Hollis Resnik ready for her close-up in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ at Porchlight
In a long-awaited match-up of actor to role, Hollis Resnik, bona fide Chicago theater diva, is finally ready for her close-up as Norma Desmond, starring in Porchlight Music Theatre’s production of “Sunset Boulevard.”
It’s a theater aficionado’s dream, and one that nearly came true more than a decade ago. Resnik was preparing to step into the part of the aging movie star at Lincolnshire’s Marriott Theatre when the offer arrived to sign on with a national tour of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
In the years since, Resnik has performed in fewer and fewer musicals, which has created even greater anticipation around her appearance with Porchlight under the direction of Michael Weber.
For “Sunset,” Resnik — often associated with Stephen Sondheim’s musicals — will tackle an Andrew Lloyd Webber score that includes what many consider one of the composer’s finest songs, Norma’s showstopping “As If We Never Said Goodbye.”
During rehearsals, Resnik, a 12-time Joseph Jefferson Award winner, powered through allergies that made her feel like she was singing in a helmet, all to get her vocal cords into peak condition.
“Now that I’m older, I don’t sing as much. It’s about getting that muscle back in shape,” said Resnick.
Though she admits “I sing a little differently” these days, in a slightly lower register, Resnik considers herself a stronger all-around performer and better prepared to plumb Norma’s depths than she would have been in the early 2000s.
“I think there’s more stillness in my work,” she said. “I think I’m a smarter actor.”
Porchlight’s telling of “Sunset Boulevard” remains faithful to Billy Wilder’s original 1950 film, starring Gloria Swanson as Norma and William Holden as screenwriter Joe Gillis (played by Billy Rude at Porchlight).
“It’s a classic film noir — an aging actress falls in love with a younger man and goes nuts,” is how Resnik succinctly summed up the plot.
The juicy role of Norma, uncommonly substantial for actresses of a “certain age,” has been played by some of Broadway’s biggest stars, including Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley and Glenn Close. But it’s Carol Burnett’s parody of Desmond that may well be stuck in some people’s minds.
To interpret Norma as camp is to misread the character, Resnik said.
Is Norma eccentric and weird? Absolutely, Resnik said, but there’s nothing funny about her descent into madness.
“The second act [of “Sunset”] is darker. You can see her unraveling,” Resnik said. “I do think it’s a bit tragic. I don’t think it’s camp.”
Because the role of Norma — a forgotten silent film star reveling in past glories and fantasizing about a return to the spotlight — is played by a likewise older actress, audiences have a tendency to conflate the two, blurring fiction with reality.
Resnik acknowledges that “Sure, I work less than I used to” and says “Sunset” very well might be the last big musical she does, but she’s also more than content with what she’s achieved over the course of her 40-year career.
“I’m not a movie star … that world is foreign to me. I’m pretty simple,” Resnik said. “There isn’t one role I’m dying to play. I’ve done enough.”
Frankly those on the outside looking in will likely have overthought Resnik-as-Desmond far more than actress herself.
Take that famous line: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” Resnik’s not sweating it.
“There are a lot of famous lines in a lot of plays. It’s up to the actor in the time and the moment,” Resnik said.
That’s the magic of the stage, after all, she said. “Theater’s always crackling. There’s always something new to be discovered.”
Patty Wetli is a local freelance writer.