Still Hoping for Her Close-Up
By Joseph O’Connor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
When Norma Desmond, played by the sublimely overwrought Gloria Swanson, declares “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small,” she seals her status as one of Hollywood’s great delusional grande dames. 1950’s Sunset Boulevard examines the downfall of the former silent film star, and the cruel effects of self-deception. Accompanied by her formidable enabler and butler, Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim), as well as by an opportunistic Joe Gillis (William Holden), Desmond attempts to stage a comeback from the safety of her mansion. Believing her script will impress Cecil B. Demille (who plays himself), she prepares for a role that can only happen in her imagination. Swanson enlivens the antiheroine with a highly mannered, eerie determination, but remarkably, turns Desmond into both perpetrator and victim. Her performance – together with director Billy Wilder’s then-unprecedented indictment of the movie industry and its penchant for discarding its own legends – engenders sympathy even as it is steeped in darkness. Just over sixty years later, Sunset Boulevard remains a classic for its brilliant satire of an actor in decline.
The film must also have been in Irish novelist Joseph O’Connor’s mind as he wrote his newly-published novel Ghost Light, which similarly confronts a waning career and a deteriorating mind. There’s a change here, however, as Ghost Light doesn’t culminate in a murderous finale like Wilder’s film, but instead concerns itself with presenting a more realistic evocation of mental illness, which is not always criminal or punctuated by bouts of feverish activity followed by despair. As O’Connor shows in this tender and perceptive novel, it can accrue quietly, in isolation.
Loosely inspired by Irish actress Maire O’Neille (born Molly Allgood) and Irish playwright Edmund John Millington Synge, who co-founded the Abbey Theatre with Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats, Ghost Light considers Allgood’s final year while revisiting her past with Synge. (The real Allgood, like her fictional counterpart, was engaged to Synge shortly before he died of cancer at the age of 37.) O’Connor has drawn from the outline of their lives to recreate their relationship and its aftermath, but in a useful “caveat,” acknowledges that “Certain biographers will want to beat me with a turf-shovel.” Allgood was not a destitute alcoholic, as portrayed in the novel, though she did die in 1952, the same year the novel begins.
When readers first meet her, Allgood is a sixty-five year old actress haunted by memories of a tumultuous love affair. Like Desmond, she is confident in her power to persuade, and thinks her second chance is imminent. Unlike Desmond, she has no faithful butler to shield her from reality. Her shifts between lucidity and delusion are also depicted with fewer tinges of the Grand Guignol, and her story deepens facets of loss that Sunset Boulevard brought to greater public awareness. The absence of leading roles and suitable scripts, changing standards of beauty, and the push toward newer technology are not the only problems for aging actors. The significant loss of culture is more insidious. O’Connor skillfully portrays the world of Dublin theater as being pivotal to understanding Allgood, her alienation as an Irish woman in London, and the impending sense that she is a woman stepping out of time. Emotional stakes are raised by the fact that she is not only losing her mind, but a way of life, as one of the last of a talented generation.
O’Connor begins the novel in Allgood’s unheated, slatternly apartment. Referred to as “You,” Allgood has become an example of “What Could Happen.” She must penny-pinch, is plagued by the inability to forget lines, recalls everything from the movie Rebecca to advice from Synge, faces bitter English weather, is reputedly sought after by those seeking interviews as well as archival material, and is currently readying herself for an assignment with BBC radio. Throughout her preparations, thoughts of Synge intrude. She keeps his portrait in plain view:
The man in the portrait has been dead a long time. His clothes are Edwardian: a shabby plus-four suit and brogues, a loose varsity cap, a knotted kerchief about the throat. An ashplant cane in the gloved right hand and a book protruding slightly from the pocket. Sepia has made his garments the same colour as his hair, as his mother’s chaise lounge in the background. The picture has shrivelled over the years. It has seen many mantelshelves; many boxes and cheap hotel rooms, the greenrooms, the flophouses, the pouches of a cardboard suitcase. There is a stiffness in how he holds himself, as one braving the firing squad in an opera…
O’Connor easily, impressively establishes Allgood’s attachment to Synge, the fact that she has led a transient life, moving from one shabby accommodation to another, and the first inklings that Synge’s mother will be important (she is later revealed as having protested their relationship). He further layers his descriptions with the similarly ruinous, claustrophobic aura that pervades Desmond’s mansion:
Somewhere in the room is a packet of old programmes all containing your name, but you wouldn’t know where to find it among the clutter.
