In the late 1960s 20th Century Fox wanted to repeat the smash box-office performance of The Sound of Music, so they made three huge musicals, just in time to perfectly coincide with the death of movie musicals: Hello, Dolly!, Dr. Dolittle, and this one. All of them lost money to one degree or another, and this one was the champion, a flop on the scale of Heaven’s Gate, a potentially studio-closing flop. They tried everything, including cutting an hour from its almost three-hour running time, and re-titling it, but nothing worked, nothing brought in the customers. It took Fox years to recover. I had wanted to see it for years, and now there is a restored, full-length DVD. So I finally did. And it’s a much better film than I had expected. At the same time, you can see why it was a turkey.
When I was working in Hollywood the subject of Star! came up once and someone, I forget who, blamed the huge cost of the film on diva behavior by Julie Andrews. I’ve never heard that elsewhere, and Hollywood loves to dish the dirt, so I discount it. But you can see where they spent their $14,000,000—a huge budget for that time. Julie alone wears 125 costumes, and there were 3,000 others. There are a lot of massive sets, and some quite large ones that are used for only fifteen seconds or so. They must have used up a lot of money just shooting the framing scenes of a black and white documentary movie of her life and career supposedly being shown to Gertrude Lawrence, who scoffs, and sets the record straight.
Three hours was just too damn long. Two hours was too short—apparently the plot didn’t make much sense at that length—but maybe a cut of 2:20, 2:25 might have worked. There are two long scenes from Noel Coward plays that I think could have come right out. I assume Lawrence was better known in 1968 (she died in 1952, collapsing after a performance of The King and I), but I am barely familiar with her. It is said that this movie is more accurate than her rosy biography, and if so, it just confirms something I’ve felt for a long time: People in the entertainment business lead clichéd, predictable lives. Their work gets in the way of raising their children. Ho-hum. It gets in the way of relationships. Been there, done that. Their work becomes an obsession. No shit? How many times have you seen those story lines in biopics? All too many, in my case. This story has all of those, and more, including the plucky rise from poverty and the inability to stop spending her money. All true, apparently. About all we miss is a battle with drugs or alcohol, and I guess she was just too damn busy for that. I think these superstar people should have a little more respect for us, the audience. They’re famous enough that they know there will be a biopic. Keeping that in mind, they should give the poor screenwriter something unusual to work with. They should love their children and spend oodles of time with them, take it easy on the work, have long-lasting, fulfilling marriages and no sordid affairs … maybe stop working for a few years to build an orphanage in Timbuktu. Something, anyway, that we haven’t already seen a hundred times. Is that too much to ask?
The reason to see this is the musical numbers, of which there are many, some routine and disposable, some really brilliant. Michael Kidd did the choreography, including a very demanding, acrobatic number at the end that must have taxed Julie Andrews to the limit. Her singing is as wonderful as always, and she displays quite a range, doing some very sexy dance numbers you wouldn’t normally associate with her. The guy who plays Noel Coward (and is actually Coward’s godson) really nails him, and bears an uncanny resemblance to John Malkovich. And I spotted Jenny Agutter in the small part of Gertrude’s daughter Pamela. She went on to appear in such films as Logan’s Run and The Eagle Has Landed, and is still working.