What song do you hear in your head when you see the words "Julie Andrews"?
Is she gliding over the rooftops holding an umbrella or looking up at an Alpine hill? Perhaps she's clutching a bedraggled basket of flowers, or lilting rhymes like rain and Spain, or trilling about the "Simple Joys of Maidenhood," with a little crown on her head. Or maybe you don't hear her singing at all, but a Freddy Eynsford-Hill, swooning with adoration for her Eliza, simply beside himself:
Speak and the world is full of singing,
and I am winging higher than the birds.
Touch and my heart begins to crumble,
the heavens crumble, darling --
To which Eliza -- as would Andrews -- replies, in effect: "Oh, do shut up."
Now a mere 66, Andrews has been performing since the age of 10, when she had to stand on a beer crate to reach the microphone in the postwar music halls her mother and stepfather played. Her recognition at the Kennedy Center Honors tonight will be for a body of work that ranges from vaudeville to stardom in more than 20 films, television both live and taped, recordings, lectures and Broadway musicals. She's won an Oscar and an Emmy, and the Queen of England has dubbed her a Dame of the British Empire.
And if there is one constant through all those years, which have included a share of bad reviews, flops, embarrassments and mistakes, it's this: Audiences love her. People love her. People all over the world love her.
"When she performs, she's in there, she's not observing herself," says her old friend Carol Burnett. "There are a lot of actors, you can see them acting. You don't see that with her. When she sings, she is in the moment. And so the audience is in the moment."
Movie stars are sometimes mis-identified as being their roles, because fans tend to invest the craft and business of acting with powers beyond those of mere mortals. Although the root of Andrews's enduring appeal lies as much with her early training in the rugged trouping of vaudeville as with her smile or even her now-endangered voice, she also has a kind of halo permanently stuck to her head. Even when she played un-Poppins-like parts such as the lusty war widow in "The Americanization of Emily" and the breast-baring self-parody in "S.O.B.," she retained an English gentility that audiences translate into niceness, purity and grace.
"She did not generate obvious, overt sexuality," "Emily" producer Martin Ransohoff told Andrews biographer Robert Windeler. "She is not a sex symbol, but she has a classic sensuousness. She also had a certain refinement -- another classic quality -- rather than an overabundance of physical equipment, which gave her a great deal of sex appeal, slightly more refined and highbred than most."
As the granddaughter of a maid, Andrews finds that type of comparison amusing. But she has done little publicly to disabuse her fans of the image. She comes across as a hardworking professional who has faced her disappointments and reverses, career and personal, with undemonstrative grit. There have been no admissions to drug rehab clinics, no nervous breakdowns in public, no lurid kiss-and-tell autobiographies. Her self-discipline is legendary. Her marriage to director Blake Edwards has lasted 32 years (and she is still friends with her first husband, designer Tony Walton). Parenting two stepchildren, one child with Walton and two adopted girls with Edwards has not been without travail, as she freely admits.
And recently, of course, she has faced the possible loss of her singing voice. She strained it with the rigorous Broadway schedule of "Victor/Victoria," in which she performed for 18 months, having vowed to stay with the show until the investors were paid off. Although her voice was lower by the 1995 opening than it was in her days as a pristine coloratura, it was still limber and robust at age 60, and her high G-flat was a running gag in the show. But months of eight performances a week, of a three-hour show in which she had eight songs, took its toll -- even after she took a vacation and reduced her performance schedule. (Her star value was undisputed; the show folded shortly after she left it.)
After surgery in 1997 to remove some non-cancerous nodes in her throat -- a procedure that should have been routine -- she found her voice did not come back as predicted. She sounded more like a genteel frog than liquid silver. She settled her lawsuit against the surgeons last year (commentators had a lovely time imagining Mary Poppins on the witness stand) and is working with a vocal specialist to get those sparkling notes back. But the high C she hit nightly in "I Could Have Danced All Night" and the four octaves she had then are audible now only on recordings.
"I am optimistic," she says, with a touch of resoluteness. "There is a long-term plan. I'm working with a very, very fine specialist. I have undergone several procedures with him, everything from examinations to other things."
She wears her hair swept back from a smooth forehead, a brave choice for any woman over 50. The hair is cropped short, as it has been since her earliest publicity photos, although the wavy layers of today are more sophisticated than the shiny cap of light brown or auburn that used to make her look so, well, cute. Gifted by genes (and a little plastic surgery) with a firm jaw and cheekbones, and by her dance teacher aunt with superb posture, Andrews is an inspired example of aging gracefully. She, typically self-deprecating, suggests the honors are coming because she is old and fat, a description that would be apt only if she were paired with someone like the emaciated Gwyneth Paltrow.
She is also a star. She has always been reluctant to claim that mantle, but she has whatever it is that makes the eye go directly to her, whether onstage or off. Her most recent role, the queen/grandmother in "The Princess Diaries," exploited the same qualities she exudes in person: a regal carriage, graciousness and a desire to make mischief that seems slightly self-conscious.
While Andrews was making "The Sound of Music" she made up bawdy lyrics to "My Favorite Things," Burnett says, and she is known for cracking the occasional off-color joke. She loves hearing about the parodies of her in "Forbidden Broadway" and the recent "Singalong Sound of Music" phenomenon. Of course, no one would find her sense of humor remarkable if she didn't have that perfect English accent, uncorrupted by 45 years in the United States, and that goody-two-shoes shadow.
