What to watch: Boulevard! A Hollywood Story
Sunset Boulevard – released in 1950 – was Gloria Swanson’s triumphant return to the big screen.
While we’re familiar with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of the film, what’s less well-known is that Swanson had previously attempted to bring her own musical adaptation to the stage.
Boulevard! A Hollywood Story – a documentary by Jeffrey Schwarz – brings to life Swanson’s struggles with the project but also shines the spotlight on the two gay men who were the creative force behind it.
Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley were a songwriting partnership who were also a couple. They’d approached Swanson about appearing in a musical that they’d been developing but she instead hired them to work with her on the musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard.
It was a rollercoaster ride for Hughes and Stapley. When life began imitating art and Swanson pursued a relationship with Stapley – echoing the storyline of the film – everything began to fall apart and the musical was never staged.
“I love learning about the behind-the-scenes drama of classic movies, and devoured film historian Sam Staggs’ book Close-up on Sunset Boulevard…” explains Jeffrey Schwarz. “It was here I first learned about Gloria Swanson’s failed attempt to launch a musical version of Sunset Boulevard, and the resulting creative threesome with her composers – Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley. The two men were lovers but presented themselves to the world as writing partners and roommates, a necessary contrivance in the homophobic 1950s. Their working relationship with Gloria Swanson mirrored the plot of Sunset Boulevard, and they found themselves living a real-life version of the film when Gloria fell for the handsome Richard Stapley. Life imitates art, indeed!”
“This film is about how our protagonists poured their heart and soul into a creative venture that would ultimately blow up in their faces…” continues Schwarz. “It’s a heartbreak any creative person can identify with – presenting something to the world only to have it be met with at best indifference or at worst a critical drubbing. Boulevard is also about growing old, and how our protagonists faced the challenges of aging in a youth-obsessed society. Digging up stories from the past and re-invigorating legacies for a new generation has been my creative mission over the years. With Boulevard! A Hollywood Story, a hidden Hollywood saga will finally be revealed, and provide a big screen comeback for Gloria Swanson, Richard Stapley, and Dickson Hughes.”
If you’ve got an interest in old-Hollywood and movie history, then you’ll totally eat this up. But even if you don’t know who Gloria Swanson is, this is still a compelling story and an engaging documentary.
Schwarz has consistently demonstrated his skill in creating documentaries that highlight aspects of queer entertainment history in fresh ways – previous films include The Fabulous Allan Carr, Tab Hunter Confidential, I Am Divine, and Vito. In the story of Boulevard, he’s demonstrated once again that he’s able to take fragments of history and memories almost lost to time and create a narrative that is informative but also entertaining.