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Star!, the 1968 musical biography of stage legend Gertrude Lawrence, should have been called Phoenix. After dying at the box office and bearing the burden of being not just one of the films that ended the big-budget Hollywood musical but one of the reasons Julie Andrews fell from grace with fans, the picture has been rediscovered thanks to the tenacity of its fans. It wasn't totally unappreciated in its time, scoring seven Oscar® nominations and a Golden Globe, but its initial reception put so much emphasis on the picture's problems that it would take 25 years for people to discover its many virtues.
Twentieth Century-Fox tried to make lightning strike not twice, but four times in the late '60s. With the massive success of The Sound of Music (1965), which not only topped Gone with the Wind (1939) as the world's top-grossing film ever but helped make up for the losses the studio had sustained with Cleopatra (1963), they went into the big-budget musical business on a huge scale. Fox put three mega-musicals into production, Doctor Dolittle (1967), Hello, Dolly! (1969) and Star!. The latter film was the most blatant attempt to repeat the earlier hit, re-teaming star Julie Andrews with director Robert Wise and producer Saul Chaplin.
Chaplin would have seemed a natural choice to produce another hit musical. The former songwriter ("Bei Mir Bist Du Schein") had produced not just The Sound of Music, but also another of the '60s' most successful film musicals, West Side Story (1961). By the same token, Andrews, riding high on her meteoric rise to film stardom, seemed the obvious choice for an attempt to re-create the career of an actress-singer who had introduced classic numbers by George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Noel Coward. She owed Fox a film at the time, having signed a two-picture deal when she was originally cast in The Sound of Music. In addition, Chaplin and Wise, who both had loved working with her, had been urging Fox to re-team them all.
Lawrence's life would have seemed a natural for the screen. One of the most glamorous stage stars of the 20th century, her story offered the perfect combination of temperamental behavior, romantic escapades and hit songs. Although one of the stage's greatest stars, she had done relatively little film work. Most of her greatest hits had been filmed by other actresses, from Norma Shearer in Private Lives (1931) to Deborah Kerr in The King and I (1956). But her stage popularity was almost unparalleled. When she died of liver cancer in 1952, almost 7,000 people mobbed her funeral. The idea for a biography of Lawrence originated in the '50s as Judy Garland's follow-up to A Star Is Born (1954). When that film failed at the box office, partly because of production delays caused by its star, plans for subsequent films were dropped.
Initially, Wise bought the rights to Lawrence's memoirs and a biography written by her second husband, producer Richard Aldrich. As he interviewed people who had known her, however, he realized that both books were rather sugarcoated. Screenwriter William Fairchild suggested having the film explore that divide, which they did by having most of the action unfold as Lawrence watches an adulatory documentary on her life up to the early '40s. As the black-and-white film unspools, Andrews recalls her history in glowing terms as scenes shot in color reveal what really happened.
The problem was the flash backs weren't totally true. Legal considerations forced Fairchild to change and cut several of Lawrence's closest associates. Although her best friend and frequent collaborator, Noel Coward, was thrilled to be represented in the film, another Lawrence friend, comedienne Beatrice Lillie, would only allow herself to be represented if she played the role herself, even though that meant having an actress in her seventies play herself in her twenties. Other departures from fact were the age of Lawrence's first husband, who is her age in the film but was 20 years older in real life, and of her father's female companion, an older woman in the film but actually barely older than the teenaged Lawrence at the time they worked together. And by stopping in the mid-'40s, Star! eliminated two of her greatest stage triumphs, her performance as Eliza Doolittle in a revival of Pygmalion, ironically the inspiration for Andrews' first great hit, My Fair Lady, and The King and I. Wise eventually insisted that the film was never intended as a biography but rather an entertaining film inspired by aspects of Lawrence's career.
