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…’Julie Andrews
Julie 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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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 Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966), and don’t forget 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 sassy 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 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.”