A lovely story about aging, identity, and romance, offbeat telefilm Queen of the Stardust Ballroom features a multidimensional leading performance by Maureen Stapleton, as well as a touching supporting turn from Charles Durning. Both were nominated for Emmys. Tracking the experiences of a woman in late middle age who struggles to build a new life after the death of her husband, Queen of the Stardust Ballroom explores the tender theme of how difficult it is to reconcile the disappointments of life with the desire to live happily, especially when the passage of time creates limitations. The central conceit involves dance, because the widow discovers new joy by visiting a ballroom where old songs provide the soundtrack, so there’s a certain innate elegance to the piece—among other things, the movie revels in the irony that heavyset Durning was light on his feet. Had the filmmakers presented their story without extraneous adornment, Queen of the Stardust Ballroom would have been a near-perfect gem. Alas, the filmmakers elected to make Queen of the Stardust Ballroom into a musical, with characters talk-singing several original tunes by the songwriting team of Marilyn and Alan Bergman. The songs are fine in and of themselves, but they diminish the movie’s verisimilitude instead of adding, as was undoubtedly the intention, to the story’s magic.
The narrative begins with Bea Asher (Stapleton) losing her husband and beginning a lonely new life in her empty house in the Bronx. Her adult daughter lives in the suburbs, and her adult son relocates to Los Angeles. Determined to stay in the house where she’s lived for decades, Bea opens a junk shop but remains desperately lonely until a friend recommends she visit the Stardust Ballroom. That’s where Bea meets portly mailman Al Green (Durning). They connect through dancing and eventually become a couple, but problems—including judgment from Bea’s relatives—soon challenge their happiness. Through it all, writer Jerome Kass emphasizes the combination of excitement and fear Bea experiences every time she steps outside her comfort zone. Yet Queen of the Stardust Ballroom isn’t some manipulative piece about being young at heart; rather, it’s a bittersweet meditation on finding fulfillment no matter what compromised form it takes.
Director Sam O’Steen, an Oscar-nominated film editor who helmed a handful of projects for the big and small screens, applies an unobtrusive style to the film’s storytelling, keeping the focus during dramatic scenes on the expressive faces of his actors and letting wide shots during dance scenes display figures gliding across the ballroom floor while lights bounce off the facets of a glitter ball. More than anything, Queen of the Stardust Ballroom is an actors’ piece, with the deep humanity that Stapleton and Durning bring to their roles infusing every scene. As for the songs, some are more jarring than others, though, to the Bergmans’ credit, Stapleton’s first number, “How Could You Do This To Me?”, sets up her character well. The songs are not the film’s best element, but they’re not egregious.
Queen of the Stardust Ballroom: GROOVY