Friday, May 9, 2008

Torn Curtain


When Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), an esteemed professor and rocket scientist, begins acting suspiciously, his assistant and fiancée, Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews), follows him to East Germany, believing he has defected to the other side. Sherman, however, is extremely uncomfortable with this move, realizing if the apparent defection is in fact real that, given the circumstances of the Cold War of the period, she would likely never see her home or family again.


It soon becomes apparent to both Sherman and the viewer that Armstrong's defection is in fact a ruse to gain the confidence of the East German scientific establishment and learn just how much they (and by extension, the Soviet Union) know about missile propulsion. Armstrong has made preparations to return to the West which are threatened (along with the entire organisation) when he is followed to the home of his contact (on an isolated farm) by the Stasi officer assigned to his case. Armstrong kills the man, who is then buried by the "farmer" and his wife, but the cab driver who carried Armstrong to the farm reports his suspicions to the police.


Armstrong visits the physics faculty of Karl Marx University, where his loyalty is suspected all along, and while he is discussing the propulsion question with a senior professor (Ludwig Donath), he is denounced over the school's loudspeaker system and must make a harrowing escape along with Sherman. They leave to East Berlin in a false bus operated by a resistance network. Travel incidents and bunching with the real bus increase the suspense. The escape eventually leads to an alliance with an exiled Polish Countess (Lila Kedrova), and a typical Hitchcock set piece, an escape through crowded theatre. They then get loaded with the props, in which they have hidden, from the set of the travelling Czech show which was making its final appearance in Berlin prior to a tour of Sweden, and are taken there on a boat.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Friday, April 11, 2008


In The Sound Of Music and Mary Poppins, she epitomised innocence. Now, in her startling new memoirs, Julie Andrews reveals the bleak childhood that made her so ruthless in real life. But is her greatest secret - about a possible lesbian affair - still hidden?
She is adored the world over for her roles as Mary Poppins and Maria in The Sound Of Music.
The pure voice, the angelic looks and the prim, efficient Englishness of her performances have beguiled generations of children over the years.
Yet how many of them could have guessed how different was her own upbringing from those of the happy young charges in the films?
An upbringing so appalling that it instilled in her a ruthless determination for success and led to her being respected and loathed in Hollywood in equal measure.
Elegant: Julie Andrews's onscreen poise belied her tough childhood.
Not for nothing was Julie Andrews termed the "nun with a switchblade".
The publication this month of her memoirs shows that her family background was one of grinding hardship and poverty.
Her grandmother, Julia, after whom Andrews was named, was in service.
Her grandfather, Arthur Morris, who was illegitimate, an Army deserter and an alcoholic, wrote poetry while working at a colliery and became known as "The Pitman's Poet".
From his womanising, he contracted syphilis and died insane at the age of 43. His wife, whom he had infected, died two years later.
Their daughters, Barbara and Joan, Andrews's mother and aunt, orphaned in their teens, scraped a precarious living playing the piano and drums at women's institutes, clubs and pubs.
Julie's father, Ted Wells, who became a schoolteacher, was also poor and had a mentally ill sister, Betty.
Julie saw her only once, being dragged screaming and struggling to her bedroom, where she was locked in.
Andrews writes: "I dwelled on the incident for many years."
Her father was, for Julie, the "'one I loved with all my being".
Her mother "was terribly important to me - but I don't think I truly trusted her".
She had reason not to do so, for when Julie was only four, her mother left her and her father to live with a Canadian tenor, Ted Andrews, whom she accompanied on stage, billed as "The Canadian Troubador with Barbara at the Piano".
Julie's parents divorced when she was eight, and eventually she went to live with her mother and her hated stepfather in a series of squalid digs, sleeping in a room where rats crept along the pipes, and having her scalp scrubbed and rinsed with vinegar to remove lice.
Rigorous training by one of the great vocal coaches, Madame Lilian Stiles-Allen, revealed that Julie possessed a soprano voice of astonishing range and purity, and she began to join her mother and stepfather on stage in their act.
At the age of nine, she checked into digs alone with her stepfather, who said: "Come into bed with me and I'll keep you warm."
Reluctantly she climbed into his bed and he said: "I'll show you how I cuddle with Mummy."
"I felt trapped and claustrophobic," she writes. "Something about it didn't feel right to me at all and I was very grateful when my mother arrived the following day."
At the age of ten, she sang for the Queen (later the Queen Mother) at the Stage Door Canteen and was presented to her afterwards, recalling that Her Majesty wore "an exquisite beaded dress and sparkling tiara".
After her first big break at 12 in the West End revue Starlight Roof, her ascent was rapid.
She was chosen to appear in the Royal Command Variety Performance with Danny Kaye, and in the radio series, Educating Archie.
Soon her earnings were helping to support the entire family, for Ted Andrews was descending into alcoholism and so was her mother.
When her stepfather, very drunk, entered Julie's bedroom and kissed her full on the lips, then came back and tried to do it a second time, she complained to her aunt, and a bolt was fitted on her bedroom door.
As a child, Dame Julie suffered hardship and poverty which later helped turn her into a ruthless adult
Then came the real bombshell. When Julie was 14, her mother took her to a party and introduced her to a "tall and fleshily handsome" man who had visited their family home once or twice.
"He came and sat on the couch beside me," says Andrews. "I remember feeling an electricity between us that I couldn't explain."
Her mother proceeded to get extremely drunk, and when the time came to leave, she was clearly unfit to drive.
Julie, who had not yet taken her test and had no licence, was forced to drive her mother home on a dark and foggy night.
During the journey, Barbara Andrews revealed to her daughter that the man who had sat beside her on the couch was her real father.
Julie learned she had been conceived in a passionate liaison with this man "by a beautiful lake near Walton-on-Thames".
Her mother explained later that "Daddy and I weren't being very romantic in those days" so she had sought passion elsewhere.
The teenage girl's reaction was stubborn. "The important thing is that my love for the man I thought of as my father - Ted Wells - did not change in any way," she says.
"I was fierce about it and after that I wanted nothing to do with the other man. I wasn't curious. I had no desire to start a relationship. I disliked the spectre that he was. I didn't see him again until some nine years later."
But there was a psychological reaction. "I began to hear voices in my head at night, a crazy chatter, and I worried that I might go mad, like Betty, my father's sister."
At 18, while she was playing the title role in Cinderella at the London Palladium, she was chosen for the lead in the Broadway production of The Boy Friend.
The people who had chosen her, Vida Hope, the director of the London production, and Sandy Wilson, the author and composer of the show, came into conflict with the American management.
Hope was fired and Wilson was frogmarched out of the theatre and forbidden to return.
Andrews's steely instinct for survival caused her to side with the American producers.
Although the musical was an established hit in London, Andrews doubted if Hope or Wilson "had grasped the standard expected for a Broadway show".
Through her ruthlessness, she survived in the role and because she had stubbornly insisted on not signing a contract for two years, but only for one, she was free to accept the most coveted Broadway lead of all, that of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.
Her co-star, Rex Harrison, was profoundly unimpressed by her.
"I got the feeling from Rex's cold and ungenerous attitude that I wasn't making inroads with him," she writes, "and that he was, quite rightly, making a stink about this silly little English girl who couldn't manage the role."
Harrison told the management: "If you don't get rid of that c***, you won't have a show." And the designer Cecil Beaton, who called her a "silly bitch", told her: "You are the most hopelessly unphotogenic person I have ever met."
But once more, against all expectations, she survived. When, after two years on Broadway, Andrews came to London in My Fair Lady, her biological father turned up again at a reception.
"I didn't like his attitude," she says, "and certainly didn't like him homing in on something that should have been my dad's province.
"So, though polite and, I hope, decent, I was a little distant with him. It was the last time I ever saw him."
On May 10, 1959, Andrews married her childhood sweetheart, the designer Tony Walton, of whom she had once said: "We were as much like brother and sister as anything else."
Of their wedding, she writes: "To know that I was marrying my dearest friend was a great comfort - a safe, sure feeling."
But on their honeymoon in Hollywood, Andrews had her first sighting of the man who was to supplant Walton in her life.
"I remember seeing Jack Lemmon talking to the director Blake Edwards, the latter seeming handsome and charismatic, if perhaps a trifle arrogant."
Dame Julie portrayed a picture of innocence in Mary Poppins (above) and the Sound of Music (below)

