For Julie Andrews, whose squeaky-clean screen persona was established early on with “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound of Music,” there are worse things than being branded as a woman of unimpeachable virtue.
“First of all, what could you call unfair about being typecast in that way?” asks Andrews rhetorically over the phone, laughing at the thought. “I’ve always tried to do as much that is different as possible, because it’s so much fun to play in so many different sandboxes. But I think it’s the amount of success that a film might have that is inclined to typecast you.”
For Andrews — who will receive SAG’s 43rd Life Achievement Award on Jan. 28 — that success came years before she appeared in front of a movie camera, having performed for Queen Elizabeth II in her native England when she was barely 12 and taking Broadway by storm in “The Boy Friend” while still in her teens.
If her screen debut as “Mary Poppins” and subsequent role as Maria in “The Sound of Music” indelibly established her pageboy innocence in the moviegoing public’s mind, for Andrews the die was cast even earlier — during her almost four-year run as Eliza Doolittle on the Broadway and London stages in “My Fair Lady.”
“I don’t know if it was the word ‘lady’ in the title or what,” she told McCall’s magazine in 1966, “but I became the British square of all time, and it seemed impossible to lick the image.”
When she tried to operate outside this particular sandbox, the critics weren’t always kind. In her review of “Star!” (1968), a backstage biopic about actress Gertrude Lawrence, Pauline Kael described Andrews as “pert and cheerful in some professional way that is finally cheerless. … Her dubious charm is that she makes audiences aware that she’s a good girl who deserves an A.”
In her book “From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies,” Molly Haskell likened Andrews to “another perfect, and usually perfectly safe, star, an antidote to the denizens of swinging London.” Andrews, Haskell wrote, exhibited “the enterprising spirit of the tomboy. … There is nothing very threatening or exotic or even sexy about her, but there is something a little ruthless in her ladylike pursuit of her ambitions.”
It didn’t help that Andrews’ ascendance coincided with the collapse of the studio system, or, as David Thomson states in his “New Biographical Dictionary of Film,” “The bounty and assurance of her (early successes) came just as the social order and political optimism were cracking up, like ice flows in the spring.”
After “Torn Curtain” and “Hawaii” proved ill-fitting dramas for her considerable charms, 20th Century Fox reunited Andrews with “Sound of Music” director Robert Wise and producer Saul Chaplin. But if lightning didn’t strike twice, the result could only be deemed a failure in the context of their previous collaboration, according to producer David Brown, who was Fox’s executive story editor at the time.
“Everybody in Hollywood went on a musical binge,” Brown recalls by phone from New York. “And as those things happen, it didn’t always work out. (Andrews vehicle) ‘Darling Lili’ didn’t work for Paramount, and ‘Star!’ didn’t really take off for us, but it was well regarded.
“People tried to copy ‘The Sound of Music,’ but they really didn’t have its story. That story, however apocryphal it may be historically, touched the hearts of the English-speaking world.”
Fox followed “Star!” — made for approximately $15 million, quite high for the studio then — with the equally overblown Barbra Streisand musical “Hello, Dolly!,” which came across as anachronistic as the gritty realism of such films as “Midnight Cowboy” and “The Wild Bunch” were signaling the changing tide of critical and public opinion.
“It’s so true that everything is cyclical,” Andrews says now. “But at that time everyone was saying, ‘How could they spend so much money on a musical?’ because small-budget films like ‘Easy Rider’ were (being made) for far less. And that was the whole wave of the time, which doesn’t explain the lack of success of things like ‘Star!’ but certainly to some extent contributed to it — that, plus the fact that it wasn’t the vogue. And look where we are now — we’re right back where we started.”
Compared to such doyennes of the new cinema as Julie Christie, Jane Fonda and Faye Dunaway, Andrews and Streisand appeared as outsized talents from a bygone era.
Career comparisons between the two singing stars is apt: Both hailed from musical theater, both were incandescent on the stage, both received Oscars for their screen debuts and both worked about as infrequently in film as one could imagine for stars of their magnitude (Streisand has appeared in 17 features over 26 years, while Andrews has made 22 films in 40 years).
The primary difference is their screen personas: Streisand is known for her unwieldy sass and moxie, and for wearing her heart on her sleeve; Andrews, as friend Carol Burnett once described her, was perceived as “the remote, ladylike, silver-throated Miss Andrews.”
Whereas the diva-like Streisand took ever more control of her career, and became controlling on her sets, Andrews was the consummate team player, with a dash of humility. Despite all her hard work, the words “lucky” and “fortunate” frequently pop up in conversation, and she has nary an unkind word to say about anyone or any of the projects on which she’s worked.
Asked if a rivalry developed between her and Audrey Hepburn when the latter was granted the role of Eliza Doolittle for the bigscreen “My Fair Lady,” Andrews replies: “None whatsoever. She was a great friend until the day she died. We knew each other well. She said to me once: ‘Julie, you should have done it, but I didn’t have the guts to turn it down.’ That’s the kind of lady she was; she was lovely.”
Stars like Andrews and Hepburn might have been placed in a box, but the package was always attractive. Hepburn’s poor-little-rich-girl vulnerability served to her advantage from film to film. Cary Grant was forever the suave sophisticate, Bogart the cynical loner, Redford the smug golden boy.
Shirley Temple, last year’s SAG Life Achievement honoree and forever daddy’s little girl, never excelled at adult roles, but few flew higher at the peak of their popularity.
There’s always been a kind of Pirandellian approach to Andrews’ wholesome, somewhat desexualized persona in her films, and she’s always played along: from “The Americanization of Emily” (1964), in which she’s referred to alternately as “a prig” and the “bloody virgin goddess herself,” to Blake Edwards’ “SOB” (1981) in which she plays “America’s G-rated darling,” whose husband (Richard Mulligan) is trying to sex up her image. “Some of her fans still don’t think she goes to the bathroom!” cries Agnes, the costume designer of “SOB’s” film within a film.
“He does know me better than anybody,” says Andrews of Edwards, her husband of 37 years. “And I guess he did realize that there was not just the goodness and the sweetness and light. His sense of humor is so delicious, and I do share that.”
As for Andrews’ range, not everyone associates her with prim and proper nannies and governesses, or the impeccably classy queen of “The Princess Diaries.”
“She did what Hollywood always makes stars do, which is fulfill the public’s expectations of her,” explains Brown.
“She’s always been in command of her career. Any time she wanted to play something different, she could. I don’t feel she was typecast, except by herself. She could do musicals, she could do drama, she could do theater. I would cast her in a thriller as a heavy. She would make a great killer. No one would suspect her.”