Saturday, August 22, 2015

1964: Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins

It feels silly to summarize this role because I feel like pretty much everyone has seen this movie, or at least has a vague idea of what it's about. In case you've somehow missed it, Julie Andrews plays the title character, a magical nanny who flies down from the clouds to help the dysfunctional Banks family. She also does the whistling for the robin in "A Spoonful of Sugar" and lends her voice to one of the animated characters in "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," but I'm pretty sure most Academy voters didn't know that, so I think it's safe to say that those roles didn't contribute to her win.

There is no way for me to impartially evaluate this performance because it's held a special place in my heart for many, many years. In fact, I can't remember a time when I hadn't seen this movie. It's one of the few Best Actress winning films that is suitable for children, but what's odd is I grew to enjoy it more as I got older than I had when I was a child. I didn't become a true Julie Andrews fan until around the end of middle school and became even more of one in high school. Nearly every day of ninth grade, I would come home after school, grab a snack, turn on the Mary Poppins soundtrack, and start my homework. Even when I was watching it today, the first notes of the overture made me think of geometry. Yeah, I'm really weird. Anyway, given that I love this movie so much, and that I believe that not only the character but also Julie Andrews herself is "practically perfect in every way," it's tempting for me to just call this the best performance ever and leave it at that. But I'll try to say something a little more interesting.

On the surface, the character of Mary Poppins is deceptively simple. She's a magical, singing nanny; how complicated can that be? What makes her complex, and what Andrews does such a tremendous job of conveying to the audience, is that while she tries to be all no-nonsense, stiff-upper-lip, and detached, she clearly cares very much about everyone she works for in spite of herself. The movie hints at her backstory, but only vaguely; there are a lot of holes, since we only see her through the context of this one family. And yet Andrews makes us feel as though we truly know her, forming a connection with the audience that's difficult to describe. She has this great twinkle in her eye, so that you never doubt that beneath her cold exterior is a warm, caring person. And the mannerisms she has for Poppins are perfect, especially the odd little things she does with her feet: flexed when she steps over things, pointed outward when she's flying or standing still. Add to all that her indescribably beautiful voice and some priceless facial expressions and you couldn't ask for a much better performance. She comes across as a seasoned screen actress, so I was rather surprised when I first learned that this was actually her first ever movie. The funny thing is, if she had been in movies before, she almost certainly would not have been in this one, since she would have been too busy making a different film at the same time.

Julie Andrews started performing in England when she was quite young, as soon as her mother and step-father discovered her ridiculously wide vocal range. She came to Broadway in 1954 to star in a musical called The Boy Friend, which was followed two years later by My Fair Lady, which became one of the most successful musicals ever. After that, she did a few things on television and starred in Camelot on Broadway, but when Warner Brothers decided to turn My Fair Lady into a movie, they chose established film star and previous Best Actress winner Audrey Hepburn for the starring role over Andrews, despite the fact that Hepburn couldn't really sing. Walt Disney, however, decided to take a chance on Andrews after seeing her in Camelot, and offered her the role of Mary Poppins, one he had been trying to bring to the screen for decades. So while I'm still very upset that I never got to see Julie Andrews play Eliza Doolittle, really I'm grateful that she wasn't cast in that movie because she's so delightful in this. It clearly occurred to her that she wouldn't have been able to do Mary Poppins if she had done My Fair Lady, since she cheekily thanked Jack Warner in her Golden Globe acceptance speech. In her Oscar acceptance speech, however, she thanked only Walt Disney by name, which seems fitting. I'd like to thank him as well, since if he hadn't launched her film career with Mary Poppins I might never have heard of her, and I can't even imagine what my life would be like if that were the case.

The year after Mary Poppins, Andrews starred in the Best Picture Winner, in what is probably an even more famous performance than this one. That earned her another Best Actress nomination, but somehow she didn't win. After that, her career hit a major slump, as she tried unsuccessfully to get audiences to see her as something other than a wholesome nanny. She did manage to snag one more nomination for 1982's Victor Victoria, in a role that she later re-created on Broadway and turned down a Tony nomination for. Unfortunately, performing on Broadway strained her vocal cords, and the surgery she had to fix it messed them up even more, so that she almost completely lost her beautiful singing voice. But she didn't let that stop her and has continued making films, in addition to writing several children's books with her daughter. That's how I ended up meeting her, on a book-signing tour. I wanted to tell her how much she's meant to me over the years, but I was so awestruck in her presence that I couldn't say much. I still find it hard to believe that I've actually spoken to her at all. Anyway, she'll be celebrating her 80th birthday in a little over a month, and she's still working. If it were up to me, she'd win an Oscar every year for just existing, but I doubt she'll actually win another one. Basically what I'm trying to say is that Julie Andrews is amazing and I love her and I hope she lives forever. That's all.

Next up: Julie Christie in a movie I've never heard of, but one that I assume is incredibly amazing given that her performance beat Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music

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