Jeffrey Schwarz, the Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker behind Vito, I Am Divine, and Tab Hunter Confidential, returns to Outfest this month for the world premiere of his latest feature, Boulevard! A Hollywood Story. The fascinating film unearths the little-known attempt by actress Gloria Swanson to stage an original Broadway musical based on the movie she is most associated with—and was Oscar-nominated for—Sunset Boulevard, decades before Andrew Lloyd Webber’s own adaption opened in 1993.
As Schwarz went about doing research for the film, uncovering previously unseen archival materials, striking real-life parallels between the screenplay of the Hollywood classic and Swanson’s ambition emerged. The star had hired two romantically involved, down on their luck young songwriters, Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley, to create the musical, bringing them to live with her at her home in New York, and falling for one of them.
Speaking exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann ahead of the Outfest premiere—both in-person at the DGA on August 17th and screening virtually August 18th-20th—Jeffrey Schwarz recalls that his first encounter with Sunset Boulevard wasn’t the film itself, but a parody of Swanson’s iconic character Norma Desmond on The Carol Burnett Show. When he did finally see the movie at college though he was smitten, “Sometimes our tastes in movies come out before we do”, jokes Schwarz, “for whatever reason a lot of us are drawn to movies with bigger-than-life, damaged female characters.”
It was while reading up on the making of Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning film in Sam Stagg’s book, Close-up on Sunset Boulevard, that he came across a chapter on Swanson’s ill-fated effort to stage a musical. “As soon as I read that I was like, ‘Oh, my God, how come I’ve never heard about this?! This is a movie!’ It had all the elements of a great drama”, Schwarz enthuses, “Gloria Swanson was back in the public’s mind and was a movie star again, but there was no follow up after Sunset Boulevard, nobody was offering her any other roles. She had the same problem that a lot of actresses still face today of being over a certain age. She was up for the Oscar, but she didn’t win. What really interested me though, was that her two collaborators on this idea were these two men who no one’s ever heard of. Richard Stapley was a very handsome British actor, he did a few big movies at MGM like The Three Musketeers and Little Women, but they were small roles and he never really made much of an impression. Dickson was a composer and a lyricist, and he played piano at cocktail bars. The two men connected and became boyfriends. They had an idea to do a musical review and were looking for a star and somehow found their way to Gloria Swanson. She didn’t want to do their musical review, but she told them that she would go back to Broadway if somebody could create a musical version of Sunset Boulevard. These two young guys were ambitious and needed a job, much like the character in Sunset Boulevard that William Holden plays.”
With all three of Schwarz’s protagonists no longer living, the filmmaker began by contacting someone he knew personally who was mentioned in Stagg’s book, producer and publicist Alan Eichler. “He was friends with both Dickson and Richard”, recalls Schwarz, “and the first thing he said to me was, ‘I’ve been waiting for 25 years for somebody to call me about this, because this is an incredible story and it needs to be told.’ So that’s when the wheels started turning. One thing led to another and I started discovering interviews with the two men.” Schwarz also worked with Swanson’s estate and the granddaughter of the late actress, Brooke Anderson, who is happy that Swanson’s “name is being spoken again”, reveals the director. “It’s not like her grandmother was ever forgotten, but if people do know about Gloria Swanson they have this impression of her from Sunset Boulevard and they think that’s her. Brooke was invested in making sure people knew the real story of her grandmother and not the character she played.”
Unlike Schwarz’s other documentaries which have profiled well-known figures from a fresh perspective, this was a story that was only known by a hand full of people, and Stapley and Dickson had largely been forgotten. “How many stories are there that are buried in boxes and sitting in people’s attics and basements, particularly queer stories?” Schwarz contemplates. “These two men were not famous in their lifetimes, they were working artists, they struggled, they had some successes, they had some failures, and now they’re gone. They presented themselves to the world as songwriting partners because you certainly couldn’t present yourself to the world in the 1950s as a couple.”
“Part of what I love about making documentaries and seeing them by other people about our history”, Schwarz continues, “is that otherwise all this stuff would just be sitting in boxes. We were never able to tell our own stories and a lot of times when queer people pass away their relatives don’t value their archives or their stories and a lot of this stuff gets tossed in the garbage. That’s what happened to Richard’s papers when he died. Most of his writings and photos were gone, so we had to piece things together from the little that was left behind from these two guys.”
In terms of talking openly about their relationship, Schwarz notes that Dickson and Richard did become “more comfortable as they got older and the world changed so they could talk about it, but with people of that generation it never goes away. I remember interviewing Tab Hunter for a film I made about his life and even into his 70s and 80s, although he was ready to talk about being gay, there was still an intense discomfort about it because it was a matter of survival to keep that close to the vest.”
As with some of the filmmaker’s previous work Boulevard! playfully uses animation in certain sections of the film to help bring the story to life. When looking for a potential illustrator, “immediately my mind went to Maurice Vellekoop”, says Schwarz. “I’ve loved his work for years. He specializes in bringing a queer point of view in terms of pop culture into his work. When he knew that he was going to draw a gay bar he went back to a movie called Advise & Consent, which was probably one of the first, if not the first, look inside of a gay bar in a Hollywood movie. So if you look at his drawings of the gay bar in Boulevard! you’ll see some references to that film. There’s also a scene where Richard and Dickson meet Gloria for the first time and she emerges dressed to the nines. Her dress in the drawing is the one that Rosalind Russell wears in Auntie Mame. So there are all kinds of little in-jokes and references for for the audience in his work.”
As well as producing and directing, Schwarz also edited Boulevard! A Hollywood Story, a role which he admits guided him throughout the filmmaking process, “even in thinking about whether this story would translate to film in the first place. I started out in film as an editor and my mentor was a guy named Arnie Glassman. I talk about him as often as I possibly can. He edited The Celluloid Closet, which was my first official paid job working on a documentary. Arnie took me under his wing and taught me about editing interviews, archival materials, and film clips, as well as how to structure a scene, a sequence, an act, and then a full movie. I got so much of that from him. I miss him every day, and I’m still stealing from him.”
Turning to the world premiere of Boulevard! at Outfest, Schwarz says, “I’ve been very lucky, this is my seventh movie and six of them have played at Outfest. They’ve been very supportive of me over the years and I’m very grateful. This is the first time that I have a movie that’s going to actually premiere at Outfest and we thought it would be perfect for Outfest because it’s a Hollywood story, it’s even in the title, and we wanted to have a hometown premiere. Where we’re screening, the Directors Guild, is actually on Sunset Boulevard, right down the street from where Schwab’s drugstore used to be, which is the setting for a few scenes in Sunset Boulevard. The fact that we’re going to be doing this in person, I can’t tell you how thrilling that is. We are going to have a virtual component and I’m very happy about that for people who either can’t get out or are choosing not to go out, but the Directors Guild is one of the best screening rooms in the city, so I’m excited about that.”
By James Kleinmann