October 1, 1935– Julia Elizabeth Wells:
“Sometimes I’m so sweet even I can’t stand it.”
Andrews has been open in her support of LGBTQ and Gay Rights. In an interview with The Advocate, she said that despite being aware of prejudice against gay people as a kid growing up in 1940s Britain, she couldn’t understand it. Asked when she first realized she was a friend of the LGBTQ community, Andrews replied:
“That’s hard to answer, because…. just always! I have to say, though, in my hometown, in my community, I was very aware of bias and bigotry, and couldn’t understand it. “
Andrews began her career at 10-years-old, and she was around gay people from the start.
“Theatre, anyway, is such an open community and free. I was raised not to be that way and not to think that way, and it always seemed puzzling to me that the world wasn’t just embracing human beings. But it’s never been something that I stumbled on. It’s just always been innate, thanks I think to the professions that I am in. But also it’s the way I was raised.”
Her show for young people, Julie’s Greenroom, now streaming on Netflix, caused a stir with the Christian Right because of its inclusion of a gender-nonbinary character named Riley, who, by the way, is a puppet. The idea behind Julie’s Greenroom, was to teach children about the theatre world with the help of her puppet students. Another puppet character, Hank, is another example of the show’s diversity. Andrews:
“We tried to be as inclusive as we possibly could within the show. Hank has a handicap and yet it’s not really a problem, and he manages his life wonderfully and contributes so much.”
By the way, Julie’s Greenroom, produced by Andrews and The Jim Henson Company, is fun for adults. Guests have included Alec Baldwin, Sara Bareilles, David Hyde Pierce, Andrews’ pal Carol Burnett, and Adele Dazeem.
Now, I am not a big fan of The Sound Of Music, the film from 1965, the stage version, or the nearly unwatchable Sound Of Music Live! which aired on NBC in December 2013. Unusual, because I like most musicals. All things Teutonic make me nervous, the story just rings false for me, and it is shameless treacle, in my opinion. I performed in it once, on stage in summer stock (I played a party guest and an off-stage nun). I took to calling it The Slime Of Mucus. Still, I am simply crazy for Julie Andrews, and her performance in the film. No one else could have made it work.
Andrews had quite the run of good movies at the start of her film career in the 1960s to early 1970s. Check out her acting chops in Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966), Blake Edwards’ romantic The Tamarind Seed (1974), or the dark comedy, The Americanization Of Emily where she has combustible chemistry with handsome James Garner (1964). I am charmed by her singing and dancing performances in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and the iconic Mary Poppins (1964). I know it is a bit of a mess, but I love her as the great stage star of the 1920s-1950s Gertrude Lawrence in the musical film Star! (1968). In 1957, Andrews starred in the premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s written-for-television musical Cinderella, a live, network broadcast seen by over half the households in the USA..
There is notable investment in the films that cemented her alleged squeaky-clean image, as much as, if not more, than in stuff like S.O.B. (1980) and Victor/Victoria (1981). Yet, I see many of Andrew’s film performances as transgressive, subversive and life-changing forces, rather than sugary nannies and good girls. In musicals, Andrews’ unique performance style, in the tradition of Mary Martin and Ethel Merman can be read as camp, and yet stands on its own.
In 1960, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe plucked her as a virtual unknown for the lead in My Fair Lady. Four years later, they cast her again, this time.as Guinevere in Camelot, opposite Richard Burton and Robert Goulet. However, because studio head Jack L. Warner decided Andrews lacked the name recognition for the 1964 film version of My Fair Lady, the role of Eliza Doolittle went instead to big star Audrey Hepburn. Warner:
“In my business, I have to know who brings people and their money to a cinema box office. Audrey Hepburn had never made a financial flop.”
Instead, Andrews took the title role of Disney’s Mary Poppins. Walt Disney had seen her in Camelot and thought she would be perfect for the role of the British nanny who is “practically perfect in every way!” Andrews turned it down at first because she was pregnant, but Disney firmly insisted, saying: “We’ll wait for you.”
Mary Poppins became the biggest box-office hit in Disney history. Andrews won the 1964 Academy Award and the Golden Globe Award for her performance, plus a 1965 Grammy Award for the soundtrack album. Andrews closed her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes with:
“And, finally, my thanks to a man who made a wonderful movie and who made all this possible in the first place, Mr. Jack Warner.”
I was never fortunate enough to have seen her on stage, but the Original Broadway Cast albums of The Boyfriend (1954), My Fair Lady (1956) and Camelot (1960) were part of my parents’ LP collection and received plenty of play when I frequently had the house to myself.
In her startling honest memoir Home (2008), Andrews writes about the bleak childhood that made her seem rather ruthless in real life. Her parents divorced and she was separated from her beloved brother. She lived with her remarried mother in dreadful poverty. Beginning in 1945, and for the next two years, Andrews performed spontaneously and unbilled on stage with her mother and stepfather. She would stand on a beer crate to sing into the microphone, sometimes a solo or as a duet with her stepfather, while her mother played piano:
“Then came the day when I was told I must go to bed in the afternoon because I was going to be allowed to sing with Mummy and Pop in the evening.”
Andrews’ big break came when her stepfather forced her to take a solo gig at the London Hippodrome singing the difficult aria Je Suis Titania from Mignon in the late night musical revue called Starlight Roof. She played the Hippodrome for a year.
At 13-years-old, Andrews became the youngest solo performer ever to give a Royal Command Performance before King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at the London Palladium.
In 1995, she starred in a stage musical version of Victor/Victoria. It was her first appearance in a Broadway show in 35 years. She was forced to quit the show towards the end of the Broadway run in 1997 when she developed a hoarseness in her voice. She had surgery to remove non-cancerous nodules from her throat. As it turns out, it was not nodules at all, just muscle strain on her vocal chords from performing in Victor/Victoria. The surgery brought permanent damage that destroyed her singing voice and left Andrews with a decided rasp to her speaking voice. In 1999, she filed a malpractice suit against the doctors who had operated on her throat. Originally, the doctors assured Andrews that she should regain her voice within six weeks, but it never returned. The lawsuit was settled in September 2000 for an undisclosed amount.
Her famous, four-octave soprano was reduced to a fragile, limited alto. Andrews:
“I can sing the hell out of Old Man River.”
Still, her deeper voice brought her a warmth and strong presence and she continued to work steadily in films, dramatic, comedic and animated. She was the voice of The Queen in the Shrek franchise, and the Despicable Me series of films, including this year’s Despicable Me 3.
Andrews and her daughter Emma Walton are the authors of 16 books for children, all on the NY Times bestseller list.
That pure voice, the perfect posture and the prim, efficient British-ness of her performances brought her fame and awards. But, Andrews had an upbringing so appalling that it seems to have instilled in her a determination for success that led to her being both respected and feared in Hollywood in equal measure… or so I hear.
Andrews has long had something of a dual image, being both a family-friendly icon and a Gay Icon. She is notable as one of the few divas to enjoy a parallel popularization across both straight and gay audiences. Andrews has acknowledged her strange status:
“I’m that odd mixture of, on the one hand, being a gay icon and, on the other, having grandmas and parents grateful I’m around to be a babysitter for their kids…”