BFI Flare ’22: ‘Boulevard! A Hollywood Story’ Struggles To Find Focus

Courtesy of Automat Pictures / The Film Collaborative

Boulevard! A Hollywood Story tells the story of a lesser-known slice of old Hollywood history. Long before Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a musical version of Sunset Boulevard, actor-turned-lyricist Richard Stapley and composer Dickson Hughes worked alongside Gloria Swanson to bring the 1950 Billy Wilder film to life. 

The rather disjoined documentary details the untold story of this failed collaboration and the young gay writer who Swanson hopelessly fell in love with. Unsure of its focus, Boulevard! A Hollywood Story flits between being a Swanson documentary, a behind the scenes story about the best musical that was never made, and an investigation into the Hollywood talents that were lost to the closet.

The movie combines a selection of talking heads including friends, wives, a former neighbour of Stapley, and Swanson’s granddaughter, none of whom are impartial or informed enough to advance the narrative of the documentary The film historians and archival interviews with Stapley and Hughes, alongside clips from Swanson’s many television and film performance give more context – but this lack of impartiality means the film never has a specific viewpoint

The film spends a significant chunk of time trying to form threads between art and life. The line between Swanson and the character of Norma Desmond becomes blurred, captured in some charming pop art animation segments. 

The best of this documentary comes in the behind the scenes struggles to compose the music. The green trio struggles to produce a score that captures the atmosphere of the movie when they lack the Broadway experience of established musicians, and there are some interesting points about where musical theatre was in this period of time,  including original recordings of Gloria Swanson singing the composed songs, the 1950s version of Sunset Boulevard couldn’t be further from Webber’s orchestral drama. Played on a piano with a jazz cabaret style, the original iteration is very much of its time.

Weaved through this story is the life of Richard Stapley, the actor turned screenwriter who changed his name to Wyder in later life. The documentary loses focus when it starts to blend his back story and the behind-the-scenes musical tale.

Stapley was a decently known actor in old Hollywood, married and concealing his sexuality. There feels like there is more to this man, and the culture he worked in than the film represents. Hughes picks up his story via a 2003 interview where he speaks about his life, Swanson’s final years and a little about Stapley (most of which Hughes unhelpfully refuses to speak about). Unfortunately, the timelines for these different stories quickly become unfocused and hazy, you can be forgiven for losing track. 

Boulevard! A Hollywood Story doesn’t look at The Golden Age of Hollywood through rose-tinted glasses, it remembers that era wasn’t so carefree. Through frayed narrative strands and uncomfortable interviews, Sunset Boulevard’s part in this history is only partially revealed.

Boulevard! A Hollywood Story played as part of BFI Flare 2022.

by Amelia Harvey

Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy

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