Eleven Examinations of Pointlessness: Robert Wise’s Star!

Julie Andrews in Star! | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

I

To write this essay is to engage in a cognitive battle against all-encompassing pointlessness. Every avenue along which one approaches this movie ends in bewilderment over the reasoning behind the choices made and how those choices failed. Thankfully, it’s a fascinating exercise, especially as the one possible answer as to why the film exists in this form—the business angle—ends in an insidious glimpse into issues that have plagued the cinematic world for the 50 ensuing years.

But it starts and ends with the pointlessness.

II

Borrowing the terminology of Griffin Newman and David Sims’ popular podcast, The Gertrude Lawrence Story was the result of a blank check that 20th Century-Fox gave Robert Wise in 1967. Wise was the most versatile and successful director in Hollywood. His credits included West Side Story, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Haunting, and Fox’s biggest release of 1966, The Sand Pebbles. Most importantly, in 1965, he directed The Sound of Music, the highest-grossing film ever made at that time. In a modern world where we’re inundated with box office statistics on a daily basis, the numbers for The Sound of Music still astound. Gone With the Wind, the previous champion, took 26 years and four re-releases to earn its fortune. The Sound of Music hit GWTW’s number in 20 months, playing on only 275 screens in America thanks to the higher-priced, reserved-seats-only roadshow distribution system—a performance it is impossible to imagine from any film this century.

Moreover, The Sound of Music starred Julie Andrews, in the middle of a run that would be the envy of any actress making their Hollywood debut, which began with Mary Poppins (for which she won her own Oscar) and continued into 1967 with Thoroughly Modern Millie striking another oil well of profits. Andrews didn’t sing in her other hits (The Americanization of Emily, Hawaii, and Torn Curtain), but those three musicals defined her image and cemented her fame.

Imagine the heads of Fox being told Wise and Andrews wanted to recreate The Sound of Music’s formula: a three-hour musical designed for a record-breaking run in the movie palaces of old. They didn’t hesitate: the first ad selling advance tickets was printed 17 months before the premiere.

Seventeen months. It’s one of many stunning numbers related to the film as chronicled by Matthew Kennedy in his book Roadshow!. Per Kennedy, the film boasted 1,400 camera setups over 149 shooting days, with Andrews—wearing 125 costumes—present for 1,372 and 132, respectively. One hundred and eighty-five sets in 20 locations. Forty-four speaking parts, accompanied by 345 bit parts and 10,000 extras. And one title change.

For it occurred to Mike Kaplan, the Fox publicity head who spearheaded The Sound of Music’s success, that the short, punchy Star! was a more memorable, to-the-point substitute for The Gertrude Lawrence Story.

Remarkably, this would not be the last title change—although the next one would come after Star! was released.

III

Some readers may now be wondering—as Kaplan felt sure people would be in 1968—who Gertrude Lawrence was.

Gertrude Lawrence was indeed a star worthy of an exclamation point. She was not the best of singers, dancers, or even actresses, but she had a stage presence that sounds like a mix of Meryl Streep and Nicolas Cage—an electrifying, surprising performer you couldn’t look away from. Lawrence was a favorite for the likes of her best friend Noël Coward, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin. She played a definitive Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion. And she was top-billed for the original productions of Lady in the Dark and The King and I before her untimely death in 1952 at the age of 54.

That’s a great career. However, in 1968, the audience seeing The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde—two movies that defined Hollywood’s transition away from The Sound of Music and other lavish extravaganzas—might not have even remembered Gertrude Lawrence. She was a stage figure whose films and recordings were few—the sort of person who, far from having a movie made about their lives, seemed destined to slide into historical ephemera. Of course, biopics have been made of far lesser names, one prominent example being Maria Von Trapp. But The Sound of Music makes Maria an engaging character, whose bonds with the children and the Captain make an audience root for her. Star quality itself only holds the interest for as long as it takes to read a gossip magazine; Star! needed something to make audiences care.

Star! (1968) | 20th Century Fox

IV

There is nothing in Star!

No theme, deeper meaning, point of view, or special insight into human nature.