Her next Broadway musical, in 1960, was Camelot opposite Richard Burton, whom she clearly found attractive - "his voice a magnificent instrument, mellifluous enough to make any woman swoon. It was a major part of his unique appeal. That, and his piercing grey-green eyes and full, beautiful mouth".
Although his wife, Sybil, was in New York, Burton's eyes began to wander to the ladies of the company, causing the opening number, I Wonder What The King Is Doing Tonight, to be sung by the chorus as "I wonder who the King is screwing tonight".
His first conquest was M'el Dowd, who played Morgan le Fey. Others followed.
And outside the theatre, Burton was pursuing a torrid liaison with British-born blonde sex symbol Christine Norden, who was appearing in another Broadway musical, Tenderloin - a relationship that has been overlooked by all his biographers.
Perhaps the least credible part of Andrews's book is her suggestion that Burton tried to make advances to her during the run.
For Andrews was the complete opposite of Burton's type, and in an interview he warned: "Don't muck about with her - you'll see nature red in eye and tongue."
If Burton did show Andrews any attention, it seems likely he was teasing her.
Andrews thinks otherwise. "I suddenly guessed that he had been trying to manipulate me into a state of despair concerning his behaviour. I think I was the only woman in the company who hadn't succumbed to his overwhelming allure - and maybe this was supposed to be my moment."
Just before she left the Broadway cast of Camelot, Andrews filmed a TV special with the American actress and comedienne Carol Burnett, her closest friend. It was titled Julie And Carol At Carnegie Hall.
Two-and-a-half weeks later, Andrews discovered that she was pregnant. When her daughter, Emma Walton, was born on November 27, 1962, Carol Burnett became her godmother. But was she also a lover?
This is the extraordinary suggestion which has found its way onto the internet, a rumour that in fact goes back as far as 1965, the year in which Andrews made The Sound Of Music.
On January 18 of that year, prior to their appearance on stage at President Lyndon B. Johnson's Inaugural Gala, Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett were observed kissing passionately in public in a Washington hotel.
The clinch, which both women later claimed was a stunt staged to amuse their friend, actor and movie director Mike Nichols, was witnessed by the President's wife, Lady Bird Johnson, who unexpectedly stepped out of the hotel elevator at that moment.
This incident, sadly, is missing from Dame Julie's new book, in which she says of her chum Carol, "'I loved all that she was, all that she exuded - we bonded instantly," adding: "I lost my own inhibitions and felt free beside her."
Dame Julie's book ends in February 1963, as she, Tony Walton and their baby daughter Emma fly to Hollywood for the filming of Mary Poppins, which would win Andrews a Best Actress Oscar and make her an international star, soon to become the world's number one box-office money-maker.
But within five years of her arrival in Hollywood, her marriage was on the rocks, and Walton, who once wrote of her as "my heavenly Julie", was complaining bitterly: "I'm trying to make an appointment to meet my wife."
After their divorce, Andrews married a man 13 years her senior, the director Blake Edwards, whom she finally got to know while they were both in treatment with the same Hollywood analyst.
Edwards suffered from clinical depression and Epstein-Barr Syndrome, a form of chronic fatigue.
"I became seriously suicidal," he admitted in 2001. "I went through a process of trying to be practical about how to commit suicide. I didn't want to leave too much of a mess around for Julie and the people that I love."
Andrews's book is not devoid of fascination. How could it be? It is the story of a gawky suburban girl, "exceedingly plain" in her own description, "boss-eyed, bucktoothed and bandy", with a large nose, a prominent jaw and size eight feet, who, in spite of limited acting ability, metamorphosed into the screen's most glamorous princess.
But Andrews seems at pains to be perceived as a victim, and as one of life's innocents.
The evidence is otherwise. Yes, her upbringing was awful. But she also comes across as a cool, shrewd, ruthlessly ambitious cookie who invariably had her eye to the main chance.
• Home: A Memoir Of My Early Years by Julie Andrews is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £18.99.

Home: You can read an excerpt of the book below.