To create that entertaining film meant working on a lavish scale. Donald Brooks designed 3,040 costumes for the film, including 125 for Andrews, the most ever designed for a single actress in a film. Western Costume financed the clothes, renting them out to other production companies for years afterwards. Star! shot on 14 international locations, while Boris Levin's 185 studio sets took over nine soundstages on the Fox lot. On the sets, choreographer Michael Kidd put Andrews through some of the most exhausting choreography in her career. The two would become lifetime friends and Lawrence's star-making number "Burlington Bertie" would be a part of Andrews' repertoire for years.
Fox released Star! as a road show attraction, complete with reserved seating, an overture and an intermission with entr'acte. But the days of road show movies were dying. A year before its release, the studio had invited fans to write in to request ticket order forms. Fifteen thousand people responded, but when it came time to actually place the orders, only a fraction of that number trickled in. Moreover, most of the audiences were older. The increasingly important youth audience had no interest in the film. Fox tried to solve the problem with younger-skewing ads, even using a gag location shot of Andrews posing with a motorcycle, but nothing helped. Wise also supervised 20 minutes of cuts to the 174-minute film, with new prints arriving in theatres during the road show engagements. Despite all that, Star!, which had cost an estimated $14 million, brought in only $4.2 at U.S. box offices. International sales brought the total to a mere $10.
Critical response was decidedly mixed. While praising the design and technical elements, Variety thought the scenes between musical numbers sagged. The New York Times critic thought it only suitable for those who wanted "old-style musicals," though, like many who were familiar with Lawrence's work, she chided the film for not doing her career or star presence justice. The one element of the film to get almost universal praise was Daniel Massey's performance as Coward. The young British actor, son of Raymond Massey, was Coward's godson. Although the film omitted any overt mention of Coward's sexuality (Coward himself never came out), Massey's performance left little doubt about it. He won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor and received one of the film's seven Oscar® nominations (the others went to the art direction, cinematography, costumes, score, sound and the title song by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn). It lost in every category.
Faced with the Star!'s box office failure, Fox re-cut it to 120 minutes and released it with a new title, Those Were the Happy Times. It did little better. In fact, public knowledge that it was just a re-cut version of Star! helped give the original a reputation as a major turkey. Robert Wise, who thought the last thing the film needed was more cuts, had the credit "A Robert Wise Film" removed from the new print. When Star! debuted on U.S. TV, Fox had restored the original title, but none of the cuts. The British television print, however, was the original, uncut version.
Fortunately, when Fox re-cut the film it also changed the projection format from Todd-AO to 35mm. As a result, the excised footage was preserved, though it was thought lost for years. For the film's 25th anniversary in 1993, the studio located the missing footage and put together a new, almost complete print given limited screenings and later released on DVD. Suddenly, critics were suggesting the film had been unfairly treated on its initial release. Wise was thrilled to see his original vision restored and would tell the press, "It's nice to feel vindicated. I always felt it was too fine a film to be gathering dust. And it's not often, you know, a film gets a second chance, no matter its merits, if it hasn't done well commercially the first time out."
Producer: Saul Chaplin
Director: Robert Wise
Screenplay: William Fairchild
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Art Direction: Boris Leven
Score: Lennie Hayton
Principal Cast: Julie Andrews (Gertrude Lawrence), Richard Crenna (Richard Aldrich), Michael Craig (Sir Anthony Spencer), Daniel Massey (Noel Coward), Robert Reed (Charles Fraser), Bruce Forsyth (Arthur Lawrence), Beryl Reid (Rose), Anthony Eisley (Ben Mitchell), J. Pat O'Malley (Dan), Jenny Agutter (Pamela Roper), Conrad Bain (Second Salesman at Cartier's), Linda Dano (Charles' Wife), Roger Delgado (French Diplomat), Bernard Fox (Assistant to Lord Chamberlain), Tony Lo Bianco (New York Reporter), Murray Matheson (Bankruptcy Judge), Roy Scheider (Bit), Grady Sutton (First Salesman at Cartier's).
by Frank Miller