Ah, but the “musical biopic” genre doesn’t specialize in deep meanings. The “musical biopic” genre is the one that tells familiar stories in which individuals of rare talent claw their way to the top, experience the pitfalls of fame, and finally learn a lesson in humility, or kick addiction, or both, and emerge as inspiring role models. This can be effective when done well, but is not often revelatory.

The question of whether Star! could do it well was answered in Noël Coward’s diary after he met with the production team: “It is a project of which I heartily disapprove…why they are doing the film I shall never know. There isn’t any real story behind the fact that she started young in the theater, became an understudy, then a star, lived with Philip Astley, Bert Taylor, etc., married Richard Aldrich, and died. I really do think that the Hollywood film mentality is worse than ever.”

The Hollywood film mentality was even worse than what Coward estimated. Star! was a movie solely predicated on the idea that audiences would turn out in droves simply for the idea of Julie Andrews starring in a grand-scale musical. It gives Gertrude Lawrence no conflicts. It dramatizes no challenges for her to overcome. And it lasts 2 hours and 53 minutes.

V

The first half of Star! covers the “Gertrude rises to the top” portion of her life. From the start, Wise employs a framing device; it’s 1940 and Lawrence is supervising the final cut of a documentary short about herself, allowing her to comment on “vintage” footage shot in sepia-toned faux 16mm. And this is some magic 16mm footage. For every key moment in Lawrence’s life, even when she’s in the background, there’s a cameraman filming as she ditches flats, gets abandoned by her father, and befriends the young Coward. And Andrews-as-Lawrence’s narration allows her to leap over years of action and talk through what happens instead of showing it. As a topper, the vintage footage—with its sudden shifts in speed, jump cuts, and effects—owes more to the emerging New Hollywood than the silent/newsreel era it’s supposed to come from; indeed, if Star! makes any concession to the audience eating up The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde in an attempt to win over them and their purchasing power, here it is. After two hours alternating newsreel footage, with songs and scenes in full 70mm color, it’s intermission and Lawrence is a star. Now it’s time for plot!

VI

The second half of Star! structures itself around three plot threads. The first two get introduced right after the entr’acte. The last, which deserves the most attention, runs through the film and only builds in the second half. Here are the sources of dramatic tension and how they’re resolved.

  1. Problem: Lawrence is bankrupt due to her hard-drinking, party-giving lifestyle. This is told to the audience with no explanation, and following an unrealistic trial, Lawrence works her way out of debt with one scene and some tossed off lines. The whole thing takes 10 minutes.
  2. Problem: Lawrence’s status as a workaholic and partier estranges her from her daughter Pamela (young Jenny Agutter, an English rose comparable to Andrews). After some awkward parent-child interactions filled with repressed emotions, the problem is resolved by Pamela leaving the film and…never coming back!
  3. Problem: Lawrence has man troubles. Oh, does she have man troubles. The driving force of the movie is that Gertrude Lawrence needs someone but a combination of daddy issues and free-spirited independence won’t let her settle down. This could work if a) these relationships were well-written and b) her five love interests weren’t all slates so blank Taylor Swift would struggle to write songs about them. Let’s go one at a time!

a. John Collin (a cut-rate Oliver Reed) plays the stage manager who becomes Lawrence’s first husband. He thinks the world of her. He suddenly becomes a drunk, at least for the one scene in which he takes Pamela on a pub crawl. She divorces him and he’s gone.

b. Michael Craig plays the titled war hero who gets obsessed with Lawrence, makes her a darling of society, and spends years begging her to marry him before he finally gives up and goes off to run the Raj. He’s on screen a lot, has two facial expressions (warm smile or stoicism), and is very boring.

c. Robert Reed, Mike Brady himself, plays a poor New York actor who also gets obsessed with Lawrence, pursues her for years, and ultimately marries someone else. He has no character.

d. Anthony Eisley plays a Wall Street millionaire vying with Reed’s character for Lawrence’s affections. This could have set up an interesting class conflict, but Eisley has somehow less character than Reed. He vanishes and the audience gets to hear he’s married as well. Important to close that plot point!