Chapter One
I am told that the first comprehensible word I uttered as a child was "home." My father was driving his secondhand Austin 7; my mother was in the passenger seat beside him holding me on her lap. As we approached our modest house, Dad braked the car to turn onto the pocket-handkerchief square of concrete by the gate and apparently I quietly, tentatively, said the word "Home."
My mother told me there was a slight upward inflection in my voice, not a question so much as a trying of the word on the tongue, with perhaps the delicious discovery of connection . . . the word to the place. My parents wanted to be sure they had heard me correctly, so Dad drove around the lanes once again, and as we returned, it seems I repeated the word.
My mother must have said it more than once upon arrival at our house -- perhaps with satisfaction? Or relief? Or maybe to instill in her young daughter a sense of comfort and safety. The word has carried enormous resonance for me ever since.
The river Thames begins as a trickle just above Oxford in an area referred to in old literature as "Isis." The trickle has become a fair river and fordable by the time it reaches the great university city, and from there it winds its way through the English countryside, changing levels from time to time, spewing through the gates of some exquisitely pretty locks, passing old villages with lovely names like Sonning, Henley, Marlow, Maidenhead, and Bray.
It flows on through Windsor and Eton. Wicked King John signed the Magna Carta at a picturesque stretch of the Thames called Runnymede. It progresses through the county of Surrey, past Walton - the village where I was born - past the palace of Hampton Court where Sir Thomas More boarded the water taxis that carried him downriver after his audiences with Henry VIII, and continues through the county town of Kingston, on to Richmond and Kew. Finally it reaches London, gliding beneath its many bridges, passing the seat of British government, the Houses of Parliament, before making its final journey toward Greenwich and the magnificent Thames Estuary into the North Sea.
Because of the Thames I have always loved inland waterways - water in general, water sounds - there's music in water. Brooks babbling, fountains splashing. Weirs, waterfalls; tumbling, gushing. Whenever I think of my birthplace, Walton-on-Thames, my reference first and foremost is the river. I love the smell of the river; love its history, its gentleness. I was aware of its presence from my earliest years. Its majesty centered me, calmed me, was a solace to a certain extent.
The name "Walton" probably derives from the old English words wealh tun (Briton/serf and enclosure/town). Remnants of an ancient wall were to be found there in my youth. Walton is one of three closely related villages, the others being Hersham and Weybridge. When I was born, they were little more than stops on the railway line leading out of London into the county of Surrey. Hersham was the poor relative and had once been merely a strip of woodland beside another river, the Mole. It was originally occupied by Celts, whose implements were found in large numbers in the area. The Romans were there, and Anglo-Saxons were the first settlers. Hersham was very much a fringe settlement. Walton, slightly better off, was a larger village; Weybridge was altogether "upmarket".
Walton's small claim to fame was its bridge over the Thames. A very early version was painted by Canaletto; J. M. W. Turner painted a newer bridge in 1805. The span was reconstructed again long ago, but in my youth the bridge was so old and pitted that our bones were jarred as we rattled over it, and I was able to peer through the cracks and see the river flowing beneath. Driving across, away from the village, usually meant that I was leaving home to go on tour with my parents. Crossing back, though, was to know that we were in familiar territory once again. The river was our boundary; we could leave the busy world behind us and our front door was only moments away.
To this day, when I am flying into England, it is the view of the river that I search for as we descend toward Heathrow. And suddenly, I see it stately, sparkling, winding through the meadows, forever soothing, forever serene.
I was named after my two grandmothers' Julia Elizabeth. Julia, my mother's mother, was the eldest daughter of William Henry Ward. He was a gardener, and met my great-grandmother, Julia Emily Hearmon (always referred to as Emily), when they joined the staff of a large house in Stratford-upon-Avon. Great-Granny Emily was a "tweeny," which is the name given to the poor unfortunate who gets up even before the servants and lights their fires so that they, in turn, can see to the comforts of the household. She was eleven years old when she went into service. Some years later, she and Great-Grandpa William married and moved to Hersham, where their first daughter, my maternal grandmother, Julia Mary Ward, was born in 1887. There was to be a barren lapse of nine years before the rest of the family came along at two-year intervals, in a vain effort to produce a son. Four daughters were born, who were collectively known as "the girls," all bearing highfalutin names, starting with Wilhelmina Hearmon, followed by Fenella Henrietta, Nona Doris, and finally, Kathleen Lavinia. Mercifully, they were all shortened, to Mina, Fen, Doll, and Kath. Finally, the longed-for son arrived, William Henry, shortened to Harry and then to Hadge, by which time Julia, being the eldest, had married . . . and soon after, gave birth to my mother, Barbara Ward Morris, in July 1910. This meant that my mum had an uncle only a few years older than she, and therefore a built-in playmate.
I remember meeting my Great-Granny Emily Ward when she was in her eighties. Great-Grandpa had died, and she was living with her daughter Kath. Great-Granny was small and round like a barrel, with flawless skin and fine, pure white hair. She always smelled of fresh lavender and called me "dearie." She had a sweet smile and a soft voice that sounded as if it were coming from a great distance. She loved canaries, and kept an aviary in the back of Auntie Kath's house in Hersham. I have loved canaries ever since.
Aunt Mina, Aunt Kath, and the other great-aunts were wonderful ladies, great characters all. Uncle Harry or Hadge was the black sheep of the family, and an alcoholic. I always felt there was something a little rough and dangerous about him, though he could be kind and had a playful sense of humor. Like his father, he had a magical touch with the land, and he eventually became our gardener. Things flourished when Hadge was in charge. My mother had a soft spot in her heart for him, and he was so competent when he was sober that she always wanted to keep him around. I used his image for the character of the gardener in my first children's book, Mandy.
My sense of the family history is somewhat sketchy, because my mother kept a great deal to herself. She spoke of her early years when pressed, but she never volunteered much, other than to speak lovingly of her mother, my namesake, Julia. Mum always took primroses to her grave in Hersham on Primrose Day, April 19, which was Granny Julia's birthday. Clearly, she missed her mother very much. The earliest recollections I have are of my mother's sadness at losing her. She must have carried her grief with her for many years in order for me to pick up on something like that. It was left to my father and my aunt Joan, my mother's younger sister, to fill in what little I do know about my grandparents.
Grandmother Julia was apparently a sweet mouse of a woman. Sensitive, shy, of a retiring nature, yet a lover of music - my aunt told me she sang quite well. She wanted no more of life than to look after and love her children. I was told that my grandfather Arthur found this state of affairs suffocating and that her obvious attempts to please irritated him.
Unlike my mother, Aunt Joan spoke rather scathingly about Granny Julia, putting her down as being inferior to their father in intellect and breeding. Piecing the details together, I have concluded that my maternal grandmother was uneducated, pretty, hardworking, troubled; and that her husband, Grandfather Arthur Morris, was angry, talented, a womanizer, a bully, a drunkard, and illegitimate. Arthur Morris was conceived at a time when it boded ill to be born "on the wrong side of the blanket", even if sired by a "Sir". Being tall, over six feet, of good countenance, and brainy, he apparently had an arrogant personality, but if he desired, he could be a great charmer. His own childhood was unhappy to say the least, as he was banished to the scullery most of the time, for his mother eventually married and his stepfather couldn't bear the sight of him.
As soon as he was of age, Arthur ran away to join the army and became a Grenadier Guard. Here he learned music and gained a promotion into the brass band, where he played the trumpet. He also excelled at the piano.
While stationed at Caterham Barracks, Surrey, Arthur met Granny Julia. They started seeing each other at every opportunity, and according to family rumor, Arthur "took advantage of" Julia in a field and she became pregnant. They dutifully married on February 28, 1910, at the Register Office, Godstone. My mother, Barbara Ward Morris, was born on July 25, 1910. Five days later, Arthur did the unthinkable and deserted his regiment. The small family seemed to disappear into thin air for a time, but two years later Arthur was identified by a policeman as being on the army's missing list and was arrested, tried, and sentenced to sixty-three days in military prison for desertion. His superiors may have recognized that Julia was a new wife with a young child and that she needed her husband, for pleadings were made on his behalf, and after only twenty-nine days in prison, Arthur was formally discharged. Julia and Arthur made a fresh start. They traveled to Kent, where Arthur became a member of the recently established Kent coal-mining community. On June 30, 1915, another daughter was born to them?my aunt Joan. After her birth, Arthur "deserted" again for a while, this time leaving his family. He was subject to bouts of depression, but it may simply have been that he went to the more lucrative mining area of South Yorkshire to search out new prospects for himself, for not long afterward, the Morrises moved again, to the pit village of Denaby, where Arthur was hired as a deputy at the local colliery.
The girls were both enrolled at Miss Allport's Preparatory School for Boys and Girls, and later they attended the village school in nearby Old Denaby. According to school records, my mother was very popular, very attractive. Aunt Joan was more reserved, always nervous. She depended on my mother a great deal. Both girls were striking, with alabaster complexions and glorious auburn hair. It was during the period at Denaby that Arthur started composing and publishing poetry, which was quite well received and which earned him the moniker "The Pitman's Poet." He also used his musical skills to entertain the villagers at cricket club functions, "smoking concerts" (men-only evenings), fund-raisers, and other parties around town. Arthur began teaching my mother to play the piano. Temperamentally, they were very much alike, being both self-willed and used to getting their own way. According to my aunt, many a shouting match was heard culminating with the sound of a sharp slap and a box on the ear.
Mum's version of these events was a little harsher; she claimed that her father hit her across the hands with a ruler. Either way, Arthur seems to have been a tyrannical and cruel parent. Eventually Mum took private lessons from a Miss Hatton and built her piano skills to a very high standard. In July of 1920, at the age of ten, she passed the first stage of the London College of Music curriculum. Her father is referred to in the announcement as "Mr. Arthur Morris, the well-known entertainer". Years later, my aunt wrote this of her father: "People would come up to our mother and congratulate her on being married to such a fun-loving man. Little did they know of his dark moods of despair, when he would sit in his chair and speak not a word for days, and I would take the longest way round when crossing the room to avoid going near him. After these bouts, he would go away for a while, and return laden with gifts for us".
It seems that desertion continued to be a theme in Arthur's life. Toward the end of 1921, he left the Denaby Colliery and the family moved a few miles away, to Swinton. Mum was eleven at the time, and Auntie was six. As Arthur became increasingly busy with his poetry, music, and entertaining, my mother became more accomplished at the piano, and in 1924, at the age of fourteen, she left school to pursue her piano playing full-time with a private tutor, and just a year and a half later she had passed the London College of Music's senior-level exams.
Mum now often accompanied her father on his tours, playing at many provincial concerts. She took part in several early radio broadcasts from Sheffield, and by the time she was sixteen, she was teaching music. Listed among her students for that year is my aunt, though the lessons didn't last long for several reasons, one being an acute sibling rivalry. My aunt was proficient at the piano, but music inspired her in other ways, namely to dance. Though untrained, she used every opportunity as a young child to dress up in her mother's clothes to improvise and to dance whenever possible.
All this information came not from my mother, but from my aunt and from research. Other than telling me she had passed her exams at an early age, she gained her LRAM and ALCM degrees, my mother never spoke about those years. How she felt about her studies remains a mystery, and I do not know where she took her exams. Given that the family was so poor, I cannot imagine who paid for her lessons in those days. Even if she had a scholarship, which I believe she did, I never saw her actual diplomas: she never displayed them, never had them framed.
In the summer of 1926, Granny Julia took my mum and my aunt to Hersham to visit her own mother, sweet Great-Granny Emily Ward. This was apparently a bucolic holiday for the girls, and they discovered the joys of the countryside and all that it had to offer compared to the mining towns where they lived. Great-Granny Emily took in washing for the more affluent villagers. The tradition of "wash day" was backbreaking, rigorous work and was typical of the hardship and poverty the family endured in those times. Weather permitting, washing was done outside in the garden. Two enormous tubs with washboards and the requisite bars of yellow carbolic soap were set on trestle tables. Buckets of boiling water were constantly carried to and from the house. Sheets, pillowcases, towels, etc., were set in heaps on the ground. Whites went into one vat, colored items in the other, all to be soaked, scrubbed, then set in baskets while the tubs were emptied of their foamy suds and filled with fresh hot water for the rinsing process. Clothes were pegged on lines strung between two apple trees. Sheets were laid out on convenient bushes. In the evenings, the sweet-smelling laundry was brought indoors and made ready for ironing the next day.
My aunt recalled the fun of bringing in frozen shirts and pajama tops sparkling with a silver sheen of frost, the sleeves stiff and straight, which she used as dancing partners while she cavorted over the frozen cabbage stumps.
The following morning, sheets were carefully folded and set on the kitchen table to be used as a soft base for the ironing of clothes. No ironing boards then, and the irons themselves were heavy and had to be constantly reheated on trivets that swung over the fireplace.
Arthur, meanwhile, was performing for club audiences in various towns in the north of England. He bought a set of drums, which he taught himself to play, and when he thought he was proficient, he hired the local church hall. With my mother playing the piano and her mother at the entrance collecting the admission money, he began to run a series of profitable dances.
This new era meant that he was invited to many social gatherings. Granny Julia became hopelessly out of her depth in this more sophisticated company, so Arthur started going alone. He was seldom home, and one morning, predawn, Julia tiptoed out of the house with her girls and left Arthur, probably because of his infidelities and alcoholism. They took the first train, returning to Hersham to stay permanently with Great-Granny Emily Ward.
Granny Julia quickly found a job as a maid for a Mr. Mortimer, who allowed her and the children to live in. Arthur remained in Swinton, but then tragedy struck: his new lifestyle had driven a wedge between him and his family, and his casual liaisons with women resulted in his contracting syphilis. He traveled down to Hersham, and perhaps realizing that she was unhappier without him than she was with him, or knowing that he was ill and in need of care, Julia took him back and the family was reunited for a time. Arthur's vitality quickly dwindled, however, and he became thin and lethargic. He was admitted to the Brookwood Sanatorium in Woking on November 16, 1928. He died the following August, at the age of forty-three, with the cause of death given as "Paralysis of the Insane".
I think my mother mentioned this period in their lives just once, giving me only the bare facts. Later, I begged my aunt Joan to write about it, but she shuddered and said, "Why would I write about something so terrible? That place, the stench, the people . . . screaming, demented". She must have been traumatized, given that she was only thirteen at the time, but I sensed she was also ashamed and loath to discuss this with me. Syphilis was certainly not "genteel". The heartbreaking consequence of Arthur's actions was that he infected Julia, and shortly thereafter she, too, became ill and died just two years later. In retrospect, it's not surprising that my mother's grief was so transparent and lasted so long.
From HOME by Julie Andrews. Copyright (c) 2008. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, March 24, 2008


