Seen as part of the Mardi Gras Film Festival
In 1950, the glorious film noir, Sunset Boulevard was released. A film about an aging starlet who sees one final chance to regain her stardom, the film briefly revitalised the career of the legendary silent film actress Gloria Swanson. To this day Sunset Boulevard is revered as a classic of cinema and was the inspiration for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical of the same name (that will apparently be turned into a movie for Glenn Close to star in and hopefully win the damn Oscar she’s long overdue). However, before Andrew Lloyd Webber even had the idea of putting the story of Sunset Boulevard to music, Gloria Swanson herself tried to pull it off and the story behind what happened to that show feels all too familiar.
Boulevard! A Hollywood Story follows the three-person creative team behind this unproduced musical, its star Gloria Swanson and two writers Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley, and their attempt to create a musical adaptation of Gloria Swanson’s hit film. It tells the story of what they were doing before the musical, including Dickson and Richard’s relationship that had to be hidden from the public, goes through the process of making a musical that would never be performed and how this one missed opportunity would impact the rest of their lives. It would also include moments of Gloria falling in love with one of her writers, an attempt to rework the music into something that could be shown without rights and even their reactions to the Andrew Lloyd Webber show that actually made it to stage. It’s a glorious tale of a lost piece of media that’s so strange it could only happen in Hollywood.
Helmed by Jeffrey Schwarz, this film fits in well with the man’s previous documentaries. Jeffrey has made a career out of making documentaries about artifacts of queer cinema, from my personal favourite I Am Divine, which told the life story of the legendary drag actor, to Wrangler: Anatomy Of An Icon which told the life story of the legendary porn actor. He has a knack for picking fascinating figures from queer cinema or just general queer history and exploring them in a way that’s both hilarious and fascinating and every bit of that is on full display with Boulevard!.
From the first minute, the film brings the audience along on a treasure hunt, like we’re part of this ragtag crew who are going to interview people to learn about this strange little play that never got put together and it’s amazing to see. There’s a certain surprise shown in so many of the people being interviewed like they never expected anyone to even ask about this show that never got put together and have been dying to talk about it for years. Once the film gets past that initial setup, everything from then on is the kind of glorious melodramatic story that makes for a fascinating documentary.
From exploring what made Gloria Swanson such a big name to exploring the cultural landscape that forced Dickson and Richard to keep their love affair a secret, everything about this film’s set-up is brilliant. It’s careful to play its information slowly, using a mix of new interviews and archival footage along with beautiful illustrations to set the stage for this strange little tale that plays out perfectly, even letting us hear some old recordings of the music that was put together for investors… before everything fell apart and the play never got put on stage. And then the documentary goes for another half an hour.
That final act, exploring the aftermath of the Sunset Boulevard musical, is honestly the best part of the entire experience as it shows just how desperate this trio was for this show to work so that they could climb back to the top. It’s so fascinating to just hear these stories of a forgotten almost unheard of show that make it sound like the most important thing to ever be put together. Once again, Jeffrey Schwarz has found this fascinating strange piece of queer history and explored it in such a way that you can’t look away, it’s like he found out some cool little secret and is taking his time with the most flowery language to try and entice everyone into liking this cool thing he just discovered and god damn it, it works.
Boulevard! A Hollywood Story is a glorious ode to art, how some works try so hard to come to fruition and the toll that can take on the creators. It’s funny and silly and more than a little strange but by god is it captivating. Norma Desmond might have complained that the pictures got small, but there is absolutely nothing small about this picture.