e. It’s equally important to know that none of the above four men actually existed. The screenwriters devoted time and trouble to a series of amalgamations and stand-ins for Lawrence’s real first husband and various lovers. Enter second-billed Richard Crenna as Richard Aldrich, the producer who became Lawrence’s widower. Since this is younger, pre-Trautman Richard Crenna, he’s charming as heck, but he also shows up two hours into the film, disappears for half an hour, then returns to co-dominate the end by mixing the all-consuming admiration of Lawrence felt by the previous four guys with continuing variations on him telling her to get herself together. The climax comes when, as she grapples with a difficult role, he takes her to hear some jazz music and says “Stop acting.” This is treated as brilliant advice that fixes everything and she marries him during the closing credits. The film fades to black not on a kiss but on inscrutable dialogue.

VII

The true leading man is Daniel Massey, who received an Oscar nomination for playing his real-life godfather Coward. Massey doesn’t exactly look like Coward, but copies his wryness and distinctive voice as well as anyone can. In terms of character, Coward has no arc; he appears in the opening sequence fully-formed and spends the duration laughing at people and giving Lawrence advice. Within those limitations, Massey is outstanding, mainly because he feels fresh, reminding us there was a time when the heroine’s gay best friend wasn’t a stereotype.

Star! (1968) | 20th Century Fox

VIII

Little has been said thus far about Julie Andrews’ performance as Lawrence. She wears those 125 costumes well; one could argue she never looked better. Her voice, too, is magnificent, carrying comedy, torch songs, and showstoppers with equal aplomb.

However, with nothing to do but go through the hackneyed motions of a star’s rise and string along various men, Andrews can’t make Lawrence a character on the same level of Mary Poppins or Maria. She attempts to create a personality for Lawrence—most of the film consists of Julie Andrews swearing, raging at the world, having drunken outbursts, and throwing food in people’s faces—but the plot never sufficiently explains this behavior, and it brings down the moments when Andrews is supposed to show some emotion. Lawrence’s estrangement from her daughter and her finding a real equal in Aldrich don’t register, in part because they happen so abruptly, and in part because Andrews can’t convey a transition from free-spiritedness to pathos after playing the free-spiritedness on the constant level of 12-out-of-10 the script demands. If Fox felt Andrews embracing a touch of edginess to accompany her established persona would result in mass appeal, then it was a terrible bet.

IX

Andrews, as mentioned, sings magnificently, so perhaps the 17 musical numbers justify all of the above and make Star! the worthwhile viewing experience Fox was sure it had.

They do not.

The manifold problems with Star!’s songs are inseparable from the problems with the screenplay. Foreshadowing the film version of Cabaret, all of the songs are performances in various shows or at parties where someone offers Lawrence or Coward the chance to sing. No song is organic to the plot, and the realization dawns that the thin screenplay is there mainly to build bridges from one tune to the next. Until the end, none of the shows Lawrence stars in reflect or comment on her life story in any way. It’s almost a concert film—Gertrude Lawrence’s Greatest Hits Live—in which strange conversations occur in lovely locations occur while waiting for the set to change.

One would hope these musical numbers are interesting. One would be wrong. For all the money spent, Wise and choreographer Michael Kidd never break free to give the songs imaginative staging; each is performed on what is clearly the confines of a single space under a proscenium arch to reflect the theatrical nature (The tone is set by the overture, played by an on-screen orchestra, in the pit, beneath a drawn curtain.) and as opposed to the expressive chiaroscuro Bob Fosse brings to Cabaret, these are no better than the best sets one could see on Broadway. The point-and-shoot cinematography attempts to distinguish itself with off-center framing, but the effect is more annoying than artistic.

The song choices themselves are baffling. Smart calls to focus on British music halls and revues unfamiliar to American audiences are mixed with the unnecessary decision to include “Limehouse Blues,” which puts Andrews and other cast members in yellowface, and “The Physician,” with Andrews and her chorus now donning brownface and stereotypical Indian costumes. It’s an embarrassment. (Since the film cuts off in 1940, The King and I is ignored.)

