Star!

Star!Synopsis: A Dazzling Decadent Musical!

Oscar winner Julie Andrews (1964, Best Actress, Mary Poppins) stars as the irrepressible Gertrude Lawrence, who rises from English chorus girl to world-renowned diva. her hilarious sidekick Noel Coward (Daniel Massey) provides Lawrence with an ongoing commentary on her life while she searches fruitlessly for suitors whose adoration equals what she gets from an audience. Andrews is a knockout in numbers by Coward, Cole Porter, the Gershwins and more in this funny, dazzling musical that ranks among Hollywood’s finest.

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Star! 8.25

eyelights: Julie Andrews. Daniel Massey. its subtle witticisms. the storytelling. the phenomenal quality of the production.
eyesores: the unengaging songs.

“Wherever my little Gertie goes, I know she will always find herself.”

‘Star!’ is a Robert Wise musical starring Julie Andrews as Gertrude Lawrence, the famed British stage and screen actress. Released in 1968, it is a biographical film based on her life, on her rise from poverty to become one of the most successful and extravagant figures of her generation. The musical numbers ion ‘Star!’ were inspired by or duplicated the ones that Lawrence did throughout her career.

I first discovered ‘Star!’ when it was released laserdisc, back in the day when I used to cram anything and everything that the local library put on its shelves. I knew nothing about the movie, of course, but I was fortunate to have discovered it at the time that I did, because the film had just undergone a massive restoration effort precisely for this home video offering – it hadn’t been seen this way in years.

You see, for all their combined box office clout, especially after ‘The Sound of Music‘, Wise, Andrews and producer Saul Chaplin, were unable to draw audiences to see ‘Star!’. It was a box office disaster, and was quickly hacked to pieces, eventually being trimmed from its original duration of 176 minutes to approximately 120 minutes in length and retitled “Those Were the Happy Times”. This failed to save the film.

And thus ‘Star!’ disappeared for many years, until a letter-writing campaign by fans in the late ’80s helped to resurrect it.

The resulting release blew my mind away: not only did I thoroughly savour this so-called lost classic, the laserdisc was filled to the brim with special features! At the time, it must have been one of the most exhaustive home video releases on the market, perhaps only surpassed by the lavish Star Wars Trilogy boxed set. Even the Criterion laserdiscs didn’t measure up to ‘Star!’. I eventually bought it. And rebought it on DVD since.

Although I despise musicals, what I like about ‘Star!’ is that the musical numbers have a reason to exist; they make sense contextually. Since Gertrude Lawrence was a stage performer, it was only natural that she would be performing song and dance numbers at every other turn – it’s not like she was cleaning the toilet and then suddenly breaking out into an exuberant love song while waving a toilet brush. *shudder*

And, while I don’t much like the songs themselves (none of them really hook me, truth be told), I was rather impressed with the performances – in particular, with Julie Andrews, whom I only knew as Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp. I was amazed by her versatility and physical ability: she was able to do demanding choreography, perform physical comedy, sing all sorts of tunes all the while showing her dramatic chops.

I was rediscovering, and reassessing, Julie Andrews whom I had dismissed as a lightweight.

I also discovered Daniel Massey in the role of Noel Coward, Lawrence’s long-time friend and collaborator. He is absolutely brilliant in the part, and it is said that it is perhaps the finest screen interpretation of Coward (I wouldn’t know, as I don’t believe I’ve ever seen him in interviews or on screen). Coincidentally, Massey is Coward’s actual godson – so no doubt he was able to bring insight to the part.

His performance is such that he opened my eyes to Coward, whom I’d only know by name until then. I have yet explore his work, but it is on my radar thanks to Massey. His one-liners and general wit impressed me greatly, as had been suggested to me through the years. I decided that I would someday love to explore his writings and find out more about him – something that likely would not have been possible if not for ‘Star!’

I also learned a little bit about Gertrude Lawrence in the process, whom I had ’til then never heard of before. As portrayed in the picture, she was an incredibly ambitious, vain and feisty character – a very strong personality indeed. And yet this served to cover up an uncertainty and a loneliness that she didn’t know how to cope with. She basically always kept extremely busy to avoid the emptiness inside.

This impacted her relationships. Although she was married, and has had a daughter, she never had any time for them; she was truly married to her work and her lifestyle. In the film she is shown as having many suitors, but she can never commit to any of them, as she is not relationship-focused and doesn’t really know what she wants. This translates in a very distant relationship with her daughter, whom she barely knows.

The screenwriter struck a fine balance in creating the film version of Lawrence: she doesn’t come off as pitiful or as a despicable person – she comes off as a complex woman struggling between lofty ambitions and simple ideals. She is made human – not a heroine, not a villain, but a celebrity who, at her core is like many of us, with similar hopes, dreams, fears and frailties. This is not someone to love or hate, but to empathize with.

There are critics who claim that this version of Lawrence is nothing like the real thing. Ultimately, this may be true. The key problem is in discerning fact from fiction: the film is rooted in a couple of biographies as well a number of interviews with people who actually knew her. But, given the contradictory stories that were told, the filmmakers decided to make this ambiguity a part of ‘Star!’ itself, creating a certain mystique.

What they did is to start the picture with period newsreel footage that quickly morphs into a black and white documentary about Gertrude Lawrence. Within a couple of minutes, Julie Andrews, as Lawrence, interrupts this doc’s screening to discuss its content with its director. In response to his queries about its factuality, she expresses ambivalence, and tells him to just leave it as it is – suggesting that it’s not quite right.

And that’s part of ‘Star!’s charm: it feels like fact and fiction at once, like a docu-drama and an entertainment extravaganza in one film. On the one hand, we have the sobering but also inspiring rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story of Lawrence, and on the other there are the musical numbers and the overall pomp of the production – which set a record for the number of wardrobe changes – for Julie Andrews alone!

‘Star!’ was meant to be an extravaganza: it even begins with a shot of a theatre, with the orchestra setting up, the curtains opening and then their performance of an introductory music suite. It was meant to evoke theatre, a grandiose spectacle. And ‘Star!’ is exactly that: a pastiche of show-stoppers, like a “best of” reel delicately wrapped inside a light drama. And with panache! You should see the sets on this baby!

Where the film stumbles, in my opinion, is in the songs. While I realize that they are likely excellent examples of a classic brand of musical theatre, it did absolutely nothing for me. For one, I didn’t find them hooky enough for my taste – quite unlike the Rogers and Hammerstein numbers in ‘The Sound of Music’, which had me tapping my foot and singing along. These songs are good, but not easy for a novice to tag along.

But I enjoy ‘Star!’ anyway. In fact, I’ve seen it three or four times, thus far – despite being a musical and running at close to three hours’ length. It’s a well-crafted film, made with consummate skill and precision; I can’t help but give it my seal of approval. I’m still astounded that this film flopped and disappeared for so many years. I imagine it was just a sign of the changing times; it would no doubt have been a hit 10-15 years earlier.

If anything, to me this is the movie that made a Julie Andrews fan out of me. For reasons that I can’t fathom hers are the only musicals that I can bear to see. There are exceptions, of course, but no actor or actress is a safe bet with me, aside for her. ‘Star!’ is a true showcase of her talent, of her ability as a performer, of her versatility. While the film was a box office failure, she delivered like no one else could.

Nota bene: although the DVD features the full-length version of ‘Star!’, for some reason the producers decided to excise the Intermission/Entr’acte in the middle of the picture – something that is quite apparent. Also, fans are dismissive of many of its technical qualities, with some preferring the lower resolution laserdisc to the DVD. Hopefully a proper Blu-ray will be issued in the future.

Date of viewing: May 1, 2014

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