"What I never realized, or dreamt of, was what they could do for me. They have brought a whole new life into our family, a whole new joy"
Julie Andrews on her two youngest daughters
Perhaps she's too nice for her own good always remembered as Mary Poppins rather than for the remarkable range of her acting roles. But there's much more to Julie Andrews than everyone's favorite nanny, as John Selby discovers...
Meet Julie Andrews face to face and she is an intriguing mixture of what you expected, but overlaid with plenty more besides. Yes, there are traces of the cinema's favorite nanny (Mary Poppies, her debut screen performance, won her an Oscar in 1964 and remains Walt Disney's most successful film ever), but there are traces, too, of the occasional transatlantic twang. Yes, she still sports the same crisp bob of a haircut but there is no starchy lace collar beneath it. Today, she is dressed all in black-smart suit, smoked tights and high-heeled shoes-showing off her figure and a pair of legs that would be the envy of most women half her age.
Cynics would have us believe that the real Julie Andrews is indistinguishable from Mary Poppins or Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music, and that she has made no films of note since 1965.
The reality is quite different. As the British Academy of Film and Television Arts recognized last October with only its second Tribute Award, Miss Andrews' body of work has been as successful as it has been sustained. When Miss Andrews hung up her governess's uniform for good, she stepped with total conviction into Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain. Other signal films include Star!, based on the life of Gertrude Lawrence, and the Twenties' romp, Thoroughly Modern Millie. And, for her director husband, Blake Edwards, she has played three wildly differing roles in 10, Victor/ Victoria and, as the violinist who has multiple sclerosis, in Duet For One.
There has been good work, too, off screen. Julie Andrews has devoted time and considerable energy to the Save The Children Fund and UNICEF, but then the plight of the young is a cause close to her heart. From 16th March, for ten days, Central Television is broadcasting a follow up to its important and controversial Find A Family initiative in which seventeen young people were effectively "advertised" as being available for fostering or adoption. The clutch of daily bulletins that will be screened from the middle of the month will also include interviews with well-known personalities sympathetic to the whole question of adoption. One of the most telling contributions comes from Julie Andrews, who has two adopted daughters.
International star as she is, Julie Andrews loves coming home, she says, because she still feels so very British. Any trip here is far from being a slightly sad, nostalgic pilgrimage. Rather, it's a source of great joy. "Absolutely," says Miss Andrews and she claps her hands together as if to prove the point. "I'm thrilled to come home. Each time I think, `Ooh, good, now I can get to chat to Dad-he lives in Scarborough with my stepmother-and take a great big hamper of goodies to Auntie and pop into Marks and Sparks "Really?" Certainly. Look, if you've got healthy kids who use up underwear the way mine do, you head straight for the British High Street whenever the opportunity presents itself"
Julie Andrews lives with Blake Edwards and their two adopted daughters in Los Angeles. The family used to live in Switzerland "but I just wasn't seeing enough of Blake. The good thing about Los Angeles is that his work and our family life coincide.
At the end of the day, we can all get together. When I was in Switzerland and he was in London or LA, I never knew where I was supposed to be: with my husband or with my children. Now we're together almost all of the time."
That said, their house in Gstaad, in Switzerland, is still her favorite place. "It is our hideaway, our haven, so that whenever we can possibly get there, we do. It is a place that makes me the most happy. As a rule, all work stops so we become even closer as a family. Right now, though, we're spoilt enough to be able to go between LA and Europe."
Choosing which luxurious home to stay in can scarcely be a problem she's envisaged as a child. She was born Julia Wells, fifty-five years ago in Walton-on-Thames, to a school teacher father and a mother who worked in the music halls. The marriage did not last, Julie's mother in time re-married a fellow professional, Ted Andrews.
A formidable influence during these years was her late mother's sister Joan or the Great Japonica, as she came to be nick named, as a result of her much admired Japonica jam. Young Julie was two when she was given her first stage part, playing a fairy at Japonica's dance school. 'She had a tremendous influence on my life. When my mother was away on tour with ENSA in the war, and starting a new marriage, Japonica was like a second mother to me."
There was considerable pressure: About which Julie Andrews refuses to be Judgmental, from her stepfather, who sensed correctly that his new stepdaughter was the possessor of a quite exceptional talent. She cannot say that this pressure produced any real unhappiness, not least because she was a willing victim, only too happy to show off her formative singing ability center-stage.
"You only think about these things in retrospect," she says now. "I don't believe children necessarily realize they're unhappy at the time because there's so much going on." She pauses. "No, I cannot say that I had an unhappy childhood. I had parents who cared for me and I know that they cared. I think that's very important." The tone is firm, the voice is rich. I comment on how it seems to have deepened and matured down the years and Miss Andrews inclines her head slightly. "Why, thank you," she says. "I must say I much prefer it now. It was this high, squeaky, reedy little sound when I was a kid-very white, very thin-but these days it's much more mature." The result is that now she is beginning to be able to tackle different songs and musical styles-"blues, torch songs, jazz, all of which I absolutely love." Equally, she is an admirer of many different singers-Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee on the one hand, Cher on the other. "And Barbra Streisand is an absolute goddess as far as I'm concerned. She can do no wrong."
Julie Andrews would love to do another musical and was looking forward to finding out for herself whether Miss Saigon really is as good as everyone says it is. But musicals have changed, with ensemble pieces like Les Miserables no longer offering the leading roles that might suit her style. It's something she acknowledges. "They don't quite make them like they used to, do they? The ingredients aren't quite the same. You go to a musical these days and it may be more of an event as a whole evening's entertainment, but compare it with, let's say, going to see West Side Story or Gypsy or Fiddler on the Roof ... with those you come away from the theatre feeling you'd just made a new friend. You couldn't wait to buy the album-and it became part of your life for the rest of your life.
