Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Thoroughly modern star!

After the '50s golden age the rise and fall of musicals in the '60s seems curious now: WEST SIDE STORY was huge, as was GYPSY and there was FLOWER DRUM SONG, THE MUSIC MAN, JUMBO and the French (Jacques Demy) got in on the act with UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG and '67's YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT, and of course those Beatles films A HARD DAYS NIGHT and HELP!.. and then of course there was the behemoth that was THE SOUND OF MUSIC - [in that pre-video age it was the best-selling soundtrack of the decade] which I never wanted to see (and didn't until New Year's Day 1996 when it was the ideal afternoon choice with Rory and Helen) BUT I absolutely loved THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE and it remains a firm favourite now, my pal Stan loved it too - we knew most of the lines and quoted them along with Mrs Meers, Miss Dorothy and Muzzy not to mention Trevor Graydon and Jimmy. Then though came flops like STAR!, DOCTOR DOOLITTLE and DARLING LILI and somehow musicals were no longer popular - SWEET CHARITY had to struggle to find an audience. The exception though of course was the arrival of Barbra Streisand on screen: we loved her early albums and tv specials, I saw FUNNY GIRL on the stage in London in 1966, when I was 20, and we rushed to the movie and were not disappointed. I even liked HELLO DOLLY and like it a lot more now, it was curiously old fashioned at the time (as well as Streisand being too young of course...) and ON A CLEAR DAY was ok too, despite Yves Montand's atrocious English accent, but Barbra, Beaton and Minnelli gave the Regency flashbacks the required oomph. After that Barbra wisely got modern and turned to comedy with the brilliant OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT and WHAT'S UP DOC, as she reigned supreme ... 

Julie Andrews though is a curious case: she was a great Broadway star of course in the original MY FAIR LADY (the original cast album was one of the first records I bought as a teen) and CAMELOT, and MARY POPPINS established her as a screen favourite, though it never did much for me, hence my having no interest in SOUND OF MUSIC, one of the first hits people returned to over and over. They didn't though really want to see Julie in TORN CURTAIN (the only Hitch I never wanted to see..), HAWAII though was popular, and then the divine MILLIE. Robert Wise who could turn his hand to any genre (editing CITIZEN KANE and directed films as diverse as THE HAUNTING, I WANT TO LIVE, HELEN OF TROY, WEST SIDE STORY) decided to do another musical with Julie and they decided to do the story of Broadway star Gertrude Lawrence, and structured it as a film within a film with Gertrude/Julie looking at and commenting on the film being made about her seemed they wanted to deconstruct a great star and show us the truth behind the glossy facade, but in 1968 nobody was interested much in Gertrude Lawrence any more and young people such as myself barely knew who she was.  The woman they present here is an absolute nightmare - she comes across early on as a more strident insensitive Auntie Mame with gay best friend Noel Coward (Daniel Massey (below on stage with Julie) is a delight here and was Noel's godson) as her Vera Charles with a quip for every situation.

It is amusing now reading Pauline Kael's review of STAR! (in her "Going Steady" collection of reviews) where she says Andrews lacks the required glamour: Gertrude Lawrence wasn't much of a singer and she was an odd, limited sort of actress. What made her a star was not something that can be taught, even to as good a pupil as Julie Andrews ... she does her duties efficiently but mechanically, like an airline hostess; she's pert and cheerful in some professional way that is finally cheerless. Their version of Lawrence is a hard, ruthless, self-centred, almost detestable woman who is only interested in rich bankers, who ignores her child who then ignores her ... some of the best Noel Coward, Cole Porter and Kurt Weill and the Gershwins are mangled while one sits there wishing Vincente Minnelli would magically take over and save it all. 

The many songs are staged as musical show numbers which don't advance the plot; the set designs and ugly, unflattering clothes add to the sense of disaster - Michael Craig (who was Streisand's Nicky Arnstein in the London production of FUNNY GIRL) is Lawrence's main beau, Richard Crenna is the man who finally understands her, Bruce Forsyth (playing her father) and Beryl Reid are wasted in a early music hall scene, Jenny Agutter is the daughter. Some songs though like "Parisian Pierrot", "Limehouse Blues", "My Ship" and "The Saga of Jenny" sound better with the passage of time ...pity though they didn't finish their story with Lawrence expiring during the stage run of THE KING AND I ... or would that be a too downbeat ending ?

Let Kael have the last word: The movie suggests that those who made it wanted a big popular project (with a pre-sold box-office star) and at the same time wanted to feel they were showing people what they really thought of Miss Lawrence. From the evidence of this movie, they don't have enough talent to know what to think. Their hostility to the subject just adds unpleasantness to the incompetence. 

Amusing footnote: the the DVD I have has a 25th anniversary reunion feature where the cast and crew assemble (including Andrews and Wise) and the general impression is that they had created a lost masterpiece that was and remains misunderstood!

I have grown to like Julie more over the years - her Millie Dillmount (below) is a perennial favourite - and thankfully introduced me to Bea Lillie. Julie too is really super in SOUND OF MUSIC which I can enjoy more now, and I simply love the first half of VICTOR/VICTORIA where her looks and inflections and double act with Robert Preston are all ideal - "Le Jazz Hot"!.  Like Barbra and Liza she remains a copper-bottomed legend; amusing too seeing her now in films like RELATIVE VALUES or that '80s AIDS drama OUR SONS.

Millie Dillmount becomes a "modern"

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