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UNHAPPY DAYS

Julie Andrews’ overused specialties are ruinous for Star!: all those years of energetic vocal outreach from the stage—the magnified diction and enunciation and the antiseptic warbling—destroy any chance of vocalizing Gertrude Lawrence as the languishing, clever, conniving harridan the theatre crowd considered her to be. An incorrigible scene stealer (who once ate violets during Victor Mature’s big scene in the stage version of Lady in the Dark), Lawrence was nothing if not inconsistent, unpredictable; Andrews the diametric opposite—a well-maintained ditto machine. After the opening of Cole Porter’s Nymph Errant, Agnes de Mille wrote of Lawrence: “Gertie moves like a fish through shadows. When she walks, she streams; when she kicks, she flashes...She is funny, bright, touching, irresistible. Her speaking voice is a kind of song, quite unrealistic but lovely, and her pathos cuts under all, direct and sudden. Her eyes fill, her throat grows husky, she trembles with wonder. The audience weeps. She can’t sing, but who cares?” Seeing Star!, Noël Coward summed it up in his diary: Andrews as Lawrence was “as suitable as casting Princess Royal as Dubarry...She is as much like Gertie as I am Edna Ferber’s twin.” Going in Wise knew that only about 1% of his audience would be aware of who Lawrence was and for the purpose of speedy education he uses box office Maria as pretend bitch and not helping any is his shallow vision. He obliterates Lawrence the curiosity by never allowing Andrews the chance, except in cockney or phony newsreel, to show cagey sabotage, or chinks, or much ease; with a discernible anxiety running throughout, he exposes what appears to be his lowest estimate of Lawrence. While getting facts fairly right, he doesn’t appreciate—perhaps doesn’t even understand—who and what kind of talent he’s biographing. In the anecdote-loaded Roadshow: The Fall of the Musicals in the 1960s, author Matthew Kennedy quotes Wise’s unclear motive: “The great drive was not to do the Gertrude Lawrence story, we were interested in it only as a starring vehicle for Julie.” This is fatally apparent with the grossly ill-conceived musical numbers—count ’em, 17!—by Michael Kidd, performed without suitable consideration of Lawrence’s peculiar piss-elegant charms. When Daniel Massey as Noël reads a reviewer’s comment about one of Andrew’s opening nights—“an incandescent star of the first magnitude”—you’re floored by the nearly criminal falsehood. The musical ends before Gertie does the disastrous movie version of The Glass Menagerie (in which she’s rather decent) and that’s reprieve: watching Andrews attempting to play a scene from Private Lives is sufficient warning that she wouldn’t likely have any better luck handling Williams, either. Running at 175 minutes, presented as a roadshow attraction in spite of the vast majority of its 185 sets looking not like theatre but bad television, Star! blew one of the biggest farts in 60s box office history. (Though one hopes she’s reevaluated causes for its failure since, Andrews in the 80s told author Charles Higham this: “I think Star! failed because the public wasn’t very happy with seeing me in drunken scenes.”) Desperate to recoup costs, Fox cut 55 minutes and re-released it to equally disinterested audiences as Those Were the Happy Times. Ironic title, in that Wise originally created so few. With Richard Crenna, Beryl Reid, Robert Reed and Jenny Agutter as the daughter. Screenplay by William Fairchild; the costumes by Donald Brooks; production design by Boris Leven; photography by Ernest Laszlo. Filmed in TODD AO. (16 weeks at Michael Todd, starting 11/06/1968.)

Oscar nominations: best supporting actor (Massey), best cinematography, best art/set decoration, best costumes, best sound, best song (“Star!”) and best score for a musical motion picture.

ROLLOVER IMAGE (This title is from the trailer.)

ralphbenner@nowreviewing.com  

Text COPYRIGHT © 2001 RALPH BENNER (Revised 4/2018) All Rights Reserved.