"These days, although you've had a fabulous evening, although you've been just stunned by all you've seen, I don't know that the longevity is there. There aren't all that many songs to remember; and there's usually only one musical theme that carries throughout the evening rather than a knockout score of seventeen stunning songs, and all quite different, that come from the pen of, say, Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hammerstein."
Julie Andrews feels certain the world fondly imagines that mountains of juicy scripts land on her desk each morning with thumping roles for her to play. "But it just ain't so. First of all, there aren't that many productions on the go; and secondly, a lot of ladies like myself have to make them happen. I mean, Shirley [Maclaine], Jane [Fonda]-we all have our own production companies. The nature of the industry has changed such a lot. The great studios simply aren't there any more; that system has all but disappeared.
"And, of course, it's harder for a lady to get a good role than it is for a guy. I recently read a reason for that which had never occurred to me: by far the larger proportion of the theatre-going public is female and what do they want to see? A great hunk!"
There must have been some parts won by other actresses that she would have fought tooth and nail to win. "Oh gosh, no," she says, sounding like a caricature of herself. "I think there's room for us all." Not a lot of actresses would take so sanguine a view, but then Miss Andrews regards this approach as realistic rather than relaxed. "My mother drilled the attitude into me that I'd better be good because there's always somebody else who can do it twice as well as you."
She has turned down certain roles but is much too ladylike (or canny) to say which. In the end, she says, her decisions are always governed by what's best for the family. "How long will something take me away from my home, from my family? That is my number one priority."
Then, of course, she is married to a film director. She laughs. "Well, that's exactly why we work together as often as we can. There are lots of other directors I'd like to work for-Blake and I are not bound at the hip-but, honestly, the most convenient and pleasant is the one right under my nose, my husband."
She's more than comfortable financially, so why does she feel the need to go on working? "I've done it all my life," she says, at length, "and much as I'm happy to do other things, I really do enjoy work. I feel I have a lot to offer. There's so much singing I still would like to try so, although I may modify my work, I don't see any reason to stop altogether. If I did, I wouldn't be very happy; I'd be fly fretful, I'm sure, because it has been a way of life for me for so long. And I don't think my children would thank me for it. I'm sure in years to come, they'd say, `Well, you were a fool, Mum. Why didn't you carry on doing what you loved?' Anyway, I think it's a good example for them to see someone turned on by their work, to see someone who gets a terrific charge out of it."
She and her husband have just celebrated twenty years of marriage, so maybe the old dictum is true that those who play together, stay together. She refers to him as Blackie, partly, she says, because of his black sense of humor but mostly -"because, when he's wicked, his eyes flash in a particular kind of black way-it's almost as though they contain a sudden shaft of anthracite. I'm not the first person to call him that, either. Other people have sensed it, too," It sounds rather alarming. "No, no, because he's so extraordinarily funny when he starts behaving in that way that I usually fail on the floor laughing!"
Julie Andrews had known Blake Edwards before they married in November 1969. He had two children from his first marriage-Jenny, now thirty-two is an actress studying and working in Los Angeles, Geoffrey is twenty nine and a director of music videos. And from her marriage to the stage designer Tony Walton, Julie had one daughter, Emma, who's now twenty-six. She, too, is working in the theatre, in New York. "Given all the influences," reasons Julie, "how could she be involved in any other sphere?"
Talent will out-as Emma's mother must know. "Ah, but I was unbelievably lucky," she says. "I've always said the same thing: luck and timing were on my side. I've been completely blessed with good fortune." Fine, but there was a fair dollop of talent, too. "Well, you may have that but you still have to be in the right place at the right time. And you'd better be ready when it does occur."
Julie Andrews is on record as saying that it's a good job she didn't realize at the time just how momentous a break it was when she landed the part of Eliza Doolittle in the original stage musical of My Fair Lady. "Absolutely. As it was, I was pretty paralyzed with fear but not perhaps as totally as I might have been."
There must have been some unlucky moments. Miss Andrews sucks her teeth. "Well, I know this is going to sound like Pollyanna but any unlucky moment I've had has always turned into something pretty positive. Or I've learned from it without knowing. Or I've turned it to good effect a couple of years later." For example? "There was a terrible play I did in my teens. I was so awful in it, so out of my depth . . ." She shudders. "Happily, it never came to London otherwise I'd almost certainly have never worked again, particularly since Kenneth Tynan was the critic at the time." The play was called Mountain Fire-"not a bad play; it's just that I was so terrible in it"-but along the way she was seen in it by the producers casting for The Boy Friend, "so who's to say that I was wrong to do it?"
A certain fatalism also runs through her private life. It had been the earnest wish of the newly married Mr and Mrs Edwards that they should have children of their own. Sadly, it was not to be. So, knowing they had love to spare for more children, they adopted two Vietnamese orphans. Amy is now fifteen, Joanna a year younger. Julie and Blake made their decision with their eyes open-but they had their own children to consider, too. "I don't know how it is in England but when you adopt a child in America, you have to get permission from the children you already have. You have to be sure that they understand, so we had long conversations with our kids about the whole prospect before we adopted."
It has been an unqualified success, but not necessarily in the way that she supposed. "I had this sort of fantasy, you see, as to what I could do for these two girls, for my two new babies. What I never realized, or dreamt of, was what they could do for me. They have brought a whole new life into our family, a whole new joy. It's funny. You always think about what you can do for other people but you don't think of the reverse. Those little girls have turned our lives on their ears."
And Julie Andrews smiles a smile that would put Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp to shame.