"I suppose I should say My Fair Lady, but... Richard Burton was rather dishy"
Julie Andrews on her favorite Broadway show
Julie Andrews After all these years, the very name more than that of any other film-star still makes the public line up in one of two camps.
To many, she represents the embodiment of "some corner of a foreign field that is forever England". Others agree with Christopher Plummer's verdict: "Like being hit over the head with a Hallmark Greetings Card".
Yet the characteristics which grate on cynics' nerves like chalk squeaking down a blackboard are precisely those for which her world wide legion of fans treasure her. Strong in number amongst her supporters are sections of the gay fraternity - and sorority - who have always decoded her sexual distance as ambivalence. Nowhere was her androgyny more intriguing then in her last real screen success, the 1982 comedy Victor/Victoria, in which she played - as Planet Mercury must know by now - a woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman.
Since then, Julie's career has been less than prolific, and by the early 1990's her admirers had given up all hope of ever seeing her perform live again. Then in October 1995, the star to whom Paul Newman once referred as "the last of the really great dames" returned to Broadway stage after an absence of 33 years, choosing to reprise Victor/Victoria in the process.
The result, despite the idolatry she receives from the audience each night is variable. Neither her star quality nor her masterly singing can disguise the fact that the script and direction, both by husband Black Edwards, are not half as sophisticated as they pretend to be.
Indeed, during the first eighteen month of Victor/Victoria's run, drama of a higher order has consistently been found offstage...
First, Julie departed for a gall stone operation, decimating the box-office returns for a fortnight. Then there was the sage of the Tony Awards. Julie, finding herself the recipient of the shows sole citation, created headlines on three continents by rejecting the honor at the end of the show one night: "I have searched my heart, and find that I can not accept the nomination, when the rest of the company have been so egregiously overlooked".
While this was evident to many of the star's trouper-spirit, some insiders consider the whole incident to be a publicity stunt.
"It's all history now", the shows producer Tony Adams tells me. "I think the thing that really came out of it was Julie putting a word back into the vocabulary that most people had forgotten: 'Egregious'. I dare say she educated America".
No sooner had things died down than Julie went on holiday, to be temporarily replaced by... Liza Minnelli.
Once again, the hacks thronged the stage-door as word leaked out the Miss Minnelli was, er, finding the role a challenge. She was, it was claimed, repeatedly stumbling over her dialogue and lyrics, singing "second-rate hoofer' to 'second-hand hooker'.
"I've been in hundreds of shows" stormed co-star Tony Roberts, "but this is the first time I've not known what's happening onstage".
Exit Miss Minnelli - and welcome back, Julie. But not for long. Those famous crystal vowels were sounding a little tired, and Miss Andrews once again took to her sick bed. The producers claimed insurance payments to cover the dip in revenue - but this time,
Lexington Insurance of New York was having none of it. The company claimed that Julie had failed to reveal the true state of her health when the cover policy was taken out. and declined to pay.
The result is that, after playing nearly 600 performances of Victor/Victoria, Julie's last few weeks in the show have been clouded by the producers' law suit for $1.5 million against the insurers.
Julie's press agent tells me that "she is rising above it with her customary grace". Certainly, she looks terrific. Tall, slender - her legs are two of the most elegant thing in the show - her hair is tinted a soft auburn, and her skin is glowing. For many years, she was one of the Peter Pans of showbiz, defying the passage of time with apparent ease. Now, age has started to make its progress around her eyes - and it suits her.
She spends the first few minutes playing for time by organizing everyone into position. It is prettily done, but the song 'Do-Re-Me' comes to mind a little too forcibly. Finally, she leaved her clear blue eyes at me. they are as bright as ever - too bright, perhaps. I feel slightly unnerved - like that German paratrooper coming up against Mrs Miniver.
Which aspect of the show has been the most tiring and difficult? "
All aspects of the show; the singing, the dancing. the rapid costume changes and the strength needed to portray 'Victor" - all lead to the roll being wonderfully stimulating but certainly grueling over the long haul. The role demands that one is seldom offstage and intermission is the only time when one is able to return to the dressing room".
How has she coped?
"I've got a good right hook".
What does she find attractive about playing a man? "Lots of little things, the way in which men want to present themselves. It's such an interesting challenge: the guys have still got it over the ladies in a number of ways".
Which was her favorite Broadway show?
"I suppose I should say My Fair Lady, but... Richard Burton was rather dishy".
Her eyes crinkle with laughter as she remembers her Camelot co-star. Burton once referred to her as "the only leading lady with whom I never slept with", to which she replied: "How dare he say such an awful thing about me".
And now? Has returning to Broadway been like coming home?
"Yes, I think you could say that. It's been lovely working with Blake. And, of course, I get to sleep with the boss".
How big are the chances of her crossing the Atlantic with Victor/Victoria?
"There is every hope that the show will eventually come to London, though I am not aware that any date has been set. Naturally, I would love to try to do the show there, but that depends on many things".