Nostalgia, it would seem, is fine and well, but something closer to entrapment is happening. Allgood’s inability – even refusal – to part with relics is one of the early signs that something is wrong. In the second chapter, O’Connor transitions to the third person, and continues to convey the extent of Allgood’s hardships. The reader learns that she regularly fibs to preserve her dignity while accepting charity, and that she is known to drunkenly disturb others in the neighborhood. Eccentricity, advancing age, and diminishing means alone do not explain her exchange with a local constable:
Her response seems whimsical; she had been thinking of Rebecca earlier. It is also another hint that her mind is not well. The real Allgood starred in a few Golden Age movies, notably in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1930 Juno and the Paycock; it’s not surprising that the fictional Allgood should mention another Hitchcock film. Still, O’Connor’s choice is provocative. Mrs. de Winter is the leading role in a thriller on psychological manipulation. It remains ambiguous whether Allgood identifies with another woman haunted—nearly to madness and suicide—by the ruins of the past, but O’Connor allows readers to draw their own inferences. To strong effect, he highlights Molly’s mental state through the reactions of various townsfolk. That Allgood can charm some while leading others to bafflement or pity allows a rounder portrait to emerge. She is undoubtedly good at what she does, but is also unaware that others can see through her pretenses.
‘Local, are you, ma’am?’
‘I reside here, yes.’ Give him your genteel accent, Molly, it could do with a rehearsal.
‘May I ask your name, ma’am?’
‘Mrs de Winter. Rebecca.’
The remainder of the novel shuttles between “you” and “she,” alternating between early 20th century Ireland and the same day in 1952, allowing Allgood’s story to unfold as a collage of memories while walking through London on her way to the BBC. Time is compressed even as the past seems to stretch infinitely. Her first encounter with Synge, their differences, and their rehearsals (accompanied by Yeats, who comes across as a larger-than-life, overly demanding artist) reveal themselves in fugues of memory, which then are jarringly interrupted by the present. The trip to the BBC job serves as a touchstone, much like Desmond’s long-awaited meeting with Demille, driving the narrative toward its inevitable, and ominous, conclusion.
As the novel progresses, Allgood’s mind continues to fragment. Suspicions about her stability come to fruition when she reaches the BBC. In a scene that recalls Desmond returning to Paramount, Allgood is gradually surrounded by praising figures, including Ken, a member of the old guard who has known her since her earlier days:
‘Ah, Molly my auld pet and you radiance entirely.’
He shuffles into the waiting room, his left hand in a glove, his right hand leaning on a walking stick. ‘I had a little fall a couple of weeks ago, made a royal hames of my ankle. Oh I’m fine, not a bother, it’s just a bloody nuisance getting about. Oh, but look at you, how beautiful. You’re growing lovelier with the years.’
Readers have been led from the start to expect that Allgood will come unhinged, but O’Connor admirably depicts the moment without pity, judgment, or mockery at the idea of an impossible return to the limelight. The scene proceeds at length – including a mother and daughter duo, to whom Allgood offers a memento – with increasing discomfort. Reality forces its way through the haze by way of sudden illness:
You are halfway through the third soliloquy when the pain begins in earnest: softly, subtly, like the rumor of pain, but then suddenly blooming violently in the floor of your abdomen…
Allgood struggles to continue performing. The novel segues to a later scene; a news article reports a fire in the apartment where “A severely burnt elderly woman was found unconscious on the floor.” She survives long enough to be taken to a mental hospital, and dies soon after. The rapid denouement remains true to the spirit of the novel, which does not dwell on fading glory for sentimental purposes. Allgood is given the final word in the epilogue, “An Old Letter Found Among Her Papers, Unmailed,” a chatty, affectionate missive to Synge which claims he is “the miracle” of her life.
Throughout the work, it is not entirely clear why Synge has made a profound impression on Allgood. Apart from his stature as an older, talented, and occasionally controversial figure, he is not especially compelling. Born into wealth and suffering from illness, Synge emerges as a moody, petulant man of letters that admonishes Allgood as though he were Henry Higgins. She, in turn, comes from humbler circumstances, is a realist, and wishes he would spend more time experiencing life rather than ruminating over how best to articulate it. Other characters, including Synge’s mother, highlight the gaps between them. The story of the mismatched pair comprises the majority of the novel, yet it is not a romance about defying social expectations, as they never marry, and Synge dies in his late thirties. Readers are treated to an elegant, intricately narrated account of their meetings, even as Synge remains enigmatic, but the chemistry is absent. It is the aftermath, and what happens to Allgood, that proves more memorable than love.
Still, such distance is fitting for a work about theater. O’Connor seems to suggest that the illusion, the magic of a moment – and of a man – must contain the ineffable. The “ghost light” – “an ancient superstition among people of the stage” and a lamp that “must always be left burning when the theatre is dark, so the ghosts can perform their own plays” – burns in the reader’s mind long after the final page. Any unanswered questions serve as welcome departures for further exploration on two of theater’s luminaries.
Karen Rigby has contributed reviews to Next American City, Bookbrowse.com, ForeWord Reviews and other journals. She currently lives in Arizona.