Boulevard! A Hollywood Story is awaiting a UK release date.
Following his previous works (Tab Hunter Confidential; I Am Divine, and The Fabulous Allan Carr), Jeffrey Schwarz’s latest documentary looks at another forgotten LGBTQ+ related slice of history from Hollywood’s Golden Age. This time he focuses on Gloria Swanson’s desire to turn her groundbreaking come back role Norma Desmond into a musical. While simultaneously uncovering the hidden life and relationship of composer Dickson Hughes and actor turned lyricist Richard Stapley, both of whom were attached to the project.
Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic satiric film noir Sunset Boulevard is often ranked among the greatest films ever made. Concerning struggling screenwriter Joe Gills (William Holden) and faded silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who is delusionally chasing a triumphant return on screen. The film deals with an obsessive and one-sided love between an older woman and a younger man while dissecting Hollywood’s hypocritical stance on female ageing.
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Opening in London in 1993, Sunset Boulevard is a well-known and critically acclaimed musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. However, Schwarz’s documentary unveils the untold story of the first-ever attempt to bring Wilder’s classic movie to the stage. Here Gloria Swanson began envisioning a stage adaptation of Sunset Boulevard based on the critical acclaim surrounding the film and her portrayal of Desmond. For those familiar with Wilder’s film and Swanson’s career, the similarities between her and Norma Desmond are creepily apparent. Yet, Schwarz takes it further and shows us how Swanson’s personal life also seemed to mirror Norma’s.
Swanson hired Richard Stapley and Dickson Hughes for the project, who had been working as lyricists and composers – mainly so they could live together without needing to reveal they were a gay couple. Like Norma falls for Joe in Wilder’s film, Swanson found herself developing feelings for Stapley, which further complicated a project that would eventually fail to see the light of day.
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Boulevard! works with an impressive amount of archive material in building its narrative. The film uses original clips of Swanson singing songs that had previously never been heard and several archived interviews with Stapley and Hughes alongside letters and notes. In addition to this, there are a wide variety of interviews with friends, family and film historians who provide context and insight. Meanwhile, Maurice Vellekoop’s striking pop-art animation provides visual material to cover the gaps in the archival footage.
The first half of Schwarz’s documentary hazily jumps between Swanson’s life, Stapley and Hughes’ relationship, and the musical’s early development. Given the relatively short runtime of 85 minutes, the film dwells on Stapley’s later British career and fame (under the pseudonym Richard Wyler) for a while this feels unnecessary given the core focus. Yet, it clearly defines its two main themes apart from a few tonal shifts.
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The first theme is the hypocritical way classic Hollywood defined its ageing stars and the eerie similarities between Swanson’s and Norma Desmond’s lives. Here it feels like the documentary crew has struck gold with the fascinating material they uncover. Meanwhile, the second theme explores gay life in 1950s Hollywood. Here the use of animation provides an emotional link to Stapley and Hughes’s story. However, I can’t help but feel that this needed more exploration and depth.
In the final third of the film, we look at the afterlife of the failed production of Boulevard! that Hughes would eventually revitalise as a cabaret called Swanson on Sunset in the 1990s. Not only did he use the music from the trio’s original collaboration, but he incorporated the story of the unsuccessful making of the 1950s musical, creating an especially meta stage play.
Boulevard! mixes humour, emotion and entertainment into a well-researched documentary about a unique slice of Hollywood history. For fans of Sunset Boulevard, the documentary is essential viewing as the film’s plot turns from fiction to reality in front of our eyes while also addressing an otherwise lost and forgotten piece of LGBTQ+ history.
Schwarz’s film mixes humour, emotion and entertainment into a well-researched documentary about a unique slice of Hollywood history.