"I don't knock them at all," she says of the films that gave her that image. "Somebody says, 'Would you like to do "The Sound of Music" and star in the movie?' What's luckier than that? It is my enormous good fortune -- one of those movies that comes around once in a generation. . . . I recognize that it has a squeaky-clean image. . . . Certainly, these days the body of work has dealt with that. But I would never knock it."
"Sound of Music" was a movie that critics loathed but audiences loved, to the point that it became, internationally, one of the top-grossing movies of the time. But still, Andrews cannot remember knowing that she was a Star.
"There wasn't a point when I thought that, but I'll tell you what did happen," she says, relaxing into a soft couch in a Carlyle Hotel suite. "Having done vaudeville for so many years, one was to recognize that I may have gotten to the point that I didn't need to go back to those days. And by that I mean the real touring, endlessly. And secondly was in the days of 'Camelot,' I think. And that was to see a beautiful dress and then realize, well, I can buy that dress! That was when I really felt like a star, you would say."
By all accounts, Andrews may be a star, but she has never become a diva. She is always the one who carries a "Mary Poppins bag," as Burnett calls it, filled with throat lozenges or Vitamin C fizzies to soothe whatever ails a colleague. The closest she's come to making a scene (as far as we know) was when she turned down a Tony nomination for "Victor/Victoria" because no one else in the production, including her husband as director, had been nominated. She made the announcement from the stage after a performance, and (some point out cattily) the publicity sold tickets, too.
That show was the first time she felt like a leader, she says, someone with power and authority. And she took it very seriously. "It was such a joy to be the sort of figurehead for that company and hold them all together. I am very family-oriented, possibly because when I was growing up there wasn't an enormous amount of it. But we were a great team and that was tremendous fun."
The stoicism, the stiff upper lip, the quality friends describe as being "realistic" and the sense of just getting on with it and getting the job done come from her childhood and youth. After her great voice was discovered, she played theaters in regional outposts of Britain, first trailing along with her mother and stepfather, who drank too much and failed to become stars, and then with them trailing after her. It was the dying days of vaudeville, the mid- to late 1940s.
"Self-pity and all those kind of things are booted out quite quickly," she says. "I think that I am to some extent driven by [those days]. It's just been so much a part of my life, all of my life."
Burnett says that spending her adolescence in show business could have destroyed Andrews, but instead "it helped give her backbone." The price was that she never went to college, and for a long time she felt undeveloped.
"I've always thought of myself as a rather late bloomer," Andrews says. "And by that I mean in my brain and my head. All the things that I'm keen about and excited about -- I was so busy for so long, just doing, because it was part of the family and beginning to learn about who I was. I think my development was slightly retarded. Although the career was going forward, the brain was rapidly trying to catch up. So now I am so enjoying all the benefits that my age brings. I can now flex muscles I wasn't able to flex before."
Part of her self-discovery was a five-year course of psychoanalysis undertaken in her thirties. It helped her to get through some years when the film roles dried up and to roll with the ebbs and flows of a Hollywood marriage. There were four years between "Darling Lili" and "The Tamarind Seed" (with television like "The Julie Andrews Hour" and "Julie and Carol at Lincoln Center" in between). And five more years before "10," the third film she did with Edwards and one in which she was upstaged by Bo Derek.
Some critics feel she allowed her husband, a mercurial, talented and outspoken director, to dictate the course of her career, steering her into too many of his self-indulgent projects like "That's Life!" and "S.O.B." She doesn't see it that way.
"I feel very clear about it," she says. "To some extent he has, in that he's offered me wonderful roles that no one else was at the time, and it's very hard to turn down nice roles like "Victor/Victoria" or "S.O.B.," which was such fun. They weren't coming in every day. And he's one of the best. We both enjoyed it. . . . The truth is that to a great extent any artist does what comes across their desk at a particular time. You do it for financial reasons, you do it because it turns you on, you do it because you love the director or whatever. These days one can pick and choose a little bit. But especially when you're forging a career, it's all a question of fortune and what comes by."
Andrews has also written children's books (as Julie Andrews Edwards), three with her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton, who, with her husband and Sybil Burton Christopher, also manages the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, N.Y. Andrews's first husband, Tony Walton, illustrated the three "Dumpy" books. Andrews and Hamilton, 37, are also starting their own imprint at HarperCollins, for which they will write and find children's books that illustrate "awareness of the wonders of life, and provide them with appropriate themes, like nonviolence."
She is at work on an autobiography, "long overdue," and contemplating a foray into directing. There are some possible movie projects for next year as well. Meanwhile, she and Edwards are settling into a new, smaller residence in Los Angeles and replacing a large Sag Harbor house with a smaller one. Their main home is still in Switzerland, where they have retreated for 30 years.
The children are all settled. Jennifer Edwards, 44, is an actress, writer and mother. Geoffrey Edwards, 42, is a director and producer. The two youngest, Joanna, 26, and Amy, 27, who were adopted from Vietnam, "are just finding their way in life," one working for a firm of interior decorators and the other in real estate. There are five children who have a "Granny Jools." Andrews is a goodwill ambassador for UNIFEM, the fund at the United Nations that promotes human rights for women and works to end violence against women.
Andrews has no second thoughts about a career in show business. Entertainment has a purpose, she says, and it can be a worthy one.
"I think a certain amount of joy is not a bad thing at all. To help people forget, in general, that they have problems with their taxes or the kids are creating havoc at home, that for a few hours you can give them a new thought or take them out of it, is very pleasant. I love that aspect of the business. And you constantly hope that you are able to do that."