By Alan Hurst
With the release this year of Mary Poppins Returns (2018) there has been a resurgence of interest around the original Mary Poppins (1964) and Julie Andrews’ performance in that classic film. It’s the film that launched Andrews’ movie career and within a year she had overtaken both Doris Day and Elizabeth Taylor as the top female box office star in North America.
She reigned supreme for the rest of the decade but stumbled with a couple of major box office failures – Star! (1968) and Darling Lili (1970) – and sought refuge in television, concerts and raising her family during the seventies, a period where she made only three films. One of those films was 10 (1979) and it was a major box-office hit, enabling Andrews to kick start her movie career in the eighties with a series of films, most written and directed by her husband Blake Edwards. The nineties saw a shift back to stage work and then back to films and a return to Disney with The Princess Diaries (2001).
Andrews didn’t make a lot of films, but she was a consistent and welcome presence on screen beginning in 1964 and, over the years, she successfully tested her range as an actress and performer with some excellent work in film, on television and on the stage .
Here are my thoughts on 10 key film performances by Julie Andrews:
Mary Poppins (1964)
Author P.L. Travers first introduced Mary Poppins in the 1930s and the character was much sterner than the Disney version. So much so that original casting idea included Bette Davis, Mary Martin, and Angela Lansbury. But while watching Julie Andrews as Guinevere in the Broadway hit Camelot (1960-62), Walt Disney knew he had his Mary and Andrews delivered – in spades. It’s one of the most perfect movie debuts in history and an ideal pairing of actress and role. Andrews’ Mary is crisp and no-nonsense, but with a sense of fun and mischief, she’s pretty, efficient, and wise without being overbearing. In short, the perfect nanny. Andrews never hits a false note and she soars (pardon the pun) in the musical numbers, particularly the touching “Feed the Birds” (Walt Disney’s favorite song) and the British music hall pastiche “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. Andrews ascent to stardom was assured in early 1965 when she won the Golden Globe and Best Actress Oscar for her work in Mary Poppins.
The Americanization of Emily (1964)
Coming right after Mary Poppins and before The Sound of Music, Andrews wasn’t yet typecast as the perfect nanny/governess and her performance here shows tremendous confidence and authority for someone so new to films. The Americanization of Emily is the World War II story of an American naval officer (James Garner) whose primary job is to make sure his commanders get everything they want – but then he’s challenged when he falls in love with a pragmatic English woman and is subsequently sent on a dangerous mission just for the publicity. Working with an excellent screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky (Network), both Andrews and Garner work well together and are a very attractive, sexy couple. Andrews is particularly effective in demonstrating the stereotypical “stiff upper lip” resolve of the British, but also showing the character’s sentimental and vulnerable side.
The Sound of Music (1965)
It’s either near the top of your list of favourite movies, or it’s the movie you love to hate. Consider me among the former. With every viewing both the film and Andrews have me from the opening scene. Director Robert Wise moves from the mountain tops of Austria, to its lakes, rivers, castles before finally zeroing in on a figure running up a hill to the swelling orchestration of the title tune. It’s one of the great opening scenes in movies and a bit of a valentine to Julie Andrews. How many actresses get to enter a film like that? You can debate the merits of the film (I think it’s terrific), the story, the songs but there is one thing that most can agree on: Julie Andrews is absolute perfection as Maria. You really can’t imagine anyone else in the part (Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds, Shirley Jones were considered). Her Maria is sincere, practical, fun, and when it’s clear Christopher Plummer’s Captain von Trapp is as smitten with her as his children, she is sweetly romantic. For me it’s the sense of fun that Andrews gives the character that drives the film – as well as her stunning vocals in the film’s many well staged musical numbers, particularly the spectacular “Do Re Mi”. Andrews won a second consecutive Golden Globe as Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy for her performance and received a second Oscar nomination (she should have won).
An epic adaptation of the James Michener novel that details the history of Hawaii from creation to the time it became an American state. George Roy Hill’s adaptation brings to life just one part of the book with a focus on the colonization of the islands during the 1800s and the arrival of a group of missionaries, including Max Von Sydow and Julie Andrews. Von Sydow’s character is intent on converting the Hawaiian people to Christianity, considering them little more than savages. Andrews’ character sees them differently and works to befriend them and understand their culture. Although one of the biggest hits of 1966, this is just an OK film but filled with some memorable scenes and a standout dramatic performance by Andrews. What Andrews very subtly does here is give the film its heart – her character is bound by tradition, but she tries to temper the rigid, bombastic approach of her husband and shows that she is smarter, more astute and more compassionate then he ever will be. She has a couple of great moments going toe-to-toe with Sydow (whose performance could have benefitted with some modulation), and she also has one of the most harrowing childbirth scenes ever filmed. She should have been in the running for that year’s Best Actress Oscar.
This was the first flop of Julie Andrews’ career and it was a big one. At that point she was the biggest box office star in the world, coming off a string of major financial successes and it appeared she could do no wrong. This biography of British musical comedy star Gertrude Lawrence seemed ideal – one of the biggest musical stars of the first half of the century being played by one of the biggest musical stars of the second half. It also reunited Andrews with key members of the production team from The Sound of Music, including director Robert Wise. The same studio (20th Century Fox) was even footing the bill. But in 1968 times were changing and the appetite for musicals was dwindling, as was the audience for Andrews. Despite seven Oscar nominations, Star! was a critical and commercial flop, labelled hopefully old-fashioned, over-produced and Andrews was criticized for being nothing like the sophisticated, brittle real-life character she was playing. But I think a lot of critics missed the mark, particularly with Andrews’ performance. If she’s not ideally suited to the acerbic character, she’s still sensational in the many production numbers. She also gives the film what energy and drive it has – she’s in almost every scene and keeps you interested in the not always likeable character despite any flaws in the script. Another Golden Globe nomination.
