“It makes me look the way I feel”: small portable mirrors in the films of Billy Wilder

In Objet d'Art, we take a look at the use of inanimate objects in film and music and their changing meanings, aesthetics and emotional purpose in different contexts.

Billy Wilder directed a total of ten films from 1950 to 1960. His work ethic is indisputably admirable, and with the exception of Double Indemnity (1944), he undoubtedly produced his best work during this period. While typically overshadowed by the likes of Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and Nicholas Ray, Wilder’s films of this period consisted of colourful characters and captivating storylines.

Three films of this era — Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment — are the pinnacle of Wilder’s auteur style. While Wilder has been panned for his stark filming techniques, his subtle approaches make for truly remarkable pieces. The use of small portable mirrors in his films, like pocket mirrors and handheld ones, represents his unadorned but distinctive methods.

In Some Like It Hot, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) are on the run from Chicago mobsters. They don female disguises to join an all-female band in Miami to escape the thugs and the harsh Chicago winter. In one scene at a hotel lobby, as their alter egos Josephine and Daphne respectively, Jerry complains about fighting off an ardent admirer, the millionaire Osgood (Joe E. Good). Joe utters half-mockingly to Jerry, “You better fix your lips. You wanna look nice for Osgood, don’t cha?”

Jerry sighs and reaches for his lipstick and pocket mirror. As he fixes his lipstick, he notices something and leans in to take a closer look. From his mirror, he spots the Chicago mobsters in the very same hotel. He mentions this to Joe, and they quickly head to the lift, only for the mobsters to enter the lift with them.

From this scene alone, Some Like It Hot reaches a turning point with Joe’s use of his pocket mirror. The startling revelation from the pocket mirror steers the narrative away from its romantic comedy storyline, although only momentarily, and towards a cat-and-mouse chase. Additionally, the small portable mirror acts as an emblem of a certain feminine identity. For Joe and Jerry, the pocket mirror is a natural extension of their female disguise. The pocket mirror is not as literal as a disguise as a dress or heels, yet it masks over their male identity too. In this case, the mirror brings about the fact that their identity could be exposed. The mirror hides, and also reveals.

Sunset Boulevard is littered with “star of yesteryear” Norma Desmond’s (Gloria Swanson) draw towards mirrors. A magnifying mirror is used when she undergoes a thorough body treatment, to reflect her warped perception of Mr. Demille’s approval, and in one scene, she stops at a hallway mirror before entering Joe’s (William Holden) room, another indicator of her obsession with her appearance.

The portable handheld mirror makes a fleeting appearance in the penultimate sequence of Sunset Boulevard, but is instrumental in Norma’s turn for the worse. Near the end of the film, Norma is in a quasi-state of trance. She sits in her boudoir, admires her reflection and is seemingly unaware of the policemen’s questioning over the death of Joe.

While picking up a handheld mirror, a police officer enters the room and says, “The newsreel men are here with the cameras.” For what seems like the first time since the police arrive, Norma turns her attention to her surroundings, rather than herself. Her eyes instantly widen and wander around, as her right hand, while holding her mirror, remains perfectly still. She never looks at her handheld mirror again but she only places it down when her servant, Max, confirms that the cameras have indeed arrived.

This chilling scene ignites Norma’s descent into madness. While Norma’s handheld mirror does not directly lead to a critical plot event, it acts as an aesthetic device. The mirror reflects an eerie glow over the right side of her face once she hears the police officer’s comment, like a distorted light bulb moment. Crucially, the portable mirror is closely associated with her vanity. While Norma’s affinity for the camera is highly evident throughout Sunset Boulevard, the handheld mirror is a reminder of her love of the image, or more precisely, her image. She chooses a handheld mirror over the vanity mirror of her boudoir, right before the allure of the camera takes her away. The handheld mirror, very briefly, encapsulates a toxic kind of femininity — a crippling sense of narcissism and conceitedness, both contributing factors to Norma’s own downfall.

In a pivotal scene in The Apartment, while at an office Christmas party, a newly promoted Baxter (Jack Lemmon) excitedly puts on a bowler hat, a symbol of his hollow corporate dreams, and asks Fran (Shirley MacLaine) how he looks. Distracted from finding out some distressing information about Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the married man she is seeing, she glumly hands Baxter her pocket mirror. He notices the mirror is cracked: a marker of it being the same mirror that was left at his apartment a few nights ago, which triggers his tragic realisation that she’s the very girl that Sheldrake, his boss, has been seeing. Wilder’s visual style has been criticised for being too plain, but the shot of Baxter’s reflection in the broken mirror possesses an understated elegance. His fractured face stirs up an immense sense of pathos for an otherwise grimly cynical film.

Fran’s pocket mirror ignites a transformative change for The Apartment. Baxter’s perception of Fran changes instantly, for one. As yet unbeknown to Baxter, Fran’s dismay with Sheldrake results in the film’s most heartbreaking line. Upon Baxter’s comment that her mirror is broken, she replies, “Yes, I know. I like it that way – makes me look the way I feel." Like her mirror, Fran is in disarray: her relationship with Sheldrake causes her immense pain and hurt. Most strikingly, the use of the mirror also prompts the accumulation of the film’s multiple narrative lines, which leads to this emotive scene, further drenched in dramatic irony.

Wilder’s fidelity to small portable mirrors is seemingly disregarded, but these little objects have the ability to set off something far bigger. Most significantly, these mirrors symbolise a major theme in Wilder’s films — duplicity. Wilder’s characters attempt to change their identity or improve themselves, and try to hide their real self. The portable mirror merely exposes their true side. Jerry’s pocket mirror in Some Like It Hot forewarns the end of their charade as female musicians. In Sunset Boulevard, Norma’s handheld mirror is cast aside, as she ignores her “real” self and becomes fatally enfolded by her obsession with her image. Lastly, The Apartment’s cracked pocket mirror alludes to Baxter and Fran’s own deceit, a fault that is only revealed through a harsh, but moving self-reflection. Wilder utilises the functionality of these small, portable mirrors to evoke the characters’ deceiving nature, whether to themselves or to others. The mirror reveals all.

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