Star! (1968) – Julie Andrews, Daniel Massey

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 of Star!, 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 called Lady in the Dark (later adapted for the screen in 1944 starring Ginger Rogers). It follows the editor in chief of Allure magazine 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 make Star! 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.

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