Review: 'Boulevard: A Hollywood Story' Sheds Light on the Musical that Never Was

by Roger Walker-Dack

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday October 9, 2021

'Boulevard: A Hollywood Story'
'Boulevard: A Hollywood Story'  (Source:Outfest)

Over the past few years, Emmy Award-winning producer and director J Jeffrey Schwarz has carved out quite a niche, creating excellent documentaries about queer icons. So far he has told us the stories of Vito Russo, Tab Hunter, Jack Wrangler, Allen Carr, and the fabulous Divine.

However, his latest documentary, "Boulevard: A Hollywood Story," has a slight twist, as it's about a specific story in the life of one of Hollywood's biggest film stars, Gloria Swanson, who is still adored by the gay community. Plus, it has an unexpected queer love story that makes for compelling viewing.

In 1950 Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley, two young songwriters who were also romantic partners, approached Swanson with a new musical they had written just for her. The 50+-year-old star, still basking in the reception of "Sunset Boulevard," had been champing at the bit as offers of film roles had simply dried up.

So, she persuaded the couple to change their plans and write a musical based on "Sunset Boulevard," allowing for her to recreate Norma Desmond. Art, however, started to mirror art, with Ms. Swanson falling in love with the young (gay) Stapley, exactly as her Norma Desmond had been infatuated with young "Joe Gillis" in the film.

Although Schwarz had vaguely known about the existence of the musical, most of what we now see on screen seems to unfold in front of him as he digs deeper. He has some wonderful archival footage of Swanson singing some of the songs, plus an interview with Hughes, and also an interview he manages to film with Stapley. It all adds up to a riveting story that will shock and delight even the most knowledgeable Hollywood aficionado.

Without wishing to give away too many spoilers, the musical did get finished, and Ms. Swanson and the "boys" took it to New York to find financial backers.

Fast forward: Swanson, fed up with offers of film roles which were just pale imitations of Norma Desmond, rarely worked again. Ten years after her death in 1983, Andrew LLoyd-Webber introduced to the world his "Sunset Boulevard" musical, which, in 1995, won seven Tony Awards. He and others have failed to remake the musical because Paramount has refused them the rights, just like they did to Swanson way back then.

Another surprise concerns Stapley, who, after he split up with Hughes, returned to his native England. Now with a new name, he carved out a successful film career as a poor man's Clark Gable!

Hughes, meanwhile, recycled the songs into a cabaret act, titled "Swansn on Sunset," which also related the story of the failed project.

Schwarz's fascinating tale, told with genuine affection, is (in Norma Desmond's own words) for "all those wonderful people out there in the dark." And we thank him for shedding some lightl.

"Boulevard: A Hollywood Story" screens at OUTshine Fort Lauderdale and Seattle Queer Film Festival

Roger Walker-Dack, a passionate cinephile, is a freelance writer, critic and broadcaster and the author/editor of three blogs. He divides his time between Miami Beach and Provincetown.