HOLLYWOOD — Thirty-seven years after Walt Disney transformed her into an instant movie star in “Mary Poppins” — and Oscar winner to boot –Julie Andrews returned to the studio this year with another $100 million winner, “The Princess Diaries,” in which she, ironically, plays a kind of Henry Higgins to Anne Hathaway’s Eliza Dolittle.
It’s a fitting role reversal for the 66-year-old actress who took America by storm in 1956 when she played Dolittle to Rex Harrison’s Higgins in the smash hit stage musical “My Fair Lady” and later continued her reign on the Broadway stage in another Lerner and Loewe production, “Camelot,” as the bewitching Guinevere.
When Jack Warner decided to cast Audrey Hepburn as Eliza in the 1964 film adaptation of “My Fair Lady,” Andrews’ consolation prize was playing a magical British nanny in an original screen musical, “Mary Poppins.” When the Oscar nominations that year were announced, Hepburn (whose singing voice was dubbed in “Fair Lady”) was not nominated as Eliza, while Andrews received her first Oscar as P.L. Travers’ heroine.
In her Oscar acceptance speech, she said: “I’d like to thank the man who made this all possible — Jack Warner.”
A year later she starred in and received her second Oscar nomination for “The Sound of Music,” which held the title as the biggest-grossing movie of all time for several years.
Julia Elizabeth Wells made her stage debut at age 3 in a children’s revue, “Wynken, Blynken and Nod.” And she hasn’t stopped since. In her teen years she was a radio regular in Britain, and at 19 she crossed the pond and stepped on to the Broadway stage in the musical spoof “The Boyfriend.”
Possessed of a crystal-clear four-octave range, Andrews wrapped it in a warm and inviting demeanor, so much so that audiences sometimes resisted her in more dramatic roles like “The Americanization of Emily,” “Hawaii” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain.” She survived that, as well as a couple of musical clunkers such as “Star” and “Darling Lili.”
After marrying director Blake Edwards, she spent the better part of two decades appearing mostly in his films, such as “10” and “S.O.B.,” in which she calculatedly played against her image by boldly baring her bosom. When she and Edwards concocted a musical, “Victor/Victoria,” in which she did double-gender duty, it was a smashing return to form, bringing a third Oscar nomination. Andrews later took it to Broadway and you could almost hear that refrain from “Hello, Dolly” — “It’s so nice to have you back where you belong” along the Great White Way.
Several years ago, Andrews underwent throat surgery, which has compromised her voice. But true to her indomitable spirit, she has started the new century in the same way as she began her movie career, with a sleeper hit movie. In addition to being honored this year by the San Sebastian Film Festival with a retrospective of her films, Disney paid homage to Andrews recently by naming a soundstage on the studio’s Burbank lot after her.