A&U - November 2006
Dann Dulin, senior editor
(Still) Climbing Every Mountain
Once singing atop the Austrian Alps, Julie Andrews is on top of the world and discusses with A&U’s Dann Dulin her support of broadway cares, her attraction to anderson cooper, and a program that could eventually help homebound people living with HIV/AIDS
On a chilly, sunny Los Angeles day, in the corner office of a Brentwood high-rise, a thirteen-year-old girl can be seen singing at a Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mum. Beyond the enormous windows, she’s unaware of the rushing traffic below, the many eateries lining the street, and the exclusive hills of Bel Air to the north. The young girl is Julie Andrews and the year is 1948. The vintage black-and-white photograph hangs in Andrews’ office hallway. Before Andrews became a Broadway Baby and an Oscar winner, she was a child star on the vaudeville circuit with a four-octave singing range. Julie is very proud of this photograph, and directly across from it, in the tiny glass office cubicle, sits the Dame herself. Today, she is discussing AIDS.
“How long has it been around?!” she asks rhetorically. “In the early years, one was so terrified by its immediacy and how quickly it was spreading. So many friends have passed away.” When her 1982 film Victor/Victoria was released, the whisper of AIDS was fast becoming high-speed headline news. “I was in New York City at the time, and my daughter, Emma, had a friend who was dying of AIDS. It was terrible,” recalls Julie. “He was having limbs removed, he had the dreadful sores—how painful it must have been.” She shakes her head and frowns. “I identified with Emma’s passionate description of her friend and the pain she felt over his suffering.
Talking with the iconic Julie Andrews is, at once, enchanting, disarming, and, like some of her beloved characters—damn if she isn’t a trifle sweet! Many of the indelible characters she’s created have become pop culture icons. Do I really need to name them? The singing postulant in the celebrated The Sound of Music (I admit, I’m a die-hard devotee), the magical nanny in Mary Poppins (a new incarnation of the musical returned to Broadway last month), and the drag diva in Victor/Victoria. Andrews stays current, bans the generation gap, and attracts younger fans by portraying a queen—and why not?!—in both The Princess Diaries and Shrek the Third (filming). Continuing to expand her acting chops on such projects as One Special Night, Relative Values, and On Golden Pond, she’s currently penning her autobiography.
Andrews’ legendary acting résumé has given her celebrity, which she uses to great effect in her humanitarian work. Julie has lent a hand to such organizations as Operation USA, UNICEF, Save The Children, and UNIFEM, and has long been an activist with Broadway Cares. One activity she particularly enjoys is signing stuffed bears that are costumed as some of the characters she’s played. This year she signed a Polly Brown bear, the flapper she played in The Boy Friend. “You always have to sign under their skirts or somewhere very private, so it’s quite fun in a way,” she laughs, her sparkling blue eyes twinkling, then adds with a devilish smug, “If you search really hard you’ll find my signature!”
Andrews leads a full life—and, indeed, has many lives: “Listen, I don’t think there’s anybody more lucky than I to be able to play in all these different sandboxes.” In addition to her accomplishments as an actor and singer, she’s also taken on the mantle of director. In 2005, she helmed The Boy Friend touring company, the show that brought her across the Pond when she was a teen. And just like the character she portrays in The Sound of Music, Maria von Trapp, Julie has a passion for kids. She writes children’s books, having recently released her twenty-first, The Great American Mousical (cowritten with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton). Portions of the book sales benefit Broadway Cares. Julie is also in preproduction for a children’s show on PBS based on her book series, Dumpy the Dump Truck, which she will also host. Hello, Mrs. Rogers?!
A few minutes earlier, on arriving at her production company, my assistant, Matthew, and I were informed that her earlier meeting was running late. The small, pleasant waiting room is brightly decorated in whites and earth tones. It’s exactly how I had imagined Julie Andrews’ office: fresh, modern, and homey. Christine, her charming assistant, offers us tea. We inquire about the two Al Hirschfeld caricatures of Julie hanging on the wall. She tells us that Julie was the person most drawn by the artist (seventeen times). No faster than you can say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (c’mon, I had to work that word in somewhere), Julie briskly enters the room, extends her hand and says, “Hi, I’m Julie.”
