Hollywood has been dying since before most of us were even born. You have to go all the way back to 1950 for the classic eulogy – delivered in director Billy Wilder’s sardonic film noir, Sunset Boulevard.
The moment comes early in the movie when Gloria Swanson, playing an ageing actress, meets William Holden, a young screenwriter. “I know your face,” he says. “You’re Norma Desmond, used to be in silent pictures, used to be big.”
“I am big,” she replies. “It’s the pictures that got small.”
It’s a great line because – like so much of Wilder’s work – it has gotten better with time. Just this week, in fact, the pictures got even smaller – and the Hollywood of the Desmonds and the Wilders died a little bit more in the process.
This recent case of Tinseltown shrinkage came into view last Sunday as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented its 86th annual Oscar awards.
Over the course of history, the purpose of this televised production has been to foster a love for the silver screen, as well as for those conveniently located stands where candy, soda and popcorn could be bought at inflated prices.
But the enduring image at this year’s Oscars festivities belonged to the social media, not to the cinema. It was not a close-up or tracking shot but a “selfie”, taken during the telecast with a Samsung mobile phone and tweeted around the world to screens so small Desmond would have had to squint to make sense of what she was seeing.
The staging of the photographic self-portrait was like one of those old movie scenes in which Mickey Rooney suggests the kids put on a show. Only in this case the Rooney role was played by Ellen DeGeneres, host of this year’s Oscars ceremony, who whipped out her Samsung and summoned the stars in her vicinity to pose in the hope of breaking the record – set in 2012 by Barack Obama on the night of his re-election as president of the US – for the most widely shared picture on Twitter.
Taken by actor Bradley Cooper, the photo featured a distinguished cast: Cooper, DeGeneres, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep, Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Lawrence, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Jared Leto and Lupita Nyong’o plus some young guy wearing glasses who turned out to be her brother.
The crowd roared, in the way of virtual crowds. The celebrities-plus-the-brother selfie was retweeted millions of times, becoming the big story of the night and consigning that Obama victory photo to the dustbin of social media history.
It also helped to sell stuff. People around the world got to see what you could do with the gizmos made by Samsung, which reportedly paid an estimated $20m to sponsor television advertisements at the Oscars. The public was taught, too, for the umpteenth time that cool people love Twitter, which, lest we forget, is only a few months removed from an initial public offering of stock (led by those Hollywood heartthrobs at Goldman Sachs).
But I imagine that I am hardly the only long-time movie lover who felt their inner Norma Desmond emerge as that much-tweeted selfie generated buzz (or wondered, for that matter, what their high school English teachers would have made of the words in such a sentence).
I miss the days when “the pictures” were too grand to fit in your pocket – and when Hollywood was synonymous with John Ford’s big skies, Elizabeth Taylor’s smouldering violet eyes and Judy Garland’s yearning why-oh-whys (the memory of which was done little favour by having the pop idol Pink sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow).
I realise the old Hollywood had its flaws; as the lyricist Johnny Mercer noted it was a town “where you’re terrific, if you’re even good”. But at least it had some confidence in itself – and the resulting capacity to put the latest fads in their proper place.
When I was a teenager, for example, young people started running around naked at public gatherings – it was called streaking – in a precursor to the unfortunate self-displays we often see online. One streaker made an appearance at the 1974 Oscars, but thankfully David Niven was there to demonstrate how a real movie star behaves when the going gets weird.
“Well, ladies and gentleman, that was almost bound to happen,” the actor said after a naked young man ran past him on stage. “But isn’t it fascinating ... to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings.”
Hooray for that Hollywood!