“Margaret, I am the writer of Boulevard. I saw your review and I have to say you understood the movie perfectly, as well as anyone I have yet read. It is appreciated very much. A lot of reviewers totally missed the point of the movie.” Best, Douglas Soesbe.
I received this message from the writer of Boulevard right after I wrote my last blog piece, “Hustlers, Pimps, and Johns.” Needless to say, nothing could have been more encouraging. In fact, I have a lot more to say about the movie. It was a meaningful study of character development, not just of Nolan, the main character, beautifully played by Robin Williams, but also of the two main supporting characters. I would like to reflect more on these people because by the time I left the theatre I felt I had spent time with them, and looked into their souls. Of course, this was due not only to the acting (in my opinion, this is Robin Williams’ most challenging role) and the brilliant direction of Dito Montiel, but also to the writing itself, done with great sensitivity by Douglas Soesbe.
The picture here is of the house at 2515 Oakland Avenue in Nashville, which is one block from where I live. This house was used as the setting for the home of Nolan, played by Mr. Williams, and his wife Joy, played with great subtlety by Kathy Baker. We know they have been together for years, and we soon realize that while their relationship is fairly civil, it is lacking in passion–for each other or for life. I have never actually seen the inside of this house, other than in the movie, but the style of the decor is very dated. It feels like the house has probably looked this way for years. The house itself suggests that the people who live there are living in the lifestyle of another era. The two sleep in separate rooms, and politely tell each other good night. There is obviously no sexual connection between the two, but there is a sense of respect that comes from having spent their lives together. In a rather touching scene near the beginning of the film, while they are having dinner with a man who is an old friend and his much younger girlfriend, Joy is interested in hearing about a cruise the two have recently taken. She suggests to Nolan that perhaps they should go on a cruise. He obviously doesn’t warm up to the idea. I wondered if the talk of how “romantic” the cruise had been for the other couple might have given her hope.
On his way home from work one evening Nolan drives down a wide street which is obviously where lots of sex is for sale. There are both transgender and male hookers working the street. You get the feeling that perhaps Nolan drives on this street by choice, perhaps “window shopping” in a world of fantasy. His car hits a young male hustler, but doesn’t injure him. The kid manages to get into the car with Nolan, assuming he is cruising for trade. The two go to a motel, but Nolan is not really looking for sex, he is looking for a connection to another male. It is obvious from the beginning that this is trouble looking for a place to happen. The hustler, Leo, played by Roberto Aguire, is completely under the control of his heartless pimp. While Leo comes across in some ways as having very little feeling, as the movie progresses we see flashes–but only flashes– of his humanity. As must be the case with many male hustlers who sell sex with other men, Leo seemed motivated to convince himself that he wasn’t gay, and that this deal was only for the money. But, as the relationship develops and Nolan continues to only want to pay to spend time with Leo, with no sex involved, Leo becomes more and more confused and uncomfortable with what was happening. It was obvious that Nolan was the only person who cared about Leo, and Leo just couldn’t deal with the emotions that he was feeling, which threatened his own heterosexual identity.
Nolan is a man in a prison of his own making. He has built himself a safe and very conventional life. He has worked in the same job at the same bank for 25 years. When the prospect of a move to another bank and a promotion to branch manager is about to be offered to him we see very little excitement. He is continually brow beaten by the manager he works for, and he takes this treatment for granted, as though it is what he deserves. He seems very pleased to help a young gay couple be approved for a loan, but other than that, we see him in a boring job. He is portrayed as a man who has always done what he’s supposed to do. He chose to marry Joy instead of going to New York with Winston, his friend from college. He remains friends with Winston, who also stuck around (we never know what town this movie takes place in) and ended up being a professor. Winston starts to become suspicious that something is going on when the relationship with Leo begins to unravel. He wants to support his friend, but isn’t sure how to. It is obvious that the situation is going to go from bad to worse. Leo and his pimp come to the bank where Nolan works and try to extort money, causing a scene that Nolan somehow manages to handle, though not very well. Nolan takes Leo to his house on a night when his wife is out of town, treading on very dangerous ground. It reaches a point where the obsession with Leo takes over his life, and he doesn’t care about anything else. But, even within this relationship, which is actually breaking every rule that Nolan has imposed on his life, he says to Leo, “We have our rules,” meaning he always pays Leo for his time.
There are three scenes in this movie which are very moving and revealing. One of them is when Nolan visits his father in the hospital, and talks to him about the fact that he has known he was gay since he was 12. The father turns his head away and rejects him. He also says that he is 60, and is still waiting to see what this all means.
Another powerful and painful scene is when Nolan tells Joy that he is gay and can no longer live a lie. Joy says she doesn’t want to talk, possibly because she knows what he is going to tell her. He has become so reckless that she knows something is going on, and she assumes it is with another man. She says, “Are you going to be with him?” He tells her that they cannot continue to hide the truth and they must live in the real world. She says she doesn’t want to live in the real world and that’s why she married him. So, we see that this self-contained, controlled woman has also used this marriage as a hiding place.
There is a scene where Leo tells Nolan that their relationship “means nothing.” When Nolan receives a call that Leo has been hospitalized, he drops everything and rushes over. By the time he gets there Leo has left the hospital and also has pointedly left the cell phone which was a gift from Nolan which contains his phone number so that Leo can always reach him. While this is very hurtful to Nolan, it also seems to set him free to move on. It is obvious that Leo is not the person that Nolan needs to focus on as a love object. Yet, this incredible attraction has made Nolan realize that he has to finally live with his truth. I found it especially interesting that Nolan’s sexual identity was not so much about the sex act itself–the sex with Leo was never consummated–but about realizing that he needed desperately to feel a closeness, both physical and spiritual, with another man, and to identify as gay.
I think that this movie has a happy ending. Nolan finally frees himself and shows us that age 60 is not too late to find, and be, oneself. We see that he is leaving his job, his wife, and his town to go to New York and start again. It is good to see in a closing scene that Joy is going on that cruise she wanted alone…and we are given hope for her future as well. We don’t know what will happen to Leo, but we have to believe that the relationship with Nolan has affected him, too. He is probably, in his own way, more closeted than Nolan ever was.
In a scene at the end of the film Nolan says to himself, “I drove down a street I didn’t know…It’s never too late to make a u-turn…Nothing turned out the way I thought.” And, even though he says to Joy, “It never worked,” I left the theatre feeling that now, somehow, it will.