A lavish musical production based on the life of British music hall and Broadway star Gertrude Lawrence, STAR! was created as a vehicle for Julie Andrews. But had it not been for a reprieve on cable TV in 1993, the film ran the risk of being forever forgotten.

The movie did well in previews, but when it hit the theatres, the audience did not respond. One of the problems could have been the public's lack of familiarity with the film's subject, Gertrude Lawrence.

In the early 1940's Gertrude Lawrence, while starring in the Broadway musical Lady in the Dark, watches a newsreel summary of her career and recalls her past: In 1915 as a young woman, Gertrude leaves her mother's home in Bermondsey and goes to Brixton to join her father, Arthur, and his partner Rose, who are performing at a seedy music hall. Deciding that she also wants a career on the stage, Gertrude eventually lands a chorus job in London in an Andre Charlot revue. There her deliberate attempts to steal the limelight nearly lose her job, but the company's stage manager, Jack Roper, intervenes. Gertrude marries Jack, but his idea of marriage conflicts with her professional ambitions, and they divorce shortly after the birth of their daughter, Pamela. Helped by childhood friend and confidant Noel Coward, Gertrude stars in Charlot's first New York revue and receives instant acclaim. Each success makes it more difficult for her to choose among her suitors, however, and she juggles diplomat Sir Anthony Spencer, American actor Charles Fraser, and New York stockbroker Ben Mitchell, without committing herself to any of them. Similarly, her preoccupation with her career has also led to estrangement from her rapidly-maturing daughter, Pamela. Eventually, Gertrude's increasingly extravagant lifestyle leads her to bankruptcy, and she collapses from overworking to pay off her sizable debts. Following an enormous success with Noel Coward in his Tonight at 8:30, Gertrude goes on to do her first dramatic role in Susan and God. After a long run, Gertrude sees Richard Aldrich, a New England banker whom she had met earlier while playing Private Lives in London. Though initially hostile toward him, Gertrude agrees to appear in Skylark at Aldrich's Cape Cod playhouse; and after scoring a personal triumph in Lady in the Dark Gertrude marries Aldrich.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Thoroughly Modern Millie

THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE: roadsters, Gatsby-style parties, daredevil stunts, candy-striped biplanes, flapper fashions, and a subplot involving white slavery that could have come from any old Saturday serial.

Eager young Millie Dillmount (Julie Andrews) is determined to keep up with the trendsetters in the Roaring 20s. "I don't want to be your equal any more – I want to be a woman". She arrives in New York City to a women's hotel run by Mrs. Meers (Beatrice Lillie), who also runs a white slavery ring. Millie is intent on finding a job as a secretary with a rich, handsome, eligible boss. Deciding to adopt the appearance of a flapper, she has her hair bobbed.
Millie does get a job with a handsome boss, Trevor Graydon (John Gavin), but he has eyes only for Miss Dorothy (Mary Tyler Moore), and Millie is forced to make do with Jimmy Smith (James Fox), a paper-clip salesman.
After they've returned to the hotel from attending a party at the Long Island estate of wealthy Muzzy van Hossmere (Carol Channing), Millie finds that Miss Dorothy has disappeared. When she and Jimmy detect the scent of opium in Mrs. Meers's room, they realize she has a sideline. The valiant Jimmy must go in drag to uncover the whereabouts of the white slavers' hideout.

The film’s funniest moment is when Andrews vamps it up in her boss's office.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Victor Victoria

In 1930s Paris, starving opera singer Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) is aided by gay cabaret performer Carroll Todd "Toddy" (Robert Preston) at a Paris restaurant as she is scheming to plant a cockroach in her food in order to get her meal for free. When Victoria dons Toddy's ex's clothes and then sends the abusive ex flying with a booming shout and an equally booming right hook, Toddy is hit with inspiration: he'll pass her off as a female impersonator. A woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman?

