Backstage.com - 26 January 2007
By Les Spindle
Practically Perfect - Throughout her six-decade career, Julie Andrews has remained a revered member of the acting community
Julie Andrews' meteoric ascent to international stardom came when she played angelic-voiced, molasses-sweet caretakers in a double dose of movie-musical magic: her Oscar-winning titular turn in 1964's Mary Poppins and her Oscar-nominated portrayal of Maria von Trapp in 1965's The Sound of Music. Yet throughout her extraordinary career on stage, screen, TV, and in recordings and books, she has constantly found ways to enrich her talents, moving beyond typecasting.
Like other legendary singing stars who fought hard to avoid being pegged as goody-goodies—Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds, Florence Henderson, for example—Andrews has time and again proven her versatility. She has delivered sterling dramatic performances (Duet for One, That's Life!, the TV movie On Golden Pond) and excelled in edgy comedies and musicals (Victor/Victoria, S.O.B.) that ventured well beyond a spoonful-of-sugar sensibility. The Screen Actors Guild astutely honors the British beauty Dame Julie this month with its annual Life Achievement Award, paying tribute to her diverse creative accomplishments and devoted humanitarian efforts on charitable projects. Although Andrews declined Back Stage's request to interview her for this article, a number of her fellow actors graciously participated.
The Journey Begins
Several years before her 1954 U.S. performing debut on Broadway in the lead role of demure pixie Polly in Sandy Wilson's ebullient flapper tuner, The Boy Friend, Julia Elizabeth Wells (Andrews' birth name) made her first professional appearance in 1947, at age 12, at the London Hippodrome. She amassed extravagant praise and national renown for her remarkable four-octave singing voice, performing on the music hall circuit, in concert performances, and in British pantomime shows.
Music was a mainstay in her life from the day she was born, Oct. 1, 1935, in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, a suburb of London. Her aunt, Joan Morris, was a dance instructor, and her divorcée mother, Barbara Morris Wells, was an amateur pianist. Her stepfather, Edward Andrews, a vaudeville entertainer from Canada, encouraged young Julia to pursue a performing career. Producers of the British-bred The Boy Friend persuaded Andrews to accept the lead role when the show was to be restaged in New York. In August 1954, she boarded the plane for the next chapter in her life, leaving behind her young sweetheart, Tony Walton. Five years later, after Walton had moved to the United States and become an up-and-coming set and costume designer, he married Andrews. Their daughter, Emma Kate Walton, was born in 1962. The marriage ended in divorce five years later.
Before her charisma as an actor-dancer-singer could be experienced worldwide, Andrews became the toast of Broadway. For The Boy Friend, she received rapturous reviews at age 19. This stellar U.S. debut led directly to her Tony-nominated role in Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady (1956), opposite Rex Harrison, and another Tony nom in the same songwriting duo's 1960 Camelot, opposite Richard Burton and Robert Goulet. There's a legendary bit of Broadway lore about Andrews' frustration with the role of Cockney waif Eliza Doolittle during the My Fair Lady rehearsals. Despite her extensive musical background, Andrews' acting training was limited at that point, and it didn't boost her confidence to be playing opposite Harrison, who was widely known as a temperamental and impatient actor. Director Moss Hart worked with the distressed 20-year-old star during a grueling weekend of drilling and coaching, and the crash course reportedly resulted in a miraculous turnaround by Monday morning's rehearsal. The rest is theatrical history.
Friends Like These
Andrews conquered another medium when she starred in Rodgers and Hammerstein's only original musical for television, the live-broadcast classic Cinderella (1957). Over the years, she has periodically appeared in variety specials, awards shows, and various guest spots. Her short-lived but critically lauded musical series The Julie Andrews Hour (ABC, 1972–73) won multiple Emmys, unlike her ill-fated attempt at a sitcom, 1992's Julie (with James Farentino), which took a quick nose-dive. In later years she scored strongly in dramatic network-TV movies: Our Sons in 1991, with Ann-Margret and Hugh Grant; One Special Night in 1999, with James Garner; and TV's On Golden Pond in 2001, with Christopher Plummer.
