dancing with Joe, she throws her own veil on the floor.
And then there’s the ultimate parallel character: Norma herself. Joe tells us that his goal was always to be successful enough in Hollywood to get himself a pool, and then he meets a superstar that has one…but at what price? If he finds success, will he end up like her?
But wait, what about Betty Schaefer, the idealistic young screenwriter who wants to work with him? That’s the one character he wants to emulate, but it’s hopeless. The most heartbreaking line in the movie is when Joe sadly says to Betty, “What a wonderful thing to be 22.” That’s when he realizes: She’s not a possible future for him, he’s a possible future for her: the cautionary tale about the danger of burn-out.
Even if he wanted to, Joe doesn’t have the talent to become Norma, so that leaves Max, the monkey, or John the Baptist. In this faces of these parallel characters, he sees all of his potential fates. For better or for worse, he chooses the third.
Of course, there is another parallel character hovering over the film. Joe never specifically mentions him, but we can infer his existence: the old man who had the desk across from him when he wrote for the Dayton Evening Post, before he left for Hollywood. Joe has spent the last ten years fleeing from that fate, but now he realizes that he’d be lucky to end up in that man’s shoes, if only he could make it out that gate…
Wilder himself never stopped dreaming of his comeback: in the 21 years between his last movie in 1981 and his death in 2002, he still went in to his office at the studio everyday and sat at his desk from 9 to 5, talking vaguely about projects that never came to fruition. Why didn’t he simply retire at some point, take his millions and start living the good life?
In the face of Norma Desmond, Joe sees the true tragedy of money-hungry America: Those who achieve the most are those for whom nothing is ever enough…which means that the successful are even more miserable than the unsuccessful. Joe finally realizes that he doesn’t want it enough…and that’s a good thing, because there’s no middle ground between not wanting it enough and wanting it too much. You have to choose one or the other…while you still have time left to choose.
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES. The three guys all represent various fates.
YES, she’s afraid of getting killed like the others, afraid of becoming Ash.
YES. Very much so. She’s terrified of becoming her teachers, her parents, and Helen the moll.
YES. The dog for the boy, etc.
YES. We see others getting hanged, and the previous sheriff getting killed.
YES. he doesn’t want to end up like his father, he’s afraid he’ll end up like Frank.
The Bourne Identity
YES. the other Treadstone assassins for Jason. The dead landlady for Marie.
YES. The rest of the bridal party provide examples of her concerns: one is unhappily married, one married naively, one is a trophy wife, etc.
YES. Rick is worried that he’s as bad as Ugarte, or as corrupt as Renault. He also sees that he’ll never be as good as Victor.
YES. He mentions another woman who he tried to help only to get her hurt.
YES. Lefty, the other inept undercover Fed, Bruno Kirby’s character that gets killed for being sloppy. etc.
Do the Right Thing
YES. Will Mookie end up like Da Mayor? Like Sal? Should he be more like Buggin’ Out? Like his sister?
YES. some of the family members seem to have found success either by leaving or staying in China and others seem to have failed by doing one or the other, so lots of possible fates.
YES. Dicky is a cautionary tale for Micky.
NO. Not really.
YES. Gerard catches and kills the other fugitive.
YES. Both Andre and Andre’s white self Logan, when we think they are different people, seem like different possible fates for Chris.
YES. Phil keeps running into people he could be: Nice Rita, dopey Larry covering the swallows at Capistrano eight years in a row, the drunks at the bar, etc.
How to Train Your Dragon
YES. Lots of people with missing body parts, etc.
In a Lonely Place
YES. Laurel is afraid she’ll be killed like the girl, Dix is afraid he’ll end up like the old drunk.
YES. Co-inventor who dies shows him that he will eventually have to choose, Stane represents what he’s afraid he’ll become.
YES. She worries she’ll end up loveless like her friend, broke like her parents, living at home like her brother.
YES. Her sister and brother-in-law represent his worst fears of becoming a dad, and the brothers represent his worst fears of returning to a life of crime.
NO. Not really. Max is one-of-a-kind.
YES. Various characters are killed by racists. Malcolm X is killed by his former allies. James Forman lets his pride and lack of team spirit compel him to abandon his campaign.
YES. The previous caretaker and his family.
YES. He fears he can’t pursue love without becoming Jack.
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. Lecter, Chilton and Crawford all share her interest in criminal psychology. Which will she end up like?
Not really. Again, these were cut (contrasting Luke with his friends who didn’t leave and his friend who did leave.) Han isn’t really a parallel character because he and Luke haven’t faced the same choices.
YES. many: the monkey, John the Baptist, Max.