Soon Victoria's new persona, "Count Victor Grezinski", becomes the toast of Paris. As money and fame start to turn her (and Toddy's) lives around. It all goes well until Chicago "businessman" King Marchand (James Garner), starts to investigate, sure that a man like himself could never fall for another man! He finds himself at first repelled by and then strangely attracted to "Victor". This encourages his burly bodyguard, "Squash" Bernstein (Alex Karras), to come out of the closet, but it enrages Marchand's dim-witted girlfriend, Norma Cassady (brilliantly acted by Leslie Ann Warren). As Marchand tries to get to the source of his attraction to the entertainer, trying to uncover the truth behind the rhinestone headdress, the farce commences, and the meaning of gender and sexual preference comes into question for all the characters.

Victoria must come to terms with what she really wants out of life: to be true to herself by giving up her career and fame in Paris to be with the man who loves her and whom she loves, or to continue with her duplicitous profession and risk losing Marchand.
Interwoven throughout the comedy and musical numbers are some surprisingly astute observations about gender perceptions, discrimination and the battle of the sexes.

The vocal numbers in the film are presented as real-life scenes or entertainments that involve singers; this explains why neither Toddy nor Marchand sings a duet with Victoria as part of some sort of private scene. Nevertheless, the lyrics or situations of some of the songs are calculated to relate to the unfolding drama. Thus, the two staged numbers "Le Jazz Hot" and "The Shady Dame from Seville" help to present Victoria as a female impersonator. The latter number is hilariously reinterpreted by Toddy for diversionary purposes in the plot.

The cozy relationship of Toddy and Victoria is promoted by the song "You and Me," which is sung before the audience at the nightclub.

In any case, perhaps the most beautiful number is Victoria's slowish waltz-song entitled "Crazy World," the lyrics of which allude to her confused status.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Relative Values

No-one ever said that Julie Andrews didn't glow. Or didn't look utterly English. She seems - even when standing motionless - to have the jolliest kind of life going on inside her and to represent an England which barely exists any more. It is most fitting, then, that she is the comic cornerstone of Noël Coward's high-jinks frolic, a happy satire on English class set in the 50s. She is a woman content with her status and class, but bright enough to see that social change is just over the hill.
A comedy of discriminating taste and dirty little secrets it is indeed a very funny play, where the Countess Felicity, of Marshwood (Julie Andrews), her sartorially splendid and mischevious nephew Peter (Colin Firth) and the butler Crestwell (Stephen Fry) gets all the laughs.
The action revolves around the aristocratic Marshwood family and its reaction to a newcomer. Worlds collide when young, handsome and charming Nigel ( Edward Atterton) meets spoiled Hollywood starlet Miranda Frayle (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Miranda is rebounding from a stormy romance with co-star Don Lucas ( William Baldwin) when she meets Nigel. Always eager to be among the rich and the beautiful, Miranda eagerly accepts Nigel’s advances. The two soon announce they are in love and plan to get married, which shocks and appals all who know them.

Right before the engagement party to be held at Marshwood, Moxie (Sophie Thompson), the Countess's personal maid and best friend reveals that Miranda is her estranged sister. Crestwell quickly devises a plan-but an inebriated Lucas's arrival at Marshwood to try to talk to Miranda causes all chaos to break loose...
The satirical main story line is drawn out as the Countess, Miss Frayle and the maid in disguise - Moxie - converse, the latter cleverly revealing the flaws in the American's rags-to-riches tale. There are those who claim Relative Valuesis Coward slapping Americans in the face, particularly Hollywood types, for their shallowness and lack of style, and satirizing the Brits for their pomposity.

Memorable Quote from "Relative Values":

Miranda Frayle: I am leaving; I am taking the 11 o'clock train.
Nigel: No, you can't do that!
Miranda Frayle: Why?
Nigel: It's a terrible train. You have to change twice!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Shrek 2

In Shrek 2, screen legend Julie Andrews lends her voice to Queen Lillian. Andrews is already a pro at portraying royalty, this being her third role as queen. Lillian is the voice of reason for the scattered King Harold (John Cleese). While Harold is reluctant to accept his daughter's choice to take an Ogre for a husband and also to become an Ogre herself, Lillian understands. She has her reasons.

Shrek 2 marks the first time Andrews has done a voice for a fully animated feature. "It's a bit different. I've done, in my extreme youth, I re-dubbed a Czechoslovakian animated film, but mostly singing, not speaking. It came and disappeared so rapidly, I don't even know that there is a copy of it anywhere. And I did a couple of sort of tiny voices of [Mary] Poppins, believe it or not. But, nothing like this, nothing at all. It's three or four days work, yes. That's all it is. It's unbelievable. And you have no idea whether you are hitting a bulls-eye or whether you're wide of the mark and they ask you to give tons of variations on phrasing and how you say it. 'Say it sternly, say it sadly, say it this,' and then they pick what they want. It's truly a director's medium in that respect. "

Although most of the voice talent in Shrek 2 work alone, Andrews did get the chance to work one day with her King, John Cleese. It was also her first time meeting Cleese. "I had one day with him, which was great. And then two other days when he wasn't there, but the day with John was great."

Since there is nothing to act against in animation, no backgrounds, props, and, for the most part, other actors, Andrews discusses the process: "Well, they'd show you a storyline, they'd show you pictures of the storyboard, they have it all up and they run you through it. 'We think the queen is such and such and such and such.' The very first day I met everybody I started to put some lines down, and I kept thinking, 'But how can I? I haven't worked on anything. I don't know what I'm saying?' But, you literally fly by the seat of your pants in a way. You just go for it and you trust that they know what they're doing and it seems they do."
"I think more the challenge was what appealed to me. Jeffrey Katzenberg said, 'Would [you] care to be the queen?' I said, 'Another queen?' They said, 'Yeah, but it's different and I think you'll love it' and I said, 'Okay, I'm for it.' Especially with seven grandkids. I'm in with my grandchildren. [Queen Lillian's] so, when I saw this Shrek the other night, I kept thinking, 'I guess that's my voice.' She doesn't look like me, but he doesn't look like John Cleese and certainly Shrek isn't like Mike Myers in that respect. But, it's okay. It's kind of interesting. But yes, I'm very pleased to be part of it, I really am."

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Career revival in the 2000s

In the 2000 New Year's Honours, despite Andrews's long exile in the United States and Switzerland, she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE). She also appears in the 2002 List of 100 Greatest Britons" sponsored by the and chosen by the public.
In 2001, Andrews received Kennedy Center Honors. The same year, she reunited with Sound of Music costar Christopher Plummer in a live television performance of On Golden Pond.

In 2001, Andrews appeared in The Princess Diaries, her first Disney film since 1964's Mary Poppins. The film, in which she starred as Queen Clarisse Marie Renaldi opposite Anne Hathaway, was a box office success and was followed by a sequel, The Princess Diaries 2(2004). In The Princess Diaries 2, Andrews sang on film for the first time since her throat surgery. The song, "Your Crowning Glory", was set in a limited range of an octave to accommodate Andrews' recovering voice. The film's music supervisor Dawn Soler recalled that Andrews "nailed the song on the first take. I looked around and I saw grips with tears in their eyes."

Andrews continued her association with Disney when she appeared as Nanny in two 2003 made-for-television movies based on the Eloise books, a series of children's books by Kay Thompson about a child who lives in the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Eloise at the Plaza premiered in April 2003, and Eloise at Christmastime was broadcast in November 2003. The same year, Andrews made her debut as a theatre director, directing a revival of The Boyfriend, the musical in which she made her Broadway debut, at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, New York. Her production, which featured costume and scenic design by her former husband Tony Walton, was remounted at the Goodspeed Opera House in 2005 and went on a national tour in 2006.