One of Andrews' most illustrious co-stars from her early TV appearances—and a close friend ever since—is actor-singer Carol Burnett, whose career in all mediums was taking off at the same time Andrews' star was rising. Burnett met Andrews for the first time when persistent colleagues, certain they would hit it off, got them together for lunch. Burnett had seen Andrews in My Fair Lady; Andrews had seen Burnett in Off-Broadway's Once Upon a Mattress. Burnett recalls, "Within three minutes, we clicked, and no one else could get a word in edgewise. And it's been like that ever since."
The first time they worked together was in 1961 when Andrews appeared as a guest star on The Garry Moore Show, a CBS comedy-variety series in which Burnett regularly sang and cavorted. Andrews' and Burnett's talents meshed, especially in the showstopping comic rendition of "Big D" from Frank Loesser's then-current Broadway hit The Most Happy Fella. "So that became the reason for the two of us doing a special," notes Burnett. "It was a hard sell at first. CBS said that nobody knew Julie Andrews west of New Jersey [despite the Cinderella success], because she hadn't done movies yet, and, hey, you get to see Carol for free every week. The idea came up about putting the two of us together at Carnegie Hall, and then they kind of turned it down. I remember sitting at Garry's table at an NBC-CBS affiliates luncheon, along with some of the CBS muckamucks. I told them it was a shame they didn't want to do a special with Julie and me, because they were not in color and NBC was. I was teasing. When I left and got home to my apartment that night, the phone was ringing. It was [CBS executives] Oscar Katz and Mike Dann, saying, 'You've got your show.'" The special, Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall (1962), was a sensation, garnering top ratings and positive reviews.
Burnett adds: "Ken Welch wrote it, along with Mike Nichols, under a pseudonym. It was tremendous fun. We did it all in one day, following two weeks of rehearsal. We did a dress rehearsal that day, followed by the taping of the show—unheard of today." Though it inexplicably remains unreleased on DVD, some of the magic of that unforgettable program is captured on the CD soundtrack recording.
Burnett and Andrews co-starred in two more TV specials: Julie and Carol at Lincoln Center in 1971 and Julie & Carol: Together Again in 1989. What about the rumor they might co-star in a Broadway play? "There was some talk," Burnett says, "but I don't think it will happen. I don't know how Julie feels, but I don't want to move back to New York and do eight shows a week." Both performers reside—part-time in Andrews' case —in the L.A. vicinity. "I don't even know what the play would be," Burnett adds. "It would be nice if we could do something out here, maybe a limited run."
Burnett offers her explanation of Andrews' enduring popularity—besides the obvious factor of pure talent: "You can't fake niceness. There's niceness where it can be treacly, and there's just plain old being nice, and that's what Julie is. She can be very bawdy; she definitely has her playful side. She's certainly not Mary Poppins—but in the good sense of that thought. She's also a consummate dramatic actress and, because of her sense of humor, a great comedian. She's got what I've always called that 'x' quality—you can't really nail it. She can be on a stage or a screen, and you look at her even though it might be somebody else's scene, and there's a great warmth that always comes through."
Stepping in Time
An iconic actor who witnessed firsthand Andrews' movie debut is Dick Van Dyke, star of stage (Bye Bye Birdie), screen (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), and TV (The Dick Van Dyke Show). On film he played high-kicking chimney sweep Bert opposite Andrews' Mary Poppins. Van Dyke notes, "After we did Poppins, I worked with Julie once in a TV special that we filmed in London [Julie and Dick in Covent Garden, 1974] and see her from time to time at industry events."
What about murmurs heard over the years that they might reteam? "Walt Disney bought the sequel to Mary Poppins from P.L. Travers [who wrote the book on which the film is based], but he passed away before it could happen," says Van Dyke. "At one point I was contacted about possibly doing Robert Preston's [film] role in [the stage adaptation of] Victor/Victoria." (The role was ultimately played by Tony Roberts.) "Doing eight performances a week seemed a little tough to me at the time," Van Dyke adds.