She escorts us back to the small conference area that is filled with entertainment books, numerous awards, and personal photographs (Andrews in habit attire taken on The Sound of Music set, for one). Julie sports a royal blue heavy-cotton Polo sweater over a white turtleneck, sky-blue jeans, and white sailor sneakers. She is accessorized with gold seashell earrings and a blue cap with Montréal embroidered on it, which covers her signature “bob.” The septuagenarian looks as though she just stepped off a marina boat dock—vibrant, youthful, and tranquil. And though the woman may be Hollywood royalty, she’s polite, unpretentious, and down to earth.
At this moment, the only frustration in Julie’s face and voice are the ripples of sadness that envelop her when she speaks about the friends she’s lost to AIDS. “The amount of people who have passed…,” remarks Julie gently, pausing. “Even to this day, some go rather quietly and there’s not enough talk about AIDS. I have a wonderful young niece, Jayne Adams, who was the executive director for Common Ground [an HIV community organization that services the Westside of Los Angeles] and is now in Panama with the World Health Organization. She’s very knowledgeable, and I’m so proud of her.”
Something else close to Julie’s heart is her performance portraying the mother of a gay son in the early nineties telefilm, Our Sons. Hugh Grant, whose partner in the film contracted HIV, played her son, and Ann-Margret played the other mother. “I thought it rather a good attempt, more than anything else, to explain why some mothers have such a hard time embracing their sons who have the virus. It has nothing to do with not loving their kids, it’s all about their religious training. It’s very hard to change somebody overnight who’s been bred a church-goer their whole life,” she points out, concluding, “It’s complete fear.”
Just then, a man comes shuffling down the hallway supporting himself by two canes, as Christine, Julie’s assistant, follows directly behind. “Are you leaving, my love?” Julie asks him, speaking in a higher, tender voice. “Yes,” he mutters. “Come and meet somebody. Come and say hello. This is my lovely husband, Blake,” Julie says. This writer didn’t recognize him and gulps hard. Julie adds: “And this is a bonus. I don’t think you’ve been up here for how long?” Blake is casually dressed head-to-toe in black and not quite in the room yet. He accidentally bumps into the glass wall, missing the door. Julie guides him. Once inside the room, he chuckles, “That shows you how long since I’ve been up here!”
Andrews and her husband, Blake Edwards (director of such gems as The Pink Panther, Days of Wine and Roses, 10, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) of thirty-seven years, have five kids, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Two of their five kids are Vietnamese, whom they adopted when the war ended. After the introductions, Julie inquires, “Are you heading off home?” “I don’t know,” he responds casually. “Don’t I have time for my mistress?” Solemnly, Julie answers, “Over my dead body.” “Well, that’s what I mean. It takes a certain amount of time to set that up.” Despite his physical challenges, Blake’s witty mind is still steel sharp. One can certainly see the love they have between them. After all these years, Julie is in awe of him, and it’s apparent that the feeling is mutual. “What is this for?” he asks about the interview. I explain, as Julie holds up a copy of A&U. I add, “I’m a big fan of yours, Blake.” “Thank you. Thank you very much. Wait until I read what you’ve written about Julie before I make the same statement,” he replies poker-faced. As he exits, we all have a hearty laugh.
Returning to the issue of AIDS, Julie stresses, “There needs to be more PR campaigns, more television sound bites.” She pulls up her sweater sleeves to mid-arm. “You need to really show it; be honest and upfront.” She stops, briefly looks away and reconsiders. “But then kids can be in such denial. That’s the trouble. They think: ‘It’s not going to affect me.’” How did she deal with AIDS prevention with her kids? “We just talked about it as two adults really,” she specifies, thinking. “No, I really didn’t have to educate my kids on AIDS. I guess because we are a family that’s fairly open and discuss most things.”
As Julie’s soothing voice caresses me, I’m momentarily thrust back to my childhood, a twelve-year-old Catholic boy sitting captivated in the movie theater watching The Sound of Music. The minute her angelic face appeared on the screen, I was smitten. So today, I get a jolt of joy that I’m here with the very woman who strummed the guitar in that breathtaking Alpine meadow, teaching seven kids how to Do-Re-Mi. Yeah, go ahead, call me dorky! I’ve even been to the meadow where they filmed that scene. (“Awe-inspiring,” Julie later comments on filming at that location.) Little did I know then that years later we’d have a common bond through the AIDS community....
