BFI Flare film review: Boulevard! A Hollywood Story
Jasmine Valentine | On 26, Mar 2022
Cast: Gloria Swanson, Dickson Hughes, Richard Stapeley
This film is one of 10 streaming online as part of BFI Flare 2022. For more information about the festival and how it works, click here.
Long before the musical reign of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sunset Boulevard star Gloria Swanson tried to turn her Hollywood hit into a stage success. Anyone who’s seen the 1950 smash hit knows it’s a picture that’s near picture-perfect. Gloria Swanson transforms into the reclusive star of yesteryear, Norma Desmond, both of them aiming to make a triumphant return to cinema with one last movie. A role that defined a lifetime, its foray into musical theatre wasn’t without its sense of drama, yet the story behind Boulevard! fails to wholly satisfy in a documentary format.
The focus behind Boulevard! A Hollywood Story is impeccable. Proving that life can truly imitate art if you are well versed with the fiction, Swanson’s pursuit of her musical ambitions concludes in a narrative format many screenwriters would envy. She inserts herself right in the middle of blossoming queerness, posing a looming question of whether anyone can fully live in the present moment.
Singled out, Gloria Swanson is fascinating. Shirking the social connotations of the ageing silent movie star, her life continued to provide social commentary on a woman peaking at 50. Looking for ways to pull the power back against her role in Hollywood, the documentary nurtures Swanson’s stardom, never shying away from the power she holds. While songwriters Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapeley each had devilishly dangerous lives, they were perhaps victims to Swanson’s fierce independence and trajectory, destined to stay in the sidelines. Boulevard! dedicates equal portions to the three with intricate detail, highlighting the kind of creative torment that’s often swept under the carpet. Culminating in the break-up of what wasn’t meant to be, there’s an air of Desperate Housewives to the trio. When they worked, they were on fire — yet they toiled to no avail.
The documentary itself leaves a lot to be desired. Jeffrey Schwarz’s choices present a cacophony of factual outlets all at once, resulting in an unsatisfying and often confusing format. Jumping from traditional interviews to cruel caricature animation – and with Jeffery hosting Zoom calls in front of the camera – there’s little sense of continuity. Investigative meetings appear to be overly set up – almost a calling card for another actor who never was.
While it’s argued that many movies make it through the pipeline to musical theatre with ease, the original idea behind Boulevard! held something special. Taboo-breaking in nature, its social currency is undoubted, shining a light on Hollywood’s rejection of an ageing actor. Despite its chameleonic subjects and dedication to the birth of the famed entrepreneur, Boulevard! A Hollywood Story does little justice to its namesake.
Boulevard! A Hollywood Story is streaming at BFI Flare until Saturday 26th March. Book your online ticket here.