Van Dyke's description of Andrews' appeal is straightforward: "She stands alone in that when you meet her, none of your preconceptions are tarnished. She is exactly as her image says she is. She's wonderful and charming, though she has an impish side that a lot of people don't see, and she has a marvelous sense of humor. She's an English lady to the ultimate degree. She has incredible talent and that wonderful face that she was born with. When working, she is also unflinchingly enthusiastic and kind." Van Dyke believes that Andrews could have worked much more than she did over the years but that other parts of her life were just as important to her; she's always been devoted to her family.
He says her Broadway performance in My Fair Lady remains among her most memorable accomplishments because it made her an instant star. "I'm one of the many people who never understood why she didn't get to star in the movie [which featured Audrey Hepburn]. It made no sense whatsoever," says Van Dyke. The cheekiness Andrews' colleagues claim she can unexpectedly display was at its sardonic best when she accepted her best actress Golden Globe in 1965 for Mary Poppins. Had she been cast by Warner Bros. in My Fair Lady, she would not have been available for Mary Poppins. At the end of her speech, she drolly quipped, "I'd like to thank Jack Warner for making this possible." She also said the following during her Oscar acceptance speech a few months later: "I know you Americans are known for your hospitality, but this is ridiculous."
Van Dyke views her performance in Mary Poppins as transcendent. "Her portrayal is what made that movie the timeless piece of entertainment that it is. People still talk about 'Mary Poppins' kinds of people; it's part of the language now. In Sound of Music, she gave another performance in the same league. And she is also excellent in dramatic roles." He fondly recalls an incident when Andrews was honored by the Singers Society: "I have a little quartet, and we came out and did a rap version of 'A Spoonful of Sugar.' I don't think I've ever seen Julie laugh so hard."
Hollywood Roller Coaster
Disney tapped Andrews for her cinematic debut in Mary Poppins after being captivated by her performance as Queen Guenevere in Camelot on Broadway. Following her high-profile screen triumphs in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music—both films shattered box office records and earned five Oscars apiece—Andrews became an overnight movie superstar and was named the top female box office star in the United States. Though she was associated with musicals, she also appeared in dramatic films during the 1960s: the sprawling epic Hawaii; the Hitchcock thriller Torn Curtain, opposite Paul Newman; and the antiwar satire The Americanization of Emily, opposite Garner.
Her reign as the movie-musical queen of Hollywood stalled after the success of Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). Co-starring Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Channing, the 1920s farce was dreamed up by producer Ross Hunter as a compromise when he was unable to obtain film rights to The Boy Friend. Millie proved there was far more to Andrews than sprightly ditties and an airborne umbrella. Saucy and flirtatious as Millie bobbed her hair and raised her skirtline to vamp her handsome boss (John Gavin), Andrews reveled in delightful mischief, showing new dimensions of her comedic gifts. But she had burst upon the movie scene just as movie-musicals were becoming less popular. The late 1960s and early '70s ushered in a flood of misfired big-budget tuners, green-lighted by studio execs as a reaction to the successes of Andrews' projects.
Andrews' last two musical films of the 1960s—Robert Wise's lavish biopic Star!, based on the life of British singer-actor Gertrude Lawrence, and Darling Lili, a World War I romance-adventure, co-starring Rock Hudson—failed critically and commercially, though Lili nowadays boasts a cult following, and many observers feel that Star!—filled with spectacular production numbers featuring the music of Cole Porter, Noël Coward, George and Ira Gershwin, and Kurt Weill—deserves a fresh look. It wasn't until 1982, with Victor/Victoria—Andrews' third best-actress Oscar-nominated turn—that she again appeared in a film tuner. Yet as it turned out, Lili had profound ramifications on her personal life and her career trajectory. She fell in love with the director, filmmaker Blake Edwards (The Pink Panther, Breakfast at Tiffany's), during filming, and they married shortly afterward. For the next two decades, she appeared in very few films that weren't written and/or directed by Edwards.
