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UNHAPPY DAYS

In Roadshow: The Fall of the Musicals in the 1960s, author Matthew Kennedy quotes director Robert Wise’s half-assed intent for making Star!: “The great drive was not to do the Gertrude Lawrence story...we were interested in it only as a starring vehicle for Julie.” Andrews owed Fox one more picture after The Sound of Music and the Zanucks, father & son, needed another box office bonanza as they were already in trouble after Doctor Doolittle and a few other bombs. With Andrews continuing to be a powerful draw—Hawaii and Thoroughly Modern Millie were hits—the betting was that yet another musical would fill the coffers. Having guessed that only about 1% of the audience would be knowledgeable about Lawrence, and what made her famous, Wise ignores that she was the languishing, clever, conniving harridan the theatre crowd considered her to be and instead turns box office Maria into a tantrummy Eloise as pretend bitch. 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?” Andrews’ overused specialties are therefore ruinous: all those years of vocal outreach from the stage—the magnified diction and the piercing, antiseptic warbling—destroy Lawrence’s imperfect élan. With discernible anxiety running throughout, Wise keeps Andrews hopping from one set (a total of 185) to the next musical number (a total of 17!) during which she’s supposed to emit glamorous star radiance in 125 costume changes. Full-on glam is not her strong suit; with head-of-the-class posture and comportment, she’s a gumptious maiden playing dressup. The often grossly ill-conceived musical numbers by Michael Kidd are performed without consideration of Lawrence’s peculiar piss-elegant charms and surprises; she’s mistress of vamp, something beyond Andrews’s capability. When Daniel Massey as Noël Coward reads a reviewer’s comment about one of Andrew’s opening nights—“an incandescent star of the first magnitude”—you’re floored by the criminal falsehood. The musical ends before Gertie does the unfortunate movie of The Glass Menagerie (in which she’s rather decent) and that’s reprieve: watching Andrews attempting to play a scene from Coward’s Private Lives is sufficient warning that she couldn’t handle Williams, either. Upon viewing Star!, Coward summed it up in his diary: Andrews as Lawrence “as suitable as casting Princess Royal as Dubarry...She is as much like Gertie as I am Edna Ferber’s twin.” Running at 175 minutes, presented as a roadshow attraction in spite of the vast majority of 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 since reevaluated her dumbass excuse, 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. Empty 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; costumes by Donald Brooks; production design by Boris Leven; photography by Ernest Laszlo. Filmed in TODD AO. (Opening 11/06/1968 at Michael Todd, running 16 weeks.)

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 IMAGES (At left original Star! title; at right the title from the trailer.)

ralphbenner@nowreviewing.com  

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