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Sep 09 2014

Robert Wise Centenary: Star! (1968)

For Robert Wise's centennial,we're looking back on a random selection of his films beyond the familiar mega-hits (The Sound of Music & West Side Story) which we are far more prone to talk about.Here'sManueldiscussing Star!(1968).

With its succinctly confident title (exclamation mark and all)Star!is that other Julie Andrews/Robert Wise musical.The film is a biopic of Gertrude Lawrence,a celebrated English performer who rose up from music halls to become a famed fixture on the West End and Broadway (see why Andrews seemed like such a great fit?).At 176 minutes,the film tests the patience of even those of us enamored with Andrews,musicals,and showbiz dramas.

Much like the very form that made Gertie a star,the film feels like a revue musical more so than a cohesive narrative of or about Gertie's life.Parents,children,husbands,friends and lovers,come in and out of focus but rarely stay for long enough to create any sort of tension,especially as the movie is intent on barreling through Gertie's life to give us (count ‘em!) fifteen full musical numbers.

Despite a charming lead performance by Andrews,who nevertheless struggles and seems adrift in the scenes that require to tackle the tricky role of Gertie off-stage,the film suffers from a lack of focus.William Fairchild's screenplay has nothing specific to say about Gertie's life: Is this a story about a talented,driven woman torn asunder by the cost of fame?Is it a rags to riches (to almost rags again to riches again) story set against the backdrop of the Great Depression?Is it a showbiz film about the changing face of entertainment in the first half of the twentieth century?Is it a probing exploration of the narcissistic impulses of a star whose clamor for applause makes her both equally charming and aloof?A tighter script could yield,potentially,all of these things wrapped in one,but instead,Gertie's life story is telegraphed from scene to scene as if Fairchild,knew we all just want to get to the musical bits,and thus creates little dramatic vignettes that showcase any and all showbiz clichés you can think of.

I won't bore you with an endless tirade on biopics.I've been reading TFE for long enough to know that's been extensively covered around here.I want to focus instead on praising one particular scene that showcases the best ofStar!,namely Andrews in full performance mode and Wise,ably shooting and framing a musical number to great effect.

"The Saga of Jenny"is from,improbably enough,a 1941 play calledLady in the Dark(later adapted for the screen in 1944 starring Ginger Rogers).It follows the editor in chief ofAlluremagazine as she undergoes psychoanalysis,resulting in three different "dreams"that become full-blown musical numbers within the show.The last of these,the Circus Dream,includes "The Saga of Jenny."As staged by Wise and his choreographer Michael Kidd it is a gigantic musical number that includes,among other things,a swing,acrobats,a tight rope,clowns,live doves and… well,you get the idea.Better yet,watch it for yourself:

What I love about this scene is that Wise and Kidd make it work both as a theatrical experience (you can see how this would wow a stage crowd) as well as a dynamic cinematic one.The first minute or so,where Wise shoots a spot-lit Andrews against a seemingly empty black backdrop makes perfect use of the close-up/spotlight equivalence so as to both isolate and focus our heroine amidst threatening all-encompassing darkness.Once the entire set is revealed,Wise uses wide-shots to better showcase the full-bodied performance of a game Andrews,who did all her own stunts (including floating away in a pair of wings!) so that he wouldn't need to cut the scene so as to avoid people from noticing it wasn't her doing the high wire acts the number requires.

The film is full of these wonderfully realized musical numbers that work both as homages to Gertie Lawrence and as testaments to Andrews's talents.The numbers alone makeStar!necessary watching for anyone who loves Andrews,especially as some call her to be a tad more biting and broad than the two musicals we know her for.Gertie is no blankly alluring nanny nor is she an ingenue in nun's garb.On stage,she's acrobatic and fearless,sardonic and abrasive,lithe and kinetic.

Have you seen Star!?Have I whetted your appetite for it,if only to bask in the glow of Julie herself?

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Reader Comments (17)

What a marvelous writeup on one of my favorite Julie Andrews films.I think Star!is terribly underrated by the historians.You articulated its strengths (and faults) beautifully.Julie gives it her all--she's magnetic in this part.I think I liked her dramatic work in this better than you--she skillfully walks a very fine line between the arch bitchiness of the character and the frequent insecurity,girlishness and loneliness underneath.She thrillingly captures the allure and mystique of someone who could be Gertrude Lawrence.It's only right you singled out the Saga of Jenny--this has to be seen to be believed.Julie says in the DVD extras that it was the hardest she ever worked on a movie,and this number is probably the main reason.

And you hit the bull's-eye when you said this is a unique Julie performance--in this,she is a true diva,with all the delicious adornments of glamour.There's a terrific drunk scene.And she gets to tell off people--a lot.The production values,costumes and photography are gorgeous.

But it's the musical aspect of this film that really resonates.Thank God for DVDs,because I love to skip to the musical bits,as you said,Manuel.They are captivating.The musical revue format of the movie doesn't make for a compelling narrative.But I think it captures Julie's unique talent and synthesizes her persona with a fascinating character whose world eerily mirrors her own--in some ways.Star!doesn't work as biography,but as performance it's a triumph.

It's been a very long time since I watched Star!all the way through,not just forwarding to the musical bits.I think it might be time.

Thanks again for the wonderful article on a forgotten film critics need to re-evaluate.

September 9,2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

It's an enjoyable film up to a point but you're correct that it is at least a half hour too long,maybe more.The musical numbers are aces though and whenever I see it referenced anywhere the first thing that comes to mind is that amazing Saga of Jenny number.I could watch that on an endless loop.

September 9,2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I've always been surprised that the title tune didn't become more of a gay camp anthem:

And I have such mixed feelings about the movie.I want to like it so much,but it's just lacking something.Depth?Insight?

