Julie Andrews – The fairest lady of all

June 2001 By Philip Berk

The career of Julie Andrews — what can you?

Tony Curtis once said he’d gladly exchange his entire career for one Lawrence of Arabia. (A lot of actors would be settle for Some Like it Hot or Sweet Smell of Success!)

Julie of course has her Lawrence of Arabia.

The Sound of Music.

But other than what can you name?

With Julie it’s always been sudden acclaim, spectacular success, and then decline. 

She was a legend in the theatre before she was twenty-five, having originated both Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady and Guinevere in Camelot.

Her first appearance in front of a camera earned her an Oscar (Mary Poppins) and the next year she became the world’s most popular actress when she played Maria in The Sound of Music, which quickly became the biggest money making movie of all time.

But from then on, it’s been all downhill.

She may have had one or two minor successes since — Julie considers Victoria, Victoria one — but nothing to compare with The Sound of Music.

To add to her woes, a l997 operation left her vocally impaired. She sued her doctors and New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, and last year she settled with them. Her speaking voice has since returned, but her singing voice is another matter.

Now she’s back on the big screen in a very unimportant movie called The Princess Diaries. The studio is Disney, but she’s not reprising Mary Poppins 

At her press conference for the film, she appears slightly matronly, but she’s as dignified and gracious as ever.

And when you ask her a question, she doesn’t tell you she’s saving the answer for her autobiography; on the contrary she’s generous and forthcoming.

In the theatre, she was lucky enough to have worked with at least two acknowledged geniuses, Richard Rodgers and Alan Jay Lerner. (Rodgers of course wrote the music for South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music, and Lerner was responsible for the book and lyrics of My Fair Lady, Camelot, and Brigadoon, among others.)

She worked with Rodgers and his partner Oscar Hammerstein II on Cinderella (for TV) and with Lerner and his collaborator Frederick Loewe on both My Fair Lady and Camelot.

Does she have any special memories of either one?

“The best experience I ever had with Mr. Rodgers is a wonderful story.  I auditioned for him for a musical called Pipe Dream, and I sang a couple of the songs and sang them as loud as I could. Afterwards he came up on stage to talk to me and asked if I had been auditioning for anything else. I said I’ve been auditioning for two gentlemen called Lerner and Loewe who are doing a musical based on Shaw’s Pygmalion, and he looked at me for a while, and he said, ‘If they ask you, I think you should take that, it would be better for you. But if they don’t ask you, let me know because I would like to use you.’ And that’s about as generous a story as I could tell about him.”

Much later (but before she did  The Sound of Music) she worked with him on Cinderella.

Any memories of that?

“I probably knew Oscar Hammerstein a little better than Rodgers. I remember standing on stage one day; I didn’t know anyone was standing behind me. For some strange reason I began singing ‘The Last Time I saw Paris,’ and a voice behind me said, ‘I really meant every word of that when I wrote it.’ And I turned around and there was  Oscar Hammerstein. ‘I had no idea you’d written that wonderful song,’ I told him. ‘Yes it was after the Germans occupied France. I remembered it so vividly the last time I saw it. I felt compelled to write the song.’ And it’s a wonderful tale to tell and a wonderful little insight.”

How about Alan Jay Lerner?

“I adored Alan. I tell everybody and I truly believe how fortunate I was to work with and be influenced by giants in the theatre, and certainly he was one. As was (director) Moss Hart and Frederick (Fritz) Loewe. There’s something very special when a composer sings his own songs for the first time to someone who’ll be performing them, and to hear Alan and Fritz performing My Fair Lady for the first time was magical. I mean their passion, their enthusiasm, their ‘Wouldn’t it be Loverly?’ their‘Just You Wait Henry Higgins.’

“I Could Have Danced All Night’ was written a little bit later. They had a love song for Eliza, but I never actually put it on its feet because very quickly we realized that Higgins and Eliza never speak of love. That’s why their love song, ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ is all about love, but it never mentions the word once, which makes it an interesting song.”

America may have passed Julie by, but England has never forgotten her.

In fact this year she was honored by the Queen. 

