Screen Time: Perfume in “Sunset Boulevard”

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I recently re-watched “Sunset Boulevard” (1950, directed by Billy Wilder) in order to include it in a list of movies with famous New Year’s Eve scenes (see here). There’s not much more to say about this movie that hasn’t already been said, but I did want to mention its two references to perfume here, as part of this ongoing series of posts.

In one scene, the protagonist—struggling scriptwriter Joe Gillis—describes evenings of watching old movies with fading screen-star Norma Desmond. He’s living in Norma’s house while attempting to edit a script that she’s written (with herself in mind as its heroine), and meanwhile he’s trying to avoid her romantic clutches. He remembers,

She’d sit very close to me, and she’d smell of tuberose, which is not my favorite perfume, not by a long shot. Sometimes as we watched she’d clutch my arm or my hand, forgetting she was my employer, just becoming a fan, excited about that actress up there on the screen. . . I guess I don’t have to tell you who the star was. They were always her pictures—that’s all she wanted to see.

What perfume could she have been wearing? Something heady and narcotic, something heavy on tuberose. In 1950, the most likely culprit would have been Robert Piguet’s Fracas (released in 1948).

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Meanwhile, Joe begins spending his evenings with Betty Schafer, a young script-reader. She has been helping him to edit his own script project, which he’s hoping to sell to one of the studios around town. (Do you detect a certain symmetry here?) Joe happens to notice Betty’s fragrance one night, and it definitely does not displease him the way Norma’s does:

GILLIS: May I say you smell real special?

BETTY: It must be my new shampoo.

GILLIS: That's no shampoo.  It's more like a pile of freshly laundered hand-
kerchiefs, like a brand new automobile.  How old are you anyway?

BETTY: Twenty-two.

GILLIS: That's it -- there's nothing like being twenty-two.  Now may I suggest 
that if we're ever to finish this story you keep at least two feet away from me?

It’s hard to tell how literal Joe’s mention of fresh handkerchieves and new cars might be. If he really is describing a perfume she’s wearing, who knows what it is? I’d love to think that girl-next-door Betty might actually be wearing Lanvin’s My Sin, which drapes its leathery base with topnotes of crisp aldehydes—but I’m probably letting my imagination run away with me. It probably is the fresh-scrubbed scent of her soap or shampoo, and importantly, her intangible aura of youth and optimism.

Betty’s monologue in the same scene demonstrates how different she is from Norma Desmond in her ambitions and her self-perceptions (more contrast and symmetry!). As I get older, and various things happen (or don’t happen), it makes me sigh a bit.

Screen captures from Sunset Boulevard.



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