In an act of too little, too late, the music finally works at the end with two songs from Lady in the Dark. Andrews sings a plaintive “My Ship” in a rehearsal sequence, then delivers “The Saga of Jenny” in a fantastically surreal reworking of the original musical’s Circus Dream which breaks free of the stage for a pink netherworld of clowns and devils. Andrews dances, does trapeze, and leaps through fire. It earns my highest praise, but at this point, there isn’t much reason to care.

X

Star! premiered in July 1968 with Wise and Fox heads Richard Zanuck and David Brown—desperate for a hit after Doctor Dolittle a year before—ignoring Richard’s father Darryl’s suggestion the film could be cut. He’d said the same thing about The Sound of Music and was similarly dismissed. But now there were things to cut out, such as process shots of characters driving and on the water that were clearly fake, especially for a $14 million movie. (The Sound of Music, in contrast, cost $8 million and had no glaringly bad shots.)

In London, New York, and Los Angeles, the critical reaction matched the elder Zanuck’s. The movie was overly long and cliched, looked garish and fake, and nothing happened in it. When nobody went to see it, Fox got desperate. They withdrew the film from roadshow and put it into wide release with instructions for exhibitors to cut out any 20 minutes they wished—instructions that would be unimaginable today. This went no better. Finally, in 1969, after Star! had gotten seven Oscar nominations but ended up with zero wins, it was withdrawn and resold to a public Fox was convinced wanted The Sound of Music II as opposed to a bawdy Julie Andrews. The film formerly known as Star! had a new title: Those Were the Happy Times. This third version, running just shy of two hours, was seen by President Nixon but not many others. Star! finally grossed less than 25 percent of its budget.

Star! (1968) | 20th Century Fox

XI

This essay is not an attempt to bring a forgotten movie back to life. Star! is a work of excess that did nothing but falter and at best may be a historical curiosity. But in all that has been described, a pattern emerges that points the way to what would come next, and the American film industry as it currently stands.

Star! was a film given the greenlight to spend as much as possible despite there being no story and nothing but spectacle. That was a novelty. Practically every big budget release, hitherto, was based around a strong story with actual characters and drama. Maybe they were as simple as the tales from the Bible, or as silly as Cecil B. De Mille’s most lamebrained epics or Doctor Dolittle trying to save animals no one else could, or as complicated as War and Peace, Giant, El Cid, and the films of David Lean, but there was true storytelling happening to justify the massive financial outlay. Star!, proving Coward’s dictum, never had a story, but Fox gambled that they could shill out cash for a movie in which spectacle and sensation were everything.

This was a terrible idea, but that terribleness got lost because it was shoehorned into yet another terrible idea: the coffers-emptying mania of large-scale musicals that gripped Hollywood at the end of the ‘60s. The hits of Funny Girl and Oliver!, both made by a very lucky Columbia, were drowned out by an onslaught of disasters: Dolittle, The Happiest Millionaire, Camelot, Finian’s Rainbow, Hello, Dolly!, Paint Your Wagon, Goodbye, Mr. Chips. All of them had more plot and care than Star!, which was easy to treat as merely another flop in the same vein.

But now, in the days of international markets that want something easy to export, we who love film bemoan pictures of all effect and no emotion, pictures where the simplest conflicts carry the action along with no deeper meaning, pictures where something familiar—a comic book or known property now, the songs of the Gershwins and Porter and Coward then—translates to a guarantee that what you’re doing can be sold to the masses.

Today, this methodology, for good or ill, works far better than it did with Star!

But it’s easy to see Star! as the root of this trend. The idea that a series of known qualities, particularly a star doing what they do best within a format that had produced a string of spectacular hits, could compensate for all the ways the movie fell back on cliché, shorthand, and lack of artistic integrity, is commonplace now to the point that it could be an algorithm, but in 1968 it was an unheard of idea for big-budget filmmaking.

Star! offered a warning that to this day goes unheeded.

 

(The writer is indebted to Matthew Kennedy and his book Roadshow! (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014).)