BFI Flare Film Festival 2022 Review: Boulevard! A Hollywood Story

Shedding light on a little known piece of Hollywood history, Boulevard! A Hollywood Story sees filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz (Tab Hunter Confidential) explore Gloria Swanson’s early attempts to take Sunset Boulevard to Broadway. With a queer romance at its heart and conflicted protagonists, Boulevard! is an enthralling glimpse into a truly larger than life story.

Life imitates art as Hollywood titan Gloria Swanson hires struggling creatives Richard Stapley and Dickson Hughes to write a Sunset Boulevard musical. Returning to the role that previously saw her thrust once more into the spotlight was set to be Swanson’s next career comeback, yet the relationship between Stapley and Dickson would prove to be equally dramatic.

It is clear that Jeffrey Schwarz has a love for Classic Hollywood with the filmmaker shining a refreshing light into some of its hidden, more queer recesses and the romance between Stapley and Hughes in itself is a fascinating queer love story that beautifully fits this mould. Former leading man Stapley made his name in forties and fifties genre pictures thanks to his classical good looks yet never quite found the runaway fame studio MGM had signed him for. His relationship with composer Hughes, saw them move from ‘writing partners’ to romantic partners, behind the closed doors of 1950s closets. The pair subsequently went to pitch Swanson a role in a musical centred on TIME Magazine before the Grande Dame shifting their focus to Norma Desmond’s Broadway debut.

The writers working with Swanson allows for Schwarz to explore a life imitates art dynamic, with the filmmaker playing with the similarities between the actress and the iconic role of Desmond. Stapley recounting travelling with the actress to Paramount Studios to gain the rights to adapt the screenplay recall Desmond returning to the studio lot in the iconic Billy Wilder film. Anecdotes from the writers about a funeral for a baby chick conjure Sunset’s iconic monkey funeral, whilst Stapley’s claims that Swanson fell head over heels for him echo the Joe and Gloria narrative of the 1950 classic. Whether these claims have been camped-up by the contributors is anyone’s guess, but the image of Swanson falling into the iconic diva expectations provides some amusement.

There’s a wealth of material to pack into the punchy eighty-five minute runtime: exploration into the star power of Desmond from her career as a silent actress (with beautifully restored clips) to a modern day businesswoman and television personality; whilst the breakdown of the Stapley and Hughes relationship adds a touch of Hollywood tragedy into the narrative thanks to the subsequent fall-out which included Stapley being outed from the closet. A second career boost from Stapley as a television spy in The Man from INTERPOL and as a Spaghetti western lead provides further insight into a complicated, queer character who sought the protection of the closet for his career.

Boulevard! A Hollywood Story takes a detour into exploring Hughes and Stapley’s reaction to the launch of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s successful 1993 West End version of Boulevard after the disappointment of their version not making it to the stage. Shedding light on the somewhat forgotten Hughes attempt to get his version back on track Swanson On Sunset, again, uncovers some little-known Hollywood history.

Whilst the hook of Boulevard! A Hollywood Story is the Sunset Boulevard connection and the iconic diva Swanson, the heart is in the complicated story of Hughes and Stapley, a gay relationship placed in the middle of a surrealist Hollywood fantasy. There’s a slight element of tragedy creeping through the ill-fated romance between the two men, perhaps this could have flourished in a more open, accepting time period away from the confines of closets and heterosexual expectations.

Boulevard! A Hollywood Story plays as part of the 2022 BFI Flare Festival. Details can be found here.

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