She is now officially Dame Julie Andrews.

Did that come as a surprise?

“It was a complete surprise. I never thought I qualified since I’ve been living in this country for so long. So it was a most lovely private moment when I received a call one day asking if I would accept. I couldn’t believe they were referring to that. I thought somebody wanted to give me an acting award or something, so it took the breath out of me. But it gave me a warm feeling to think I was being recognized by one’s own country. That was a very special accolade and  a most wonderful day.”

Did the Queen talk about her movies?

“I don’t think she has time to stand and talk with anybody. She’s a very busy lady. I’ve met her a few times. She’s had certain of my movies for special screenings, and perhaps she’s watched them in the privacy of her home. I hope so.”

Does she have any prediction as to the future of the British monarchy?

“I wish I did. But it’s difficult for them these days. People forget that it’s the best tourist attraction. It brings in millions of dollars, all those state functions, the coronations, and the weddings. Think about the money they make and the image they create. It must be very hard for them as the world gets more and more modern to thread the needle well. I personally hope it sticks around.”

Haven’t they lost their lustre?

“I’m not  so sure. I know this Queen is a very hard working, dedicated woman. It’s the world that’s gone slightly crazy in every respect, including  the gutter press. I for instance could sue them. Anybody could sue when they’re taken advantage of, but not them (the Royals) because they belong to the people. I think it’s appalling. So in a way it’s very, very difficult for them. They’re open for potshots any time anybody feels like it.” 

The loss of her singing voice, is that a painful subject for her?

“It’s not that it’s painful; to be truthful, I can’t talk about it much because in the litigation I went through I agreed I would not go into too many details. All I can say is, I did have an operation. It wasn’t successful. It heightened the problem, but I am still optimistic. I’m still hopeful that something can be done. My speaking voice is much better than it was, and I’m hoping that if not 100 percent maybe 50 percent (of my singing voice) will return so that’s probably the most I can say.”  

How did she deal with it, and where did she draw her strength?

“There’s always two ways you can go. One is to completely cave in. The other is to get up and do, which I guess was my early training. I probably thought, there’s a lot I could be doing with my free time, and suddenly umpteen things presented themselves. So it wasn’t that I was almighty brave or had the gumption. I just seized those opportunities because it gave me fresh thoughts and new ideas. Maybe there’s a message in all that. I’m not sure what it is yet, but I’ll find out.”

Would she consider further surgery?

“There’s talk of many things. There are so many state-of-the-art things that are being done now, which I’d prefer not to discuss. Meantime it’s getting better, and my speaking voice is so much better.”

How is her writing coming along?

“It’s coming along. I’m learning all the time. I’ve published six books, and I have two coming out in the fall and a couple more in the works. I’m enjoying it very much. As I always say, when I do my day job I interpret someone else’s work, and when I write my children’s books, I create, and I like that very much.”

Is she enjoying her grandchildren as much?

“Oh yes. I’ve got five altogether and they teach me something every day. The youngest is four and a half. I’d learned from his mother that little boys like dumptrucks and tractors, and because my daughter couldn’t find any books on those subjects, I wrote the Dumpy series for him so the first was dedicated to Sam.”

Does he think of her as Mary Poppins?

“I have a sweet story to tell about that. My daughter didn’t want him to see Mary Poppins or any of my movies until he was old enough to really understand. But when he was three and a half, he was taken to a friend’s birthday party and of course they were showing Mary Poppins as a birthday treat. When my daughter went to collect him, she found him standing in front of the television screen, and he was looking very puzzled. So she knelt down beside him and asked him, ‘Do you recognize that lady?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And she said, ‘Is it someone you know?’ And he said ‘Yes.’ ‘Is it maybe Granny Jules?’ and he went.  ‘Oh yes.’ And he yelled out like, ‘I got it,  I knew that person from somewhere.’ Which I loved.”

Looking back at her long career, what advice does she have for the current crop of stars?

“You’re only as good as your last film, and there’s always somebody else very near who can do much better. Once you learn that lesson and you’ve had a couple of failures, you very quickly get your head on straight.”