“The [United States] government needs to take a larger interest—in a really big way,” asserts Julie, then balks, “I’m slightly muddled about the Bush administration. Sometimes I think they are doing things, and sometimes I think they’re not. He keeps saying that he’s going to do a lot about AIDS in Africa, but then I don’t hear very much about it after that.” She folds her hands on the table and continues. “Being British I’m not as politically inclined as I am humanitarianly. If anybody asks what are your politics I just say that I’m a humanitarian. My cart probably lies more on the Democratic side, but AIDS should not be political anyway.”
Julie salutes CNN’s Anderson Cooper and the way he has covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “He’s going back and back and back to New Orleans. I just love it! He’s not letting it get swept under the rug. And that’s what you need, somebody like that. He’s in your face about it.” She repositions herself, and quickly flips through an issue of A&U then looks my way. “Even I read and think sometimes that if you’re HIV-positive, at least you can be sustained for longer periods of time with the right medications. That’s not true,” she says softly. “It’s so easy to fall into that kind of thinking, that kind of complacency. There has to be an urgency with AIDS, like there is with the bird flu.”
Julie intends to keep the subject circulating and is presently involved with a novel Medicare pilot program called Home Medical Care that helps those who are homebound. You may have seen a television PSA she did recently for this. Several days before our interview she went on a trial run to visit three patients. “This particular gentleman had a tracheotomy and was literally tied to an oxygen machine. If he has an emergency, you will have to get him either into an ambulance or a car with all the equipment. That takes time,” she explains. “Then, while at the hospital, he runs the risk of infection. This all costs Medicare a lot of money. If the doctor could come to the house, it would save money and minimize all the dangers that are caused by having to go out. Plus there’d be a more personal connection between the patient and the doctor.”
The project seems to be a bit retro, conjuring up visions of Marcus Welby, M.D. If the prevention program is successful, then it will filter throughout America and beyond. At the moment, the trial is specifically for the elderly. Eventually, Medicare wants to include pediatrics and AIDS in the program.
For the past several minutes, Julie’s exceptional press agent, Steve Sauer, has been sitting in with us, subtly informing us that our time is up. Wait! I’m not ready yet. It took over five years to land this appointment, I scream in my head. But it seems Julie’s having too much fun, as well, as she leads us around the workplace, ending up in her private office. It is comfy and airy with freshly cut flowers. We stand near the ivory-colored baby grand with a snapshot nearby of her cuddling up to Blake, and briefly discuss Rock Hudson. Together they made Darling Lili, directed by Blake Edwards, and they became close buds. “I wish I had seen him toward the end. I don’t know where I was. He was a dear man,” she remembers. “I know Liz [Taylor, A&U, February 2003] was terrific with him. She was one of the first to come forth early on in the epidemic and she’s still fighting,” revels Julie. “Good for her!”
Always lending support. That just seems to be Julie Andrews’ character.
THE JULIE DIARIES
Where is your favorite place to disappear to?
Ohhh….probably a little home in Switzerland that we have had for the last thirty-four years. It is heavenly. I don’t get there as often as I’d like, but I have to say, it’s the place where the family is most able to just be itself and nobody bothers us. The time change is such that the phones don’t ring until sometime in the evening. And the mountains don’t move for anyone, least of all for Hollywood. [Near her on the mantle sits a captivating pic of her Swiss chalet.]
Name your favorite city.
Perhaps Paris. [ But as soon as she mentions the city, she questions whether it truly is her favorite.]
Out of the many people you have worked with thus far, is there one in particular who stands out who impressed you or inspired you the most?
Yes. Not in terms of the movies, but someone I really owe my career to is Moss Hart, who directed [me in] My Fair Lady and Camelot. He was a great, great mentor. To have worked with him and to have been directed by him was to really to have worked with a giant—and a gentle giant at that. I owe him so much and hold him very close to my heart [she says tenderly].
