Friday, August 22, 2003

STAR! (1968)

I avoided watching this notorious flop musical, one of a string of big disasters from the late 60's that killed off the musical genre for decades, until I could see it letterboxed. It turns out that it's not a bad movie at all; it's quite watchable with good if not overly imaginative production numbers and some fine performances, though Julie Andrews never fully inhabits the role of Gertrude Lawrence, a British star of stage and screen. The film had the misfortune to be released in the same season as Barbra Streisand's FUNNY GIRL, about American Fanny Brice; both are long movies about past stars of the musical stage and both are constructed as long-view stories of the rise of their careers and the highs and lows of their love lives. Unlike the Streisand film, STAR! confines its songs to the stage and uses mostly period music (some of it by Noel Coward, a real-life friend of Lawrence's, and played by Daniel Massey in the film). However, few of the songs are memorable--in fact, the only one I can recall a few days after watching the movie is George Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me."

The movie begins a bit like CITIZEN KANE, as we watch a newsreel version of the life of Gertrude Lawrence. It turns out that Lawrence herself (Andrews) is watching the film and she stops at several points to comment on the truth behind the footage. We see her get her start in a music hall, in a mediocre act with her parents which provides an amusing opening number. She manages to forge ahead largely through sheer force of will; her life-long friendship with Noel Coward helps her career and we see her become a genuine star even as she keeps messing up her romantic relationships with a variety of men including John Collin as a helpful stage manager who becomes her first husband, Michael Craig as a titled diplomat, Robert Reed as an American actor, and Richard Crenna as a financier and would-be theatrical producer. Jenny Agutter plays her daughter is who around for a few minutes just so we can see that she is loved but neglected by her mother. In addition to guilt over her failed relationship with Agutter, we also see Andrews weather a breakdown (mostly physical, it seems) and near-bankruptcy before she triumphs for good at the end. There is a particularly amusing moment when we see Andrews and Massey act out a racy scene from Coward's play "Private Lives" for the Lord Chamberlain (the official state censor), but the happy and sad times aren't always effectively presented. Anthony Eisley has about one minute of screen time as a quickly forgotten beau, and Jock Livingston plays the critic Alexander Woolcott, who calls Lawrence "Goddess." Robert Reed, whom I mostly know as Mike Brady, is surprisingly good here and it seems a shame that TV robbed him of a broader career in movies. Not a movie you have to seek out, but not nearly as bad as its reputation would suggest.

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