He seemed determined to help her shed her pristine British-nanny image by casting her in adult farces such as 1979's 10, opposite Dudley Moore and Bo Derek, and especially in his scathing 1981 Hollywood satire, S.O.B, which skewered Andrews' real-life screen-sweetheart image, going so far as to include an audacious breast-baring scene for her. The highlights of her years in Edwards' films were the buoyant gender-bender farce Victor/Victoria, about a down-on-her-luck chanteuse in Paris who masquerades as a drag queen to gain cabaret work, and the intimate family drama That's Life! (1986), filmed at the Edwards-Andrews Malibu home, with close relatives involved on screen and behind the scenes. Andrews' heart-wrenching performance—charting a woman's hellish weekend, as she fears she might have cancer while dealing with the rampant hypochondria of her overwrought husband (Jack Lemmon)—impressed critics and generated much Oscar buzz, though it failed to result in a nomination.
That same year, there was widespread Oscar talk about her stunning portrayal of a terminally ill concert violinist in the non-Edwards film Duet for One, but that likewise didn't get an Academy nod. Andrews' film appearances during the 1990s and early 2000s have been intermittent, though she found success in returning to the Disney lot for the first time since Mary Poppins in the two Princess Diaries comedies, co-starring Anne Hathaway. Andrews also loaned her voice to the second Shrek film and has completed work on the third. Her TV movies, especially the Eloise series of family films, have been well received.
Career at a Crossroads
After an absence of 35 years, Andrews made a comeback on Broadway in 1995's Victor/Victoria, based on her 1982 film; both incarnations were written and directed by Edwards. The Henry Mancini–Leslie Bricusse score, which added several new songs to the four tunes retained from the film, was unfinished when Mancini died in 1994. Lyricist Bricusse wrote additional songs in conjunction with composer Frank Wildhorn (Jekyll & Hyde). The sweetness of the reviews for Andrews' portrayal and the thunderous standing ovations she got at every performance—coupled with strong box office receipts—were tempered by mixed notices for the production as a whole. Some of the critics found the material uninspired—too closely modeled on the film—and felt that Edwards' first effort at stage-directing lacked finesse.
When the Tony nominees were announced in 1996, the only element of the multimillion-dollar Victor/Victoria to receive a nod was Andrews, for her charismatic re-creation of her film character. In a controversial move, Andrews announced that she was declining her nomination, preferring to stand beside her "egregiously overlooked" colleagues. The Tony organization decided her name would remain on the ballot. Before her announcement, Andrews had been considered a shoo-in "victor" Donna Murphy won for The King and I. Some observers felt the stand Andrews had taken was ill-advised, as it likely cost her the Tony. One of the most luminous stars in American musical theatre history had forfeited her third chance to finally take home its highest honor.
Following her run in the show, Andrews checked into a hospital for what she had understood was minor surgery on her vocal cords. She was devastated when her singing voice did not recover. She sued New York's Mount Sinai Hospital and two doctors, settling out of court on undisclosed terms. She experienced a period of depression but kept busy with various projects. Among them are her intermittent TV and film roles and the series of best-selling children's books she writes in collaboration with her daughter. She made her directing debut in 2003 in an acclaimed Sag Harbor, N.Y., staging of The Boy Friend, which subsequently toured. She also co-produced and narrated a six-part documentary series on PBS in 2005, chronicling the history of the Broadway musical.
For many years she has devoted time to charitable projects, such as Operation USA, of which she and Edwards are founding board members. The organization, established in 1979, provides privately funded worldwide relief and development assistance. She is also goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Development Fund for Women, traveling as an advocate for women's human rights and economic security. In an interview in SAG's Screen Actor magazine, Andrews noted, "If you help, let's say, 400,000 women, then at least a million children automatically benefit. Mothers in third-world countries need support, education, and empowerment. They're considered subordinate human beings in so many places. Another organization that Blake and I heartily endorse is the Foundation for Hereditary Disease. It's main mission is to help find a cure for Huntington's disease. It's a 'marker disease.' If they find the cure for that one, so many others will topple."
Encapsulating the mix of deep respect and love that fans and colleagues continually express for Andrews—as well as her wry humor—Burnett offers a spot-on observation: "Julie's the whole ball of wax. There's that voice, her great beauty, that incredible talent—everything. She's also a great writer. To top it off, she can sing 'Spoonful of Sugar' and you don't get diabetes."
The 13th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards will be simulcast on TNT and TBS Sun., 8 p.m., Jan. 28.