Monday, April 23

Dame Julie

Few of the top actresses have had the soaring highs and the devastating lows in their careers as has Julie Andrews.  She started off by winning an Oscar for her first film.  Her third film knocked Gone with the Wind off its 26-year perch as the most financially successful film in U.S. history.  Her movie career, for all intents and purposes, is an American one.  Her most famous stage work began in America, too.  The American people have embraced her more than her own Brits.

I can honestly say that I was one of those who was swept away with her early presence.  Somewhere deep inside me I have maintained a little molecule of wholesomeness and once in a while a movie (remember... Disney, animals, kids) or a personality who has that wholesome thing nailed down commands my attention.  Andrews always reminded me of Doris Day in a number of ways, some good, some perhaps not so good.  I sense this type of performer has an arguably short shelf life.  When you're hot, you're hot.  When the public is in its wholesome mode, you're a hit.  But public tastes are fickle and change with the winds and the next thing you know, your phone isn't ringing so much.

Doris Day had it just about right on the timing but I always thought Andrews started in the movie business too late.  When Disney signed her for the title role in Mary Poppins (1964) and she was trilling about A Spoonful of Sugar, we were still reeling from Kennedy's death at the end of the prior year; we were being introduced to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.  The only people to ever command as much news space as the Beatles in those days were Liz and Dick.  We saw Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove at the movies and learned that Barry Goldwater was nominated as a presidential hopeful.  There was more nuclear testing and the Civil Rights Act was passed. 

I am sure Mary Poppins is a fine film but I have never seen it except for a song here or six minutes there.  Her Oscar win for it is the stuff of legends.  First, she goes into the record books as one of only a handful of performers to win an Oscar for their maiden efforts.  Secondly, she won the same year that Rex Harrision won for My Fair Lady.  Andrews was in the Broadway version of the film and was passed over in favor of Audrey Hepburn.  Julie had the voice sent down from the heavens while Hepburn's singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon.  My Fair Lady received a fair share of Oscar nominations but Hepburn was not among them.  Just reliving this drama makes me need to reach for my smelling salts.

You may have missed The Americanization of Emily and that would be a shame.  It's an anti-war film written by the dean of wordsmiths, Paddy Chayefsky, and it offered Andrews and her buddy James Garner opportunities to shine in well-acted dramatic roles.  This was about the finest work either of them has ever done but the public stayed away.  As years has passed, the film has gotten more of the recognition it always deserved.

By the time Andrews was in Austria and coming up over the top of that mountain, her first two films hadn't even been released yet.  Trust me, we will discuss The Sound of Music at another time, but suffice it to say here, the movies had rarely seen anything like it.  In some ways, that awe still continues today.  What other movie do you know where nine members of a cast get together for a talk show 45 years after it was made?

The thing to stress here is that the galactic success of TSOM took Julie Andrews to the top of her profession, robbed her of any future hope for anonymity and made her the most in-demand, whirling dervish of a force the movies had seen in some time.  It has been recognized by her and others that roles like Mary and Maria typecast an actress in a way that often never vanishes.  I think her tombstone could read:  It's only now that I have gotten away from Mary and Maria

It was wise for her to return to drama but hard to believe that neither she nor the immensely popular Paul Newman or the maestro Alfred Hitchcock could save 1966's Torn Curtain.  It was pretty dreadful.  I thought it sorely pointed out that Andrews wasn't oozing with sex appeal.  In that regard, Doris Day did better.   Still more drama but in the wholesome role of a preacher's wife in the 1966 flawed epic Hawaii.  I had not liked the film when I first saw it (too boring, too long was the lament of my youth) but today I like it more.  It didn't do particularly well and did nothing to enhance her career.  No one had quite given up, however.  You do not give up on Maria.

So in 1967 she was back to the business in a role perfectly suited to her immense talent and one to which the public would flock.  We know of Mary and Maria and now there's Millie... as in Thoroughly Modern Millie.  I quite liked this one... hell, the opening title song had me.  It was about dancing in elevators to get the thing moving and selling young women into the white slave business and a lot of folks not being who or what you thought they were.  It was mindlessly silly and again, when one considers the times, I don't know how it got made or seen.  Likely it had something to do with its leading lady and her charms.

