What the latest Sunset Boulevard production tells us about older women

Image of Nicole Sherzinger. She is wearing a simple black dress, and stands confidently. Behind her is grey smoke, with faint outlines of other people. Nicole Sherzinger, starring as Norma Desmond

With Nicole Scherzinger and Rachel Tucker sharing the lead role in the Savoy Theatre production of Sunset Boulevard, their two excellent but very different performances shine a harsh light on how the world looks at women over 40.

The latest West End incarnation of Sunset Boulevard is bold and compelling. It is a radical departure from elaborate stage productions or the lavish sets of the 1950 film starring Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, the faded Hollywood star desperate to make a comeback (or “return”, as she prefers to call it…) with a script that we’re led to believe is appalling and inappropriate for a woman of her years.

Instead of complicated set changes, the staging is sparse. Instead of sumptuous old Hollywood costumes, the cast wear simple black and white, including Nicole Scherzinger and Rachel Tucker in their interpretations of Norma. They spend their time on stage in a black, silky slip that works as a nightgown, a day dress with sunglasses and a cocktail frock with a party hat.

Image of Rachel Tucker, starring as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. She is wearing a simple black dress with sunglasses clipped to them, and is gesturing with her hands.

Rachel Tucker, starring as Norma Desmond

And it is because of the production’s raw minimalism that there is nowhere for anyone to hide. Their collective talent is crucial to this Sunset’s success. For Scherzinger and Tucker, this means their faces are projected on enormous screens during the show. Extreme close-ups.

Even in black and white, which tends to be kinder to lines, lumps, bumps and spots, it is too easy to call these two women “brave” for allowing their visages to be scrutinised by the audience. Equally, I would be lying if I said I didn’t gasp at the thought of my 47-year-old face projected 30 feet high in the Savoy, with the crows’ feet I resolutely refuse to Botox and textured remnants of teenage acne out there for everyone to see.

…we are still plagued by the pitiful notion that older famous women should look good for their age in a way that is not expected of men

But this is where we are. Sunset Boulevard is just as relevant in 2023 as it was in 1950 when it comes to how we view women who have the temerity to show their faces after 40.

Sure, things have improved for women over 40 in Hollywood, but we are still plagued by the pitiful notion that older famous women should look good for their age in a way that is not expected of men. They are free to become silver foxes, with cragginess seen as sexy in a way that is never allowed for women. While there is nothing wrong with age-gap relationships in the real world, Hollywood scripts still allow much older actors to hook up with much younger actresses in a way that seldom happens the other way around, unless the whole point of the story is that the woman is a cougar.

Norma’s desperation to still be seen as young and vital is integral to the Sunset Boulevard story, highlighted by the appearances of Hannah Yun Chamberlain as Young Norma, who is flexible and smooth-skinned. She hires Joe Gillis, a sexy-but-struggling young writer played by Tom Francis, to administer first-aid on her Salome script in the vain hope that Cecil B. De Mille will direct her in the title role. How we all laugh when she is adamant that she can play a teenaged Biblical character.

Image from Sunset Boulevard of Tom Francis (playing Joe Gillis) and Nicole Sherzinger (playing Norma Desmond). Sherzinger is being dipped by Francis, her hand reaching out towards the camera. Francis is looking at Sherzinger, while she looks directly at the camera.

Nicole Sherzinger and Tom Francis as Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis

There are a couple of very telling lines that reflect what everyone is thinking about Norma Desmond’s comeback.

“Norma Desmond? She must be a million years old.”

“Nothing wrong with being 40, unless you’re acting 20.”

Yep, 40 is the new 1,000,000. Laughter rippled softly around the theatre both times I saw this incarnation of Sunset Boulevard when Norma was criticised for “acting 20”, which is code for trying to conform to ridiculous standards of physical beauty, while refusing to fade away or, at the very least, having the decency to grow old gracefully. How dare Norma try to relive past glories, as if she is Mae West, stubbornly playing blonde saucepot roles into her 80s.

It is in these moments, which are genuinely more heartbreaking and depressing than comic, that we see the main differences between Scherzinger’s and Tucker’s interpretations of Norma Desmond’s desperation and descent…

As Scherzinger’s face is projected onto the big screen, her eyes become big and wild and there is a hint of Joan Collins-style campiness to her expressions. It sounds ludicrous, but it works. As she loses her grip on the grim realities of Hollywood for women, she becomes a sad, cartoonish figure, genuinely horrified that her star is fizzling out.

Tucker’s facial expressions are more measured, but equally compelling. Where Scherzinger is wild-eyed and angrily resentful, Tucker’s Norma comes across as a sad woman on the brink, knowing that the curtain is coming down on her career. She is more than a little scared about her fate, while still trying to fight cruel inevitability.

Image of Nicole Sherzinger in a simple black dress on a black background. She is facing a silhouetted man, who we can see nothing of except that he is in nothing but shorts.

Between the two female leads, they capture the gamut of women’s experiences of ageing in the spotlight – denial that they’re considered too old, fear of irrelevance, sheer horror at being told to act their age, grim determination to fight, validation through sex and admiration, and heartbreaking resignation – which is why I strongly recommend seeing both Scherzinger and Tucker’s interpretations, if time and budget allow.

In contrast, Cecil B. De Mille’s age is never an issue. He is a Tinseltown elder statesman, a man respected for his years of experience. Nobody ever suggests he is past it. The audience only ever sees the back of his head. His appearance is not an issue. Meanwhile, Betty Schaeffer, the ambitious young studio exec, played by star-in-the-making Grace Hodgett Young, is torn between career and personal life and you leave the theatre with the feeling that she will never quite have it all.

On one level, it is depressing that a 73-year-old story about an ageing woman is still relevant. At the same time, this stark, confronting new production, regardless of who is playing the lead, shines a harsh, unforgiving light on our own prejudices about women, whether we’re famous or not. And it’s a light that still needs to burn.

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About Georgia Lewis
In a career that has spanned Australia, the Middle East and the UK, Georgia has written about all sorts of things, including sex, cars, food, oil and gas, insurance, fashion, travel, workplace safety, health, religious affairs, glass and glazing... When she's not writing words for fun and profit, she can usually be found with a glass of something French and red in her hand.

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