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“Boulevard! A Hollywood Story” (Festival Review)

When Gloria Swanson took on the role of Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s 1950 film “Sunset Boulevard,” it was the epitome of perfect casting.

The iconic character, much like the woman who was playing her, had been a superstar in the world of silent film. The advent of “talkies” really ruined both of their careers, but Swanson would have the last laugh.

The performance found her, yet again, in the good graces of Hollywood (at least temporarily) when she was nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards. The film was such a lifesaver for Swanson that she wanted to find a way to extend its power.

She turned to Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley, two young songwriters who just so happened to be lovers at a time when that had to be kept tightly under wraps. This unlikely trio set out to create a musical version of “Sunset Boulevard” that Swanson could star in.

Director Jeffrey Schwarz, who has previously delivered the outstanding documentaries “I Am Divine” and “Tab Hunter Confidential,” takes a deep dive on the real story behind the failed effort to turn Swanson’s musical dreams into reality several decades before Andrew Lloyd Webber finally succeeded.

Thanks to Swanson’s personal archives at the University of Texas at Austin, we’re able to view photographs, sheet music, and even get a taste of the some of the songs that would have been included in the musical. There is also some rare footage from “Swanson on Sunset” – a mid-90s effort by Dickson Hughes to beat Webber to the punch.

Well crafted and incredibly engaging, Schwarz finally sheds lights on a fascinating piece of forgotten Hollywood history.

Boulevard! A Hollywood Story” was the Centerpiece Film at the 34th annual aGLIFF PRISM festival, continuing this week in Austin, Texas. Look for the film to be released sometime in 2022!

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