September 9,2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

I knew next to nothing about Star!until reading your article,but it's now on my list!What a budget it must have had- those costumes!

September 9,2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

Margaret & Manuel - there's a whole really damning chapter on STAR!in the book;"Roadshow"about the decline of the musical.That production was out of control (as were Julie and her man who expensed an entire castle as their home away from home during the shoot instead of a normal apartment) in just about every way.The stories weren't quite as crazy as the stories in "Pictures at a Revolution"about Doctor Doolittle but they were still whack.

September 9,2014 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Saw this in the theater a few years ago at the Paramount in Austin and loved it.I think folks were too harsh on this epic I mean you got Julie singing and looking fantastic in a million Donald Brooks gowns and Daniel Massey stealing the show as Noel Coward.It's my new cult classic!

September 9,2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohnny Zero Hintergardt

It all depends on the night you see the show.Sometimes actors are a bit off and throw the directing finesse away along with everything.And sometimes they are just perfect.And so it's everything else.Massey is always on though.And when Julie is on she is on.

Am I the only one who feels like that about movies?I'm sure it's ONE and not the movie but it feels like the other way around.

For example,Bette with the chocolates in «All about Eve.» Sometimes she's just perfect;sometimes she's a little off – too slow,too fast.Sometimes she eats the extra bonbon;sometimes she doesn't.


September 10,2014 | Unregistered CommenterCapita

NathanielR you are thinking about "Darling Lili",directed by Andrews' husband Blake Edwards.This is Robert Wise's "Star!".

September 10,2014 | Unregistered CommenterEnni

Nathaniel: I'm buying a copy of Roadshow as I type.Sounds fascinating I'm surprised it's taken so long for someone to write that history!

I'm so happy there are more Star!fans out there.I can't believe I didn't even mention the sumptuous costumes!Julie wore over 125 outfits alone (a then record now held by Madonna herself for another big budget musical!)

Capita: I'm fascinated by this idea,though I usually ascribe it more to MY mood than performances,though I can see how the two might be dependent on one another.

September 10,2014 | Registered CommenterManuel Betancourt

I watched it more than once as a kid.I love Julie's monologue on her childhood wishes.Now that I can't find the time to watch it again,I just go to Youtube and type Saga of Jenny.Love Kurt Weill too.

September 10,2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

The lyrics to The Physician are pretty hilarious,and Julie really makes every lilting medical term count (and those eunuchs--priceless ).Her rendition of Burlington Bertie (I believe Michael Kidd did the fascinatingly bizarro choreography) presaged Michael Jackson's extreme-lean move from Smooth Criminal.

September 10,2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

This movie has some great musical numbers-but it never quite works- but it's worth getting on DVD

September 10,2014 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I love STAR!and what a wonderful,magnetic performance by the great,multitalented,gorgeous Julie Andrews!To me,this is a movie about the love affair of a star and the theatre,The man in her life is a gay friend who shares such love.Great songs,amazing musical numbers - I agree,"Jenny'' is a masterpiece.To me,Julie is awesome in all the musical numbers and scenes - drama & comedy take turns through the years.The newsreels moments are superb and may have inspired "Forrest Gump".The moment that Julie is listening to the King's abdication is poignant,and made me remember "The King's Speech'',which would be made so many years later.Julie is a true Star!herself,and looks dazzling in all those stunning costumes and Cartier jewelry = a perfect diva.This seems to be Julie's most glamourous moment in the cinema - a gem!

September 15,2014 | Unregistered CommenterWaldemar Lopes

The other day I bought the DVD of Star!For 50 cents....I watched half of it last night...and was transfixed but also transmorgrafied at times....a movie without a soul I agree,shot in a studio it is artificial and magic without being totally magical...the design is the big star!esp.the costumes.And the choreography deserves a big big star!Julie darling performs with souless perfection....I was not taken with her acting scenes but astounded by her musical performances...I have heard that Gertrude Lawrence was far from a great chantuese and her acting more cunning than craft....perhaps that was the problem with the film....Andrews is just too good to be true.
Daniel Massey freaked me out he was
I'll watch part 2 tonight.

August 31,2017 | Unregistered CommenterLost april

Part 2....Star!Does get better as it goes fact I look forward to watching it again....which is my test for whether I will keep a DVD or not...
Oh,I meant to mention..I lived in Manhattan when Star! those days Times Square was still neon signs and handpainted block-long,several stories high billboards....the billboard for Star!was that big,and it was bold and visually dramatic...featuring just Julie Andrew's face with a large,black star over one eye.....nobody I knew and I myself didn't go see the movie,but we certainly saw that billboard.

September 1,2017 | Unregistered CommenterLost april

Wow,what a wonderful film,I saw it in 1968 and still love it.You can smell the theatre and the era in every scene.

Julie is absolutely marvellous in every scene.Do you ever think 'What if"had this film duplicated the success,how many more musicals would we have had from Julie Andrews,unfortunately the failure of this has meant that we did not receive the 8-10 more magical movies that Julie should have made.

Alas the movie is pure Hollywood magic from an era when people knew how to make a move that spelt out THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT.

April 27,2018 | Unregistered CommenterPC Booth

Wow,what a wonderful film,I saw it in 1968 and still love it.You can smell the theatre and the era in every scene.

Julie is absolutely marvellous in every scene.Do you ever think 'What if"had this film duplicated the success of THE SOUND OF MUSIC,how many more musicals would we have had from Julie Andrews,unfortunately the failure of this has meant that we did not receive the 8-10 more magical movies that Julie should have made.

Alas the movie is pure Hollywood magic from an era when people knew how to make a move that spelt out THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT.

April 27,2018 | Unregistered CommenterPC Booth

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