In America, it would appear that this duel role has joined the holy trinity with which Julie will be forever associated: the definitive Eliza Doolitte in My Fair Lady (on stage), Mary Poppins (for which she won the Academy Award) and the evergreen Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music. If this is the case, nobody will be more pleased than the star herself. by the time she came to Hollywood, the day of the studio system were at an end. Unlike Judy Garland and Doris Day, whose projects were shaped by studio spin doctors, Julie was left to fend for herself. She fought valiantly against typecasting, but was not always successful. At one point, she resorted to a notice on her car windscreen: Mary Poppins is a junkie".
Are there any roles she regrets missing, other than the screen Eliza Doolittle?
"I was offered The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but I wasn't sure I could do the Scottish accent. Maggie Smith did it marvelously - and won the Oscar". Instead of Brodie, (in which she might have shown a much darker side than expected) she worked with Hitchcock on Torn Curtain a tap-dance up the lift shaft with Bea Lillie and Mary Tyler Moore in that 1920's Camp-fest Thoroughly Modern Millie (Roses for Mr Trevor Graydon. two dozen. Long-stemmed. pink... On the Fat side!") The profits rolled in. And then came Star!
On paper, the screen biography of Gertrude Lawrence looked like being the ultimate Julie Andrews vehicle. It was designed to showcase her acknowledged talents, and to develop new ones. The script included a couple of drunk scenes, which Julie handled splendidly - but the sight of Maria von Trap knocking back the gin caused outrage in some quarters, hilarity in others.
Released in late 1968, in the high mood of student anarchy in the West, Star! emerged as hopelessly old-fashioned, and grossed a mere quarter of its $18 million cost.
Nonetheless, it holds a special place in Julie's memory:
"I think that Star! was one of the last of the fabulously crafted Hollywood musicals, and I'm very proud to have been a part of it. Unfortunately, it was released at the time when concepts about film were changing. Low-budget pictures, such as Easy Rider were 'in', and there was a general feeling that extravagance was out of date. It was a phase... and now we have come full circle".
Does she have a favorite film?
"Anything with Bette Davis - she was always marvelous. And that film with Brando... Viva Zapata, that's the one"
Bedtime viewing in the Edwards household: Baby Jane and the biopic of a Mexican bandit. I wonder what which one Blake watches...
Which film would she choose of her own?
"That is a little like asking, which puppy is the basket do you love best? I have really enjoyed all the films I have made, each one for a different reason".
Julie's answers are all precise articulate - and very, very measured. Her armour is almost impenetrable. A childhood spent masking her feeling about her resented step-father (whose surname she bears), the insecurity of an unfinished education and the loneliness of coming to America as an unknown girl, to be flung into the limelight as the star of The Boyfriend... all of these pressures required that she display what her My Fair Lady director Moss Hart called "that terrible British strength that makes you wonder why they lost India".
Her demons may have appeared banished - but they returned in force at the height of her fame. In 1966, Julie sought help from a psychiatrist. Aged only 31, the pressure of reconciling her role as Julie Andrews Superstar with that of Mrs Tony Walton (her first husband was the famed set designer) led her to remark: "I needed some answers, and I think I'd have been a pretty rotten mother without them". and now? Still in Therapy?
"Not right now, no. I don't have time".
The cross-dressing role of Victor/Victoria and Julie's icon status within the gay and lesbian communities led on newspaper to suggest recently that she has a propensity towards lesbianism...
"That's one of the funniest thing I have ever heard".
The lady ain't laughing. The clear blue eyes dare me to enquire further. Much as I would love to pursue the subject, I am rather afraid of her 'good right hook'.
Besides, speculating about Julie's sex-life feels as strange as imagining the Queen on the loo. Veteran Los Angeles columnist Joyce Haber once pushed Mr and Mrs Blake Edwards too far on this issue, resulting in a law-suit. Julie's opinion of Ms Haber?
"They should give that woman open-heart surgery and go in from the feet".
For a moment Julie shows a chink in her armour. Then - control. As her friend and sometime colleague Andre Previn has said: "She opens herself up to a certain point and beyond that - no"
What is frustrating is the way in which her careful attitude can inform her work. When Julie does allow her veneer to crack - as in her under-rated performance in Duet for One - the results are deeply moving. Yet not many people went to see Duet for One - unwilling, perhaps, to let their image of the star by challenged.
Miss Andrews herself may be collusive in perpetrating her best-known persona. Despite averring "I hate the word 'wholesome'..." she was once discovered by a group of Japanese tourists on the mountainside of her home in Gstaad, Switzerland, singing "The hills are alive" to her heart's content, oblivious of all spectators.
It is the Julie of old who continues to warm the hearts of audiences at Broadway's Marquis Theatre, bringing her impeccable professionalism and old style star voltage to the somewhat plastic charms of Victor/Victoria.
My last sight is of her leaving the stage-door, driving through a bizarre mixture on old ladies, bank managers and leather queens. Just then I see pinned to the doorman's office - a picture of Maria von Trapp singing high in the hills above Salzburg.
And there is Julie's dichotomy. Not even the stage doorman is prepared to let her forget what she calls her 'vanilla moments'. However much we say we want her to do something different, we still sling to the image which we may laugh at - but love.