Between the box office disaster of Darling Lili (1970) and 10, Andrews made only one film, Blake Edwards’ cold war spy thriller The Tamarind Seed (1974) with Omar Sharif. It’s not a bad film – nice locations, intricate plot – but it hasn’t aged well and Andrews seems a little lost as the lady at the centre of all the duplicity. Both Andrews and Edwards did better with 10, a smart and witty look at male midlife crisis. The male in crisis is played by a thoughtful and funny Dudley Moore in his first lead and the “10” who is the object of his obsession is Bo Derek. Andrews is wonderfully stylish and no nonsense as Moore’s girlfriend, the voice of sanity to Moore’s neuroses. It was a bit of surprise for audiences to see Andrews in such a contemporary role – a strong woman who is in control, has her own career and refuses to play nurse maid to Moore. Her Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy was a nice welcome back.
This is a comedy that was both loved and hated when it came out – reviewers either saw it as an incisive, lacerating look at Hollywood or as a sophomoric piece of narcissistic slapstick. Directed and written by Blake Edwards, it’s a somewhat autobiographical story of a filmmaker (Richard Mulligan) who has his latest production taken away from him when it goes way over budget and flops. After a nervous breakdown, he gets the idea of re-shooting some of the originally G-rated film (which stars his wife played by Julie Andrews) and turn it into an R-rated sexual nightmare. The film allowed Andrews to blatantly spoof her goody-goody image with some salty dialogue, a brief nude scene, and for the first time she’s playing just a bit of a bitch. The character’s selfishness ultimately leads to her husband’s doom but, as Andrews plays her, she remains just aloof enough that she doesn’t really have to acknowledge it. This is a film that is ripe for rediscovery – it’s a very funny and over-the-top look at Hollywood in the eighties with a terrific cast. In addition to Mulligan and Andrews it has Robert Preston, William Holden, Robert Vaughan, Shelley Winters, Loretta Swit, and Larry Hagman all doing very funny work.
This is one of my favourite Julie Andrews performances and, outside of Tootsie (1982), probably the best comedy of the decade. Victor/Victoria is another Blake Edwards creation, the peak of the second phase of Andrews’ Hollywood career and it’s probably the best role that Edwards ever wrote for her. She’s able to combine her skills as a vocalist with her cool, sexy, comedic side. As a woman pretending to be a man so she/he can pretend to be a woman to get a job, Andrews is a delight. Her official debut in a Parisian night club as that gender bending triangle all hinges on whether Andrews can make her audience believe it. And she does. She pitches her vocals lower to sound both husky and mysterious, her wide and heavily made up face is just androgynous enough, and she’s wearing a perfect drag costume. But it’s the performance that matters and this number (“Le Jazz Hot”) puts this near perfect comedy into high gear – it’s sexy, rousing, jazzy, and builds to a terrific climax where Andrews can show off her still perfect voice. Andrews also works beautifully with her co-stars – James Garner (again) and especially Robert Preston. This was another Golden Globe win and a third Oscar nomination for Andrews.
That’s Life! (1986)
This is another Andrews/Edwards collaboration about another male in crisis (this time Jack Lemmon). Andrews plays Lemmon’s long-suffering wife and they are clearly a couple with means – Lemmon plays a successful Los Angeles architect and Andrews is a successful vocalist. They have a beautiful home on the water in Malibu (the actual home of Andrews and Edwards) and three grown children (all played by the real-life offspring of Andrews, Edwards and Lemmon). But Lemmon is going through a very loud and histrionic bout of anxiety at the thought of turning 60, feeling that everything he has built up is worthless. Andrews’ character – much more quietly – is facing her own drama in the form of possibly cancerous nodules on her vocal cords and the loss of her voice (a sad foreshadowing real life trauma for Andrews). I really love what Andrews’ does here – she is the grounded centre for this self-indulgent family and you can sense her growing frustration with their lack of appreciation for what they have. When she finally lets Lemmon have it, it has real impact on everyone – both the characters in the film and the audience. That’s Life! feels very autobiographical and there’s a nice, improvisational tone to everything, including the very low-key work that that Andrews does. Another Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy.
Duet for One (1986)
This is a film that hasn’t been seen much since its very limited release in late 1986, but it garnered Andrews some of the best reviews of her career as well as her second nomination for a Golden Globe that year, this time as Best Actress in a Drama. Based on a two-person play, it’s the story of a celebrated violinist who must deal with the steady encroachment of multiple sclerosis and the loss of control over her body. This was heady stuff for Andrews, but she’s excellent and it also gives us a glimpse of what might have been had she not chosen to restrict most of her later film work to movies directed by her husband. It’s by no means a great film, but director Andrei Konchalovsky does seem to get Andrews to be a little more free and relaxed than she’s ever been on screen. Some of the scenes and language involving this character are shocking – first because the writer is nailing her frustration with the debilitating disease and second because you forget it’s Julie Andrews doing and saying these things. This isn’t Mary Poppins or Maria – this is an actress at the top of her game.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.