From 2005 to 2006, Andrews served as the Official Ambassador for Disneyland's 18 month-long, 50th anniversary celebration, the Happiest Homecoming on Earth", traveling to promote the celebration and recording narration or appearing at several events at the park.

In 2004, Andrews performed the voice of Queen Lillian in the animated blockbuster Shrek 2 (2004), reprising the role for its sequel, Shrek the Third (2007). Later in 2007, she narrated Enchanted, a live-action Disney musical comedy that paid homage to classic Disney films such as Mary Poppins.

In January 2007, she was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Screen Actors Guild's awards, and stated that her goals including continuing to direct for the stage, and possibly to produce her own Broadway musical. She will publish Home: A Memoir of My Early Years, which she characterized as "part one" of her autobiography, on April 1, 2008. Home will chronicle her early years in England's Music Hall circuit, and end with her winning the role of Mary Poppins.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Status as a gay icon

Julie Andrews has long had something of a dual image, being both a 'family-friendly' icon and an icon for gays. According to cultural studies scholar Brett Farmer, she "... is notable as one of the few divas to enjoy a parallel popularization across both homosexual reading formations." Andrews herself has acknowledged her strange status, commenting that "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. . . " She has frequently appeared as a formative presence and signifier in narratives of homosexual identity, notably in The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, Does Freddy Dance and Widescreen Dreams: Growing Up Gay at the Movies, and in May 2007, ranked 25th in a major poll ranking top gay icons.
There is notable investment in the films that cemented her alleged "squeaky clean" image, as much as, if not more, than in Victor/Victoria. The Sound of Music has long been a homosexual favourite, and its recent Singalong incarnation was originally created for London's Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in 1999. Recent gender/cultural studies writers such as Stacy Wolf and Peter Kemp have argued for a different reading of the image projected by her two most famous films, Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, as that of a transgressive, subversive and life-changing force, rather than a sugary nanny committed to keeping the traditional status quo. Stacy Wolf's book, A Problem Like Maria - Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical, analyzes Andrews' unique performance style (alongside stars such as Mary Martin and Ethel Merman) and devotes an entire chapter to The Sound of Music, studying it within a
queer feminist context, and shedding light on its importance among lesbian spectators.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Sing-a-Long Sound Of Music

- The advertising blurb for Thursday night -

Sing-a-Long-a Sound Of Music,
Auckland, 21 February 2008

"When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything!"

International smash-hit show Sing-a-Long-a Sound of Music returns to New Zealand for limited shows this February in association with the Hero Festival.
Sing-a-Long-a Sound of Music was created in 1999 and has now become a worldwide hit, playing to more than a million people across the globe – from Oslo, Norway to India, Holland to Canada, and even filled the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles! The show regularly sells out its monthly performances in London’s West End.
For those who are not yet converted, Sing-a-Long-a Sound of Music is a screening of the classic Julie Andrews film musical in glorious, full-screen technicolor, complete with subtitles so that the whole audience can sing along! The fun-filled show starts with a vocal warm-up led by the evening’s host, who also takes the audience through their complimentary ‘magic moments pack’, containing various props to be used at strategic points throughout the film.
"Then of course there is the famous fancy-dress competition in which everyone who has come in costume is invited onto the stage to show off their fantastic tailoring skills. Costumes have included nuns of both genders (including a pregnant nun!), girls (and boys!) in white dresses with blue satin sashes, a plumber (as in Christopher ‘Plumber’) and a lonely goatherd!
So get those vocal chords warmed up, cut up the chintz curtains and hurry down for another dose of the international smash-hit sensation!

"A NIGHT OF PURE FUN!" – Taranaki Daily News, New Plymouth


"IRRESISTIBLE FUN" – Daily News, London

Monday, February 18, 2008

How do you solve a problem like Maria Von Poppins

"What an impertinent thing to say! Me putting ideas into people's heads! Really!"-Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) to Jane Banks (Karen Dotrice) in Mary Poppins

Captain: Fraulein, were you this much trouble at the abbey?Maria: Oh, much more, sir.- Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) and Maria (Julie Andrews) in The Sound of Music

