The good news first- Star ! didn't kill the musical. Musicals had taken a few shots to the head through the 60's (see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Camelot and Paint Your Wagon ), and the simple fact of changing tastes probably doomed Star ! before a single frame was shot.
It certainly looked unbeatable. Director Robert Wise was responsible for the groundbreaking West Side Story and the insanely profitable Sound of Music, and Julie Andrews was coasting on the wings of that film and of Mary Poppins . Twentieth Century Fox threw money at the project and gave it the deluxe roadshow treatment, waiting for the accolades to come rushing in.
The bad news is that it didn't work, despite the best efforts of all involved. The film was recut, re-released under a different name (becoming a double-flop) and disappeared for over a decade, remembered fondly only by Julie Andrews fans and Wise himself.
That said, the disc is one of the best production-to-release examinations around. The film was clearly a labour of love for Wise, and his commentary is warm but unflinching (he admits that several numbers aren't what he had intended), offering insight and distance. Screen tests with Andrews and Daniel Massey (playing a note-perfect Noel Coward) provide a fascinating snapshot of the rehearsal-to-completion process, and the (seemingly endless) notes about the production and premiere tell you everything you ever wanted to know about a flop.
The still galleries of promotional art offer a distinct portrait of flop-sweat and panic. Nobody knew how to sell the movie - concepts ranged from art deco to line drawings to Warhol-esque face shots (the final design was a black and white picture of Andrews with a star laid over her eye, causing one exhibitor to ask ‘What's with the black eye?') And the trailers/promo films/TV commercials are so eclectic that you can practically hear the editor muttering “Somebody's got to like it…” to himself in the background.
And few liked it, for good reason. At once static and overblown and curiously bland, with every musical number appearing to have been shot in the same aspect ratio on the same soundstage. Andrews portrayal of Gertrude Lawrence is cold and unsympathetic, perhaps authentic (as Wise suggests), but not fun to watch. Sadly, neither is the film. But for anyone interested in the page-to-screen process, Star ! lets you see how some projects go astray even with the best talent that Hollywood can buy. Highly recommended.
© 2004 Michael John Derbecker