'The Sound of Music', starring Julie Andrews and directed by Robert Wise, became (for its time) the biggest box-office smash in movie history. 'Star!', a big-budget musical tailor-made for Andrews and directed by Wise for the same studio (20th Century-Fox), was expected to be a second bite of the cherry ... but it sank like a stone. This film flopped so thuddingly, one critic joked that Andrews's next movie would be a musical biography of Al Capone, titled 'Scar!'.
'Star!' is the alleged life story of Gertrude Lawrence. In 1968, few movie-goers knew her name: Lawrence was primarily a stage performer, and her few films are seldom revived. In 'Star!', the only reference to Lawrence's screen career is a brief shot of Andrews wearing a copy of Lawrence's costume from 'Rembrandt'. Next offence: During the overture, there is a long long boring static shot of an orchestra against a backdrop emblazoned with some seemingly arbitrary phrases: 'Susan and God', 'Tonight at 8.30', 'Nymph Errant' and so forth. (I'm omitting one phrase from this description; I'll return to it later.) Movie-goers in 1968 were unlikely to recognise these phrases. In fact, these are the titles of Lawrence's stage vehicles (some from Broadway, some from the West End) ... and, after the overture, most of them are never mentioned anywhere in this film!
We get that hardy cliché of movie bios: the subject is first seen in middle age, then the rest of the film is in flashback from the subject's youth or childhood. Most biopics do this as a technical necessity: James Cagney was in his forties when he played George M Cohan in 'Yankee Doodle Dandy', so we first see Cagney (in appropriate make-up) as the older Cohan; then, after the audience have accepted that Cagney is Cohan, we see the middle-aged Cagney portraying Cohan in his younger years. But this device wasn't necessary in 'Star!': Julie Andrews was young enough and fit enough to give a convincing portrayal of the young Lawrence. Yet the opening sequence gives us Andrews in dowager make-up (lamb dressed as mutton?), playing Lawrence at the oldest we'll ever see her in this movie, cueing the flashback to her youth. Also cueing an excellent title song: the only original song in this movie.
Gertrude Lawrence was a notorious scene-stealer, reluctant to share the limelight. 'Star!' appears to have scripted as if seeking Lawrence's personal approval. In real life, Lawrence became a Broadway star in 'Charlot's Revue', co-starring with Jack Buchanan and Beatrice Lillie. In 'Star!', Buchanan is a mere dancing footnote, while Lillie (whom Gertrude Lawrence despised in her later years, after their early friendship) isn't even mentioned. When Andrews as Lawrence stars in 'Lady in the Dark', there's no mention of Danny Kaye ... who became a star in that production, and who famously had to defend himself against Lawrence's scene-stealing techniques. (Andrews gives a splendid and sexy rendition here -- surely much sexier than Lawrence's original -- of 'The Saga of Jenny', Lawrence's show-stopper from 'Lady in the Dark'.)
I was delighted by Julie Andrews's performance (in male drag) of 'Burlington Bertie from Bow' ... but this song is not to my knowledge a Gertrude Lawrence speciality. The song was written for Vesta Tilley, referencing an earlier song performed by Ella Shields. Bunging it into a movie about Gertrude Lawrence would be like casting James Cagney as George M Cohan but then having him sing 'Mammy' and 'If You Knew Suzie'.
Any biopic of Gertrude Lawrence must include Noël Coward. He's brilliantly played here by his godson, Daniel Massey. Massey's duet with Andrews on 'Has Anybody Seen Our Ship?' is delightful. On the one and only occasion when I met Noël Coward, his eyes lighted up with pleasure when I asked him about Gertrude Lawrence. It was clear that he deeply and sincerely loved her ... other factors in his personal life notwithstanding.
This too-long movie falters when the music stops and Andrews as Gertie Lawrence descends into soap-opera argle-bargle. We get Gertie in a scene with the teenage daughter whom she has largely ignored in her pursuit of the limelight. The daughter is touchingly played by the young Jenny Agutter, unfortunately in an outfit that displays the birthmark on her sternum. After we've seen Lawrence shove aside everyone who got between her and the spotlight, we now hear her lamenting that all she ever really wanted was (pause, wistful smile, half-formed sob) to be truly LOVED!
I mentioned that the overture curtain contained one phrase that modern audiences would recognise. That's 'The King and I', Gertrude Lawrence's last Broadway vehicle (now perceived as a vehicle for Yul Brynner). That phrase on the curtain is the ONLY time that 'The King and I' is mentioned in 'Star!'. We never see Lawrence performing in a scene from that musical. Were Fox unwilling to have Julie Andrews share the screen with Yul Brynner? Or unwilling to have another actor impersonate Brynner? Lawrence's stint in 'The King and I' is especially poignant, as she was dying of cancer during the Broadway run ... but you'd never know it from watching 'Star!'. The biopic ends arbitrarily, with Gertrude yammering during a motor trip: 'Lady in the Dark' behind her and 'The King and I!' still unmentioned.
In the original production of 'The King and I', Gertrude Lawrence was billed over Yul Brynner. On her deathbed, Lawrence's dying request was that Brynner be given top billing. All the people who knew the selfish Lawrence were awed by this act of generosity. To which I say: Rubbish! It wasn't generosity at all, since giving top billing to Brynner would have meant taking it away from Lawrence's replacement (Constance Carpenter), not from Lawrence herself. The real Gertrude Lawrence was phony and superficial ... and so is this movie. I'll rate it 4 in 10, for the superb production values ... and for Julie Andrews's passion for this period in showbiz history.