It is widely acknowledged that the two films which established the blueprint for the screen image of Julie Andrews were the movie musicals Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964) and The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965). Of the six film musicals she has made, these, her first two, have proven by far the most popular and between them have contributed to the Julie Andrews persona that remains prominently fixed within the public imaginary. This onscreen persona – let's call her Maria von Poppins – might, in one sense, be reducible to the conventional limitations of what, in many critical quarters, has been dismissed as a 'squeaky clean nanny' type, a prim and proper 'Super-Goody Two-Shoes.' But looking at both films we also discover more expansive, potentially subversive energies, fuelled by the distinctive force and focus of Julie Andrews's performative presence.
"Part of the reason some of us love musicals so passionately is that they give us a glimpse of what it would be like to be free". Julie Andrews's personification of Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp gave the child in me panoramic insight into the self-liberating possibilities of orchestrated joy, choreographed confidence and sung spirit.
In each film a singular woman descends upon a dysfunctional patriarchal world and sets about changing that world. In Mary Poppins that woman is more of a female entity, somewhere between a witch and a fairy, a gifted enchantress who floats down from the skies, propelled by an open, parrot-handled black umbrella. Nominally answering an advertisement for a nanny's position, this beguiling creature swoops into the fragmented, fractured lives of a middle-class Edwardian household located in Cherry Tree Lane, London, circa 1910. The brusquely business-like, no-nonsense Mary Poppins turns the domestic universe of the Banks family completely upside down, functioning not so much in her appointed role as 'nanny' but more as a 'governess' in every sense of the word. She genuinely, totally governs, dispensing directives of delight, issuing Zen-like orders for living.
In a manner that she herself describes as "kind but extremely firm", Poppins proceeds to unharness, liberate and readjust the mindsets and attitudes of the entire Banks ménage, especially the emotionally neglected children, Jane and Michael. With black umbrella in hand and quaint, cherry-decked, daisy-sprouting hat on head, Mary calmly re-arranges the familial agenda, ably assisted by a veritable carpet bag of magic tricks and the collaborative efforts of a friendly jack-of-all-trades, Dick Van Dyke's Bert. In a sense, her seriously playful, anarchic spirit helps the Banks family find and cultivate the Mary Poppins inside themselves.
Visually, that self-transformative process is beautifully and poignantly spelt out toward the end of the film when the sternly chauvinist and Poppins-resistant Mr Banks (David Tomlinson) has his own black umbrella turned inside out and his bowler hat punched through in a grotesquely funny demotion ceremony enacted by the board of senior bankers who employ him. Literally stripped of his respectable 'trappings' (which also serve as inverted symbols of Poppins herself), Mr Banks cracks up, loses it, finally surrendering to the infectious impact of "that Poppins woman" and merrily regaling the board with tales of her deeds. Instead of humbly deferring to these ancient instigators of corporate authority. Banks departs from the scene, an umbrella-waving individual, blithely clicking his heels and triumphantly singing snatches from Mary's signature tune.
Prior to Mr Banks's conversion to the Poppins principle in the bank boardroom, we hear the strains of "A Spoonful of Sugar" accompanying one of the numerous highlights that are studded throughout the fabulously extended Chimney Sweep World sequence. The moment occurs early in the segment after Mary, Bert and the two Banks children have been swept up the lounge room chimney onto the rooftops of London to behold what Bert declares to be "a trackless jungle just waiting to be explored". It is Mary who sighs, "Oh well, if we must, we must", and who leads the troupe, mountaineer-style, across the tops of buildings, along to what seems a certain end point. Bert quite sensibly enquires, "As far as we go, right?" which Mary answers with a defiant "Not at all!" And then, using her trusty umbrella, she prods some nearby chimney smoke into the shape of a huge sooty staircase which the group ascends while the jubilant chords of Mary's musical motif play on the soundtrack.
Apart from how this episode radically re-images smoke and smog into upper spheres of ethereally pretty pollution, it also delivers the positive picture of a transgressive alternative family unit, buoyantly afloat upon a cloud of industrial waste. Nothing is impossible and everything is (re-) conceivable within the world of Mary Poppins who is played by Julie Andrews with enough sweetly cool edge and sufficient serene control as to make the outlandish appear acceptable, the ugly look beautiful, the unreal become real. Andrews takes on what the original books' author, P. L. Travers, calls the "Mother Goddess Kali" (2) aspects of the character with supreme grace and challenging ambivalence. So much so that it is wholly apt and fitting to witness the now fairly soiled-looking nanny announce to an outraged Mr Banks, surrounded by singing and dancing chimney sweeps in his own living room, that "First of all, I would like to make one thing quite clear – I never explain anything".
If Mary Poppins brings a kind of Utopian heaven to earth, then The Sound of Music's novitiate nun, Maria, affirms and virtually embodies a kind of heaven on earth, a heaven in earth. Mary Poppins might be out of this world, but Maria is utterly grounded within terrestrial space, standing on, and striding along, that hill at the beginning of the film and singing.
Singing about what? Basically about going to the hills when her heart is lonely and knowing she will hear what she has heard before. Maria is singing about feeling different and about taking empathetic comfort from nature. Her body language is unaffected, a bit gawky and bandy-legged, a bit tomboyish. She is something of a misfit, who is inspired, almost sensually re-charged, by music, the sound of it, the feel of it, the ineffable hit that it gives her ("My heart will be blessed/By the sound of music/And I'll sing once more"). This opening song finishes with Maria hearing a beckoning convent bell and, after momentarily forgetting, and then fetching her discarded wimple, the misfit nun dashes back down to a very real, very social and political world ("Salzburg, Austria in the last Golden Days of the Thirties") which she must somehow face and fit into.
How Maria goes about that existential adaptation makes for a remarkable journey. Her initially reluctant departure from the abbey, and her transfer to the forbidding von Trapp residence, where she is to take on the role of governess to a retired navy captain's seven children, are bridged by the sturdily reassuring anthem, "I Have Confidence". This hymn to specifically female (and more universally human) self-assertion is cleverly punctuated by Maria stumbling and tripping under the weight of a rather Mary Poppinsy carpet bag, and by coming to the song's musical climax and letting forth a sheepishly intimidated "Oh, help!"
Once, however, Maria has entered the von Trapp household, she actively humanises, harmonises, and feminises these new environs. It is as if, with her love of nature and the hills, Maria comes down from the hills and 'greens' the cold, grey lives of the widowed Captain and his children, who march to whistles instead of finding time to play. The whole narrative universe of The Sound of Music is energised and enlivened by Maria's fertile, feminine aura. As Jenny Craven observed on the film's mid-1970s re-release, "Spring forever blooms around Maria". And what distinguishes The Sound of Music (and Mary Poppins for that matter) as a feminist, or proto-feminist, film musical is the selflessness of the heroine's one-woman crusade, the magnanimous meaning of her mission. The overwhelming generosity of spirit, the all-embracing zeal which invests Julie Andrews's performance as Maria is a large part of what draws so many people to The Sound of Music, what makes it an eminently replenishing text that celebrates the joys (and sorrows) of the journey to non-narcissistic, non-self-centred selfhood.
Certainly, to some degree, The Sound of Music, like so many musicals, is a Cinderella story, charting the metamorphosis of the young, awkward misfit into a socially confident princess. There is even Peggy Wood's venerable Reverend Mother, on hand, as a kind of fairy godmother, urging Maria to venture forth and participate in the grand ball of life beyond the abbey walls. Christopher Plummer's Captain von Trapp, who, indeed, does not succeed in making Maria "come round" to him. The Captain actually "comes round" to her, and not just to her personality and charms, but to her principles and ideals ("You've brought music back into the house".)
The ethical power-play between Maria and the Captain reaches crisis pitch in the confrontational scene by the lake, where, dripping wet from having fallen off-balance from a row-boat ride she has been sharing with the children, the rebellious governess, like some sort of sea-nymph emerging from the waters to deliver the message of love, resolutely stands her ground. The Captain questions her about the (significantly green) play-clothes she's made for the children from spare bedroom drapes, reminding Maria that they already have uniforms. Maria refers to the latter as 'straitjackets', and moves on to the matter of the Captain's distant relationship with his own children, detailing each child by name and his or her problem with their father. The Captain's attempts to silence her on this issue ("I said I don't want to hear any more from you about my children") are shattered by her urgent plea, "Oh please, Captain, love them! Love them all!" This prospectively trite line is granted a simple, tough strength by Julie Andrews's sincere, no-frills delivery. It is ironically apposite that when she persists with "I am not finished yet", he impulsively blurts out, "Oh, yes, you are, Captain…Fraulein". Emotionally, Maria has not only gained the upper hand; the power of her convictions, momentarily at least, earns her male rank and privilege.
It's intriguing how easily the two roles of Mary and Maria become conflated in our viewing memory as a composite construct, the Maria von Poppins persona, when each character, as portrayed by Julie Andrews, is so discretely different. Mary, using the yardstick of her own tape, measures up to being "practically perfect in every way". Maria, on the other hand, is described by her fellow nuns as "a flibbertigibbet, a will-o'-the-wisp, a clown". Mary's influence on the Banks family is characterised by subtle manoeuvres and cryptic responses, whereas Maria adopts a more spontaneously direct, candid approach.
Some of the essential polarity between Mary and Maria is demonstrated in the musical number from each film, in which the new nanny or latest governess, respectively, gets to bond with the children. Each number also presents a kind of dynamic, personal creed, a code, by which the Julie Andrews character defines herself.
Mary introduces herself to Jane and Michael Banks via "A Spoonful of Sugar", a song about getting the job done, in this instance, cleaning up the nursery, "in the most delightful way". Despite the segment's convenient use of magic and special effects, the song's lyric emphasises the enjoyment of the labouring experience, the pleasures to be taken in process, all dependent on what Mary calls "your point of view". Nest-feathering robins have merry tunes to cheer them up. Nectar-fetching bees have the sweet taste of flowery fluids to jolly them along. Following Mary's example, Jane and Michael have the spell-working art of finger-snapping to get clothes folded and toys tidied. No matter how fancifully or divertingly, an object lesson is indeed being taught. The whimsical wizardry warms Jane and Michael to their most recent minder, but the rapport being struck is instructively magical, mystical and philosophical. With smiling composure, Julie Andrews's Mary establishes ready contact with Jane and Michael from a bemused distance.
However, it is from the cosy proximity of her bed coverlets that Julie Andrews's Maria becomes intimately acquainted with the seven von Trapp children on her first night, a rainy one, in the von Trapp mansion. Blood-curdling sounds of thunderstorm and lightning send the frightened youngsters dashing into the new governess's bedroom for consolation and comfort. What Maria offers is the advice that "When I'm feeling unhappy, I just try and think of nice things", a notion that is musically elaborated by the performance of "My Favourite Things". This consistently upbeat catalogue song lists those relatively ordinary phenomena which exhilarate and hearten Maria, from raindrops on roses to doorbells and sleighbells to wild geese on moonlit flight. The procedure is then taken up by the children who come up with such uplifting options as chocolate icing, Christmas, bunny rabbits, and (my favourite) a good sneeze.
The magical effect, here, is one of transcendently selective optimism, the ability to isolate the positives against the negatives, and to share that with others. The whole reciprocative routine is gesturally enhanced by the tactile connectedness of hugged shoulders, held hands, and joyfully jostling bodies overcoming fear. The spinning centrepiece is Maria, herself, centrifugally spreading forth, and actually embodying the dynamics of authentically mutual communion. Mary Poppins might deliver an enjoyably educative spoonful of sugar while Maria pours out her entire, subjectively exemplary being. Mary's radiant reserve is counter posed by Maria's active engagement, and the children in each narrative respond accordingly.
What does, of course, link both these numbers is that Julie Andrews sings them. The uncluttered sincerity and openness of Julie Andrews's acting is matched by her unique and unmistakable singing style. Much of what is so memorable about Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music is how each score (by the Sherman Brothers and Rodgers and Hammerstein, respectively) bears the imprint of the Andrews voice, which, by 1963 and 1964 (when the films were shot) was in full, prime bloom. Apart from its vocal range, the recorded singing voice of Julie Andrews is quite remarkable for its crisp clarity and precise diction. These traits are often rare in a soprano. Andrews chose to sing for meaning over colour and tone. It is a perfectly pitched, superbly articulated vocal instrument, ideal for the lyric-dependent songs of stage and movie musicals.
Julie Andrews does not dominate or overwhelm a song to the point of egocentric appropriation. Nor does she swamp the material with idiosyncratic, personal embellishments. What she does do, and it is a substantial aspect of her contribution to the musical genre, is to honour the text of a song, to present, purely and simply, the song. Hers is a straight-shooting soprano that delivers the goods clean. While other performers seem to be proclaiming, "Here is my song" or "This song is me", a Julie Andrews rendition transparently states, "Here is the song" or "It's the song that's being offered by and through me". What might become lost in the way of charismatic overkill is gained through the ringing transmission of particular words set to particular music.
Perhaps it is her song-serving, text-honouring integrity of purpose as a performer that constitutes part of the 'problem' that is Julie Andrews's Maria von Poppins persona. When morally dutiful female characters are enacted by expressively dutiful actresses, the effects can prove doubly 'good' or twice, even thrice, as 'nice'. Andrews, especially in these two movie musical roles, tends to be remembered for her persona's bright and beaming attributes, rather than the concomitant bolder and brassier qualities. The deferential respect and soaring purity of her song presentation only serve to reinforce this misconceptual foregrounding of clean gleam over gutsy grit.
But, nonetheless, both characters who constitute the Maria von Poppins persona exhibit pluck and spunk to spare. That Maria eventually consents to marry into the similarly principled Captain von Trapp's clan, that Mary flies off, and all but abandons the re-integrated Banks family to the charge of a now benignly enlightened patriarch, are plot resolutions which do not necessarily diminish either female individual's autonomous impact on each narrative world.
If anything, the endings of both Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music depict movement upwards and onwards rather than the tidy compromise of downward resolve. Mary sails stoically aloft, umbrella out, against a twilit London skyline towards a horizonal beyond, pregnant with venturesome possibility. Maria takes up the rear guard of the von Trapp family, climbing up a mountainside, to escape occupying Nazis, forging ahead in the direction of personal and political freedom. The putative closure of these conclusions is bracingly, optimistically open.
If such climactic elation can be accomplished due to the story-steering efforts of a problematically prissy female protagonist, we must acknowledge the potency, indeed, the ground-clearing passion, of these supposedly antiseptic heroines, Mary and Maria. Of course the significant property of any antiseptic is to cure and cleanse, to effect a healing change. What Julie Andrews's Maria von Poppins persona successfully achieves within the diegetic realms of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music is to leave a provocative mark, to question the status quo, to tunefully trigger upheavals on major and minor scales. For this, the Maria von Poppins figure deserves to be celebrated and saluted by those of us who may have benefited from her fervently invigorating, clearly defined, eternally spring-fresh essence.
Hail Mary! Ave Maria! No problem.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

