Everyone knows Sunset Boulevard, whether it’s the place or the film or both. Everyone knows Hollywood and how it can make you a star overnight if it wanted to. Hollywood can pick you up one day and chew up the next, leaving you with broken dreams and a just enough money to get a ticket home.
Sunset Boulevard was one of the stories that Hollywood told about itself, not hiding the fact about how difficult it was to make it in the business and how it was when you were no longer in the spotlight. Gloria Swanson was perfectly cast as the forgotten film star, Norma Desmond, who falls in love with the younger screenwriter Joe who she hires to edit the script for the film that would be her return. The role was also very much close home for Swanson for she had been a famous silent film star and had seen roles dry up over the years as she aged. Sunset Boulevard should have been her grand come back. But after the release, the roles just weren’t there.
In another part of town, actor Richard Stapley had had enough with bit parts and along with his partner Dickie Hughes, had started work on a musical. Thinking Swanson would be perfect they reached out to her but instead of wanting to do something new, she proposed a musical version of Sunset Boulevard. With her starring of course. But as the trio working together, life imitates art when Swanson falls for Stapley, knowing full well that he is in a relationship with Hughes.
The film documents what each person in the triangle was doing, before, during and after the failed attempts at bring the film to the stage. The lead up to the three of them meeting and working together is fascinating. Director Jeffery Schwarz brings together a variety of interviewees who recall the past with nostalgia and mostly sadness, as there wasn’t really a happy ending for any. There is an air of what could have been, especially as Andrew Lloyd Webber created his own musical version of the film the 90s. This was of course a bitter blow and is reflected in the interviews with both Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley.
There is a melancholic atmosphere which hangs in the air from the moment Stapley won’t admit the nature of his relationship with Hughes. Despite the fact that Hughes himself and many others, that the two were very much in love. Stapley’s ex-wife says that everyone knew, including herself, that Stapley was gay but he never shared this part of his life or emotions with her. These moments of the past are made all the more painful knowing the men never reconciled.
The documentary isn’t all tears and stilted emotions, amongst the interviews, archive footage and phone calls, there is a ray of sunshine in the form of animation. Illustrating flashbacks to the past and key moments in the collaborators’ history, Maurice Vellekoop style and colour peers through. Its light and breezy which helps the balance and tone of the entire film.
The story about the Swanson, Hughes and Stapley is just another Hollywood tale that never came to light. Swanson didn’t mention the work the three of them did together, erasing them from her own history. There are most likely many more stories such as this that are waiting to be unearthed from old Hollywood and its only now, we can appreciate them.
Boulevard! A Hollywood Story is playing at BFI Flare Film Festival 16 – 27 March