I have heard that Julie Andrews has never had a #1 album or CD if we discount soundtracks from her films.  Too bad too because it's as a singer that she most impressed me.  Her soprano voice with its stunning four-octave range, her perfect pitch and spot-on diction was one of the reasons, of course, that she has made it as far as she has.  It is an incredible shame that a botched operation ultimately cost her and us that heavenly voice.

If she was back in business in 1967 with Millie, it would also be 12 years before we saw her in another truly successful film and even then she would just be the girlfriend.  The lead would go to one of her countrymen.  That meteoric tinseltown rise was soon to sputter.

The Sound of Music was the film that saved 20th Century Fox.  It seemed natural that studio, star and director (Robert Wise) would reteam so the coin-jingling would continue.  Little did anyone know that Star! (1968) would have the opposite if not devastating effect.  This is another case of it all being too late.  Andrews would play the real-life Gertrude Lawrence, an English musical-comedy star and good friend of Noel Coward.  Andrews and Lawrence had some early beginnings that were similar, namely the music halls of London.  Lawrence could be coarse and bawdy and one might wonder what Andrews could do with that.  But part of what the public has never really connected to is that Mary and Maria are roles and Julie Andrews was not as G-rated in real life.

The public it seems did not care to see Andrews as anything other than chaste and sweet-natured and her swearing, boozing and unlady-like behavior as Lawrence, largely unknown to Americans, was not the way to go.  I liked it way more than most folks but it was too long and some of the songs were insufferable.   

She had divorced production designer Tony Walton and married Hollywood maverick director Blake Edwards.  As is often the case, director-husband and actress-wife would want to work together.  Enter Darling Lili (1970).  She co-starred with Rock Hudson (one of her most suitable co-stars) in a musical-comedy-drama about a double spy who also sings for a living and who falls in love with a pilot she's spying on.  Darling Lili is one of my three favorite Andrews movies and she has never looked more beautiful on screen (and she does a mean striptease).  In this case the songs were delicious.  Some were WWI songs and some were new.  Lili opens and closes with the lovely Whistling Away the Dark.  The film seems to get better with the passing years.  But it was to Paramount a runaway train carrying all the money.  It was plagued with financial problems, executive problems, weather problems and filming went on far too long.  Edwards' battles with the studio became very nasty and very public.  And of course Mrs. Edwards suffered and Darling Lili went the way of Star!  This was two in a row... never good.

It wouldn't be until the end of the decade that she would have another hit, again courtesy of her husband, in the immensely popular 10.  The problem was that her part was not the focus of the story, she took second billing to Dudley Moore and of course there was the luscious, corn-rowed Bo Derek getting all the attention.

In 1981, Blake Edwards, still steamed over the Darling Lili fiasco, wrote and directed a movie about that and called it S.O.B.  It looked like payback for Blake, a chance to vent.  I thought it was incredibly silly and pointless.  It was not a fitting finale to my pal William Holden.  With all the schizophrenia over Andrews and her career that swirled in Hollywood for years... is she a good girl, is she "more" than we are allowed to see, she would bare her breasts in the film and Mary and Maria would forever vanish.  Ooops, didn't work.  It was all presented in about the unsexiest fashion imaginable and it certainly didn't help that they were referred to as boobies.  Ugh.

I think Andrews made her last great film in 1982... 30 years ago, no less.  Victor/Victoria, again directed by Edwards, was a home-run for everyone involved.  It was funny, clever, well-acted, nice songs, lovely to look at, all technical credits exceptional.  You know what it's about.

Okay, she has done The Princess Diaries and its sequel and while it was a money-maker, it's a far cry from her best work.  She has done some television, some Broadway, some voiceovers, written tons of children's books and an autobiography on her early life.

She remains famous for that gorgeous voice and for a movie that was so popular that it practically defies description.  It's hard living up to that image.  She's always claimed she was not who she was in the movies.  She will always be Mary and Maria to many and most of her other films just didn't measure up.  I don't think her journey has been an easy one.  Personally I think it has shown on her face for years.  The easy smile and winsome look of her youth has given way to a down-turned mouth and a bit of a grimace underneath her regal bearing.  It's not an indictment... just an opinion.  

I thank her for playing and singing a few of my favorite roles. I wish she'd had the chance to do more. There was a time there she made me want to run to the top of a hill and burst into song.

NEXT POSTING:  Jean Simmons   

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