"Practically perfect in every way".

The film begins with Mary Poppins perched on a cloud high above London in Spring 1910. The action descends to earth where Bert, a cockney jack-of-all-trades, introduces the audience to the well-to-do, but troubled, Banks family, headed by the cold and aloof Mr. Banks and the loving but highly distracted suffragette Mrs. Banks.
The Banks' latest nanny quits out of exasperation after the Banks children, Jane and Michael run off in pursuit of a wayward kite. The children ask their father to help repair it, but he dismisses them and advertises for an authoritarian nanny-replacement. Jane and Michael draft their own advertisement asking for a fun and caring person, but Mr. Banks tears up the paper and throws in the fireplace. Unnoticed, the note's remains float up the chimney.
The next day there is a queue of old and disagreeable nanny candidates waiting at the door. However, a strong gust of wind blows the queue away, and Mary Poppins flies down with her umbrella to apply. Mr. Banks is stunned to see that this calmly defiant new nanny has responded to the children's ad despite the fact he destroyed it. As he puzzles, Mary Poppins hires herself and begins work.
The children face surprises of their own: Mary possesses a bottomless carpetbag, and makes contents of the children's nursery come to life and tidy themselves. The magic continues with a countryside outing via one of "screever" Bert's chalk pavement drawings, and a tea-party in midair with Mary's "Uncle Albert", who floats uncontrollably whenever he laughs.
Mr. Banks grows uncomfortable with his children's stories of their adventures, but Mary effortlessly inverts his attempted dismissal of her services into a plan to take his children with him to the bank where he is employed. Unfortunately, Mr. Dawes, Mr. Banks' extremely elderly employer, aggressively tries to persuade Michael to invest his money in the bank. When Michael protests, the other customers misunderstand, and start a run that forces the bank to suspend business. The children flee and wander into the slums of the East End of London. Fortunately, they run into Bert, now employed as a chimney sweep. He takes them safely home, explaining that their father does not hate them, but that he has problems of his own, and that unlike the children, has no one to turn to but himself.
A departing Mrs. Banks hires Bert to sweep the family's chimney and mind the children. Mary arrives back from her day off to caution the children about the hazards of this activity, and sure enough, the children are sucked up to the roof. Bert and Mary follow them and lead a tour of the rooftops of London that concludes with a joyful dance with Bert's chimney-sweep colleagues. A volley of fireworks from the Banks' eccentric neighbor, Admiral Boom, sends the entire gathering back down the Banks' chimney.
Mr. Banks arrives home, forcing Mary to conclude the festivities. Banks then receives a phone call from work ordering him to return immediately for disciplinary action. As Mr. Banks gathers his strength, Bert points out that while Mr. Banks does need to make a living, his offspring's childhood will come and go in a blink of an eye, and he needs to be there for them while he can. The Banks children approach their father to apologize, and Michael gives Mr. Banks his tuppence in the hope that it will make things alright. Banks gently accepts the offering.
A sombre and thoughtful Mr. Banks walks alone through the nighttime streets. At the bank, he is formally humiliated and fired for causing the first run on the bank since 1773. However, after being at a loss when ordered to give a statement, Mr. Banks realizes the true priorities of life and uses Mary's all purpose word "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!" to tweak Mr Dawes. He gives Dawes the tuppence, tells the ancient one of Uncle Albert's jokes and raucously departs. Dawes mulls over the joke, finally "gets it" and floats up into the air, laughing...
The next morning, the winds have changed direction, and so Mary must depart. Meanwhile, the Banks adults cannot find Mr. Banks, and fear that he might have become suicidal. However, Mr. Banks, now loving and joyful, reappears with the now-mended kite and cheerfully summons his children. The greatly-relieved Mrs. Banks supplies a tail for the kite, using one of her suffragette ribbons. They all leave the house without a backward glance as Mary Poppins watches from a window. In the park with other kite-flyers, Mr. Banks meets Mr. Dawes Jr., who says that his father literally died laughing. Instead of being mournful, the son is delighted his father died happy, and rehires Mr. Banks to fill the opening.
Her work done, Mary Poppins takes to the air with a fond farewell from Bert.