Is there anyone you’d like to meet that you haven’t met yet?
Got about three hours? So many people. One of my passions is to meet people. I love getting out there and talking and learning from them. Hopefully, a few of my desires will be achieved as I go along.
Do you have a favorite movie of all time?
I have a lot! If I had to name a few, oh gosh, they vary enormously, On The Waterfront, The Quiet Man, The Bishop’s Wife, and of course the epics like Ben Hur and The Big Country. I could go on, and, oh, some French movies too.
What are you most proud of?
My kids, I think. My lovely kids.
Do you have a favorite Julie Andrews movie?
GOSH [she exclaims in a whisper]! No. Hum, do I? Well, maybe The Americanization of Emily. Maybe That’s Life, which is another one I loved making. But every single film I’ve made I have to say has been such a learning experience and such a new adventure that’s it’s hard to put one on top of the other.
You are presently writing your autobiography, is there any kind of tid-bit that you could tease us with?
I’m only going to take it so far. I’m not going to write about my whole life, because I think it would be so intimidating that I’d never have dared to start. So I’m going to take it through the end of Camelot and when I head toward Hollywood. That’s where I’ll end it. I started at such an early age and was such a stage brat. I’m hoping to convey what it was like to be a youngster touring endlessly in Vaudeville around England when Vaudeville was just on its way out. It was dying, so everything was extremely tacky and wonderful. It was all dust and tinsel and a lot of talent. But it was all fading, fading, fading. I would like to convey what it was like to be a teenager around that time. I’d much rather write my other books than do the autobiography...
If they make your life story into a movie, whom would you see playing Julie Andrews?
God, some poor soul. I have no idea! Hopefully by that time I won’t even be around to know who could possibly play it. I honestly couldn’t say.
You look young, you are vibrant. What is your secret? Can you give us any tips? Any thoughts on growing older?
I don’t know. My mother, I think, blessed me with good genes. I’m really strong, old English stock that comes from a lot of hard working people. I’m not in any way above-stairs. All my relatives were below-stairs, but they were strong and healthy. I love what I do and I love the different things that I do. I find it stimulating. To my surprise, I’m as busy as I’ve ever been in a totally different way these days. It’s wonderfully interesting to discover where I’m at this time, which is the publishing, the lecturing, preparing a children’s television show, beginning to direct—all of it.
Complete this sentence. The best thing about being famous is . . .
Well, the obvious stupid thing is like being able to get a good table in a restaurant every once in a while [we all laugh]. The day that I knew that life was changing and that I was beginning to be a little famous was the day I thought, I don’t think I’m ever gonna have to go back to vaudeville. It was that moment of, ‘Whew, I think it’s going to be all right.’ So the best thing about fame? I suppose that to some extent one has a little more strength to do the things one’s passionate about if you use it well and don’t abuse it. So I can try to write my books for children, although I’m still learning about writing. And I’m under no illusion that my name helps, but at least, I’m doing what I believe in while using my name to good effect. And that’s true of anything I do.
THE SOUND OF FRIENDS
Julie gives a rapid reaction to these people who have touched her life.
Richard Burton: Hmmm, utterly charismatic.
Charmian Carr: Always a friend.
Christopher Plumber: Pussycat.
Maria Von Trapp: Believe it or not, a nice lady. A tough lady but nice.
Omar Shariff: Dishy [she chuckles.]
Rock Hudson: Beloved friend. We had a great sense of humor with each other. It was lovely.
Carol Burnett: My chum, and that means she’s the ultimate chum. I have only a few of those.
Elizabeth Taylor: An icon and a friend.
Paul Newman: He gave me the best image. He said I was one of the last of the really great broads, which led to my title, The Last of the Really Great Wangdoodles. [She ponders briefly.] Also, baby blues.
Robert Preston: Warmth in my heart.
Alfred Hitchcock: Very kind to me.
When asked to give one word to describe herself, Julie looks downward for a moment, snickers in a low, guttural tone then laughs mischievously. She looks up. “Okay. It wasn’t a clean thought, believe me. Unprintable. I really wondered whether I should say it, or not. I won’t!” [She smiles sheepishly, her eyes aglow, and gets up from the table.]