Julie Andrews' skills are alive

Feature At 74, Julie Andrews can boast a 50-year career and the satisfaction of having played some of Hollywood's best-loved characters. She talks about her new film, her grief at losing her perfectly pitched voice 12 years ago and her joy at being able to sing once more.

At 74, Julie Andrews can boast a 50-year career and the satisfaction of having played some of Hollywood's best-loved characters. She talks to John Hiscock about her new film, her grief at losing her perfectly pitched voice 12 years ago and her joy at being able to sing once more. Dame Julie Andrews comes into the beachfront hotel suite in Santa Monica with a friendly smile and a warm, "Hello, how are you?" Trim and stylish in a light grey trouser suit with her blonde hair cropped short, it is hard to believe the legendary singer/actress is now 74 years old and as busy as she was in her 40s.

Yet despite her air of assured confidence, she has, it seems, a confession to make. In May she is due to return to her homeland to perform in concert in London for the first time in 30 years, and, she admits, "I'm very, very nervous. I'm playing the O2 Arena, which is huge, but I'm really looking forward to it, too. Apparently it's selling out, which is wonderful, and I think I have a lot of friends, family and fans coming out for it."

But, she warns: "I don't sing the way I used to, so I'm doing everything I can to put the word out that they shouldn't expect that." Twelve years ago, it was feared she would never sing again. She had entered hospital in New York in June 1997 to have a non-cancerous polyp removed from her vocal cords, but what should have been a simple surgical procedure went dreadfully awry and robbed her of her perfectly pitched, four-octave singing voice.

Devastated, she underwent grief therapy at Sierra Tucson, an Arizona rehabilitation clinic noted for treating celebrity clients. Since then, with the support of her husband and family, and helped by a malpractice lawsuit she filed against the surgeons that was settled in 2000 for an estimated US$30 million (Dh110 million), she has come to terms with her loss and developed a new singing style. She first tried it out seven years after the operation when she recorded a song, Your Crowning Glory, for the film Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, although she downplays her efforts. "I didn't sing the whole song. In fact, I barely sang."

Since then, with dedication and practice, she has honed her new-found style and last year successfully performed at the Hollywood Bowl in a similar show to the one she will be taking to London, although there will be some differences. "I hope I'll have a few surprises up my sleeve, but basically I have about five good bass notes and I can work my way around them pretty well," she says. "I also employ that Rex Harrison sing-speak kind of voice. I narrate a lot; I tell tales; I show a great deal of footage; and I'll be with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and will be helped by five Broadway entertainers."

The show, which she intends to take on an international tour, is called The Gift Of Music, and, she says, the first half of the evening will be devoted to Rodgers and Hammerstein; the second half is based on a book called Simeon's Gift, which Andrews wrote with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton. "It's the story of a minstrel who goes out to find fame and fortune, and it's been turned into the most beautiful symphonic piece that I narrate and which runs for about 50 minutes, much like Peter And The Wolf," she says.

It has been 45 years since Andrews, umbrella in hand, primly flew over London's rooftops and sailed into millions of hearts as Mary Poppins. The film debut won her an Oscar for Best Actress, propelled her to international stardom and led to another memorable Oscar-nominated turn as Maria von Trapp in The Sound Of Music. In a long and varied career, she has starred in five hit Broadway musicals, accumulated two Emmys, five Golden Globes and a stack of other awards. In 1999, she was made a Dame of the British Empire.

She has a new film coming out soon, The Tooth Fairy, in which she co-stars with Dwayne Johnson (formerly The Rock). A juvenile fantasy, it has Johnson playing a professional ice hockey player known as The Tooth Fairy for his ability to knock out other players' teeth. When he disappoints a youngster, he is ordered to perform one week's hard labour as a real tooth fairy, complete with wings, magic wand and frilly tutu. Along the way, he rediscovers his forgotten dreams helped by Andrews's Lily, a high-ranking supervisor in the Tooth Fairy Department who is anything but sugary.

It is unlikely anyone over the age of 10 would be enchanted by the story, but 20th Century Fox is hoping the unlikely pairing of Johnson and Andrews will attract audiences. Andrews, who in her spare time writes children's books, had no doubts. "It came across my desk and the minute I read it I knew that I would like to do it," she says. "It resonated with me because it echoes some of the standards that I try to bring to my own books. It's a charming film and unusual and a little quirky and I loved working with Dwayne, who is absolutely gorgeous to look at. It was great fun to make, so why would I not say, 'yes please'?"

She seems totally at ease as she talks in the hotel not far from the Malibu home she shares with her husband of 40 years, the writer-director Blake Edwards, with whom she made seven films, including 10 and Victor/Victoria, for which she received a third Oscar nomination. Despite having spent the past 50-plus years in America and Switzerland, where they have a home in Gstaad, she still speaks in clipped English tones.

She attributes her healthy good looks to luck rather than effort. "I think my mother gave me some good genes and to be really honest with you, I do as little exercise as possible to get the most benefit possible," she laughs. "I don't particularly like it so I don't do much. Probably the thing that has helped is that I'm allergic to too much sugar, so I cannot have desserts and perhaps that's stood me in good stead."

Andrews made her first major appearance and London debut at the Hippodrome in 1947 in a vaudeville act with her mother and stepfather and quickly became the family breadwinner, appearing in the West End and on radio and television. Her rough-and-tumble show business upbringing gave her the emotional strength to help her through the dark times. "I was raised never to carp about things and never to moan, because in vaudeville, which is my background, you just got on with it through all kinds of adversities, so I think it was an extremely good training ground for me when I was a kid."

After playing the principal girl in several pantomimes, she made her Broadway debut in 1954 in The Boyfriend and two years later earned a Tony nomination as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. After a four-year run, she moved on to play Guinevere to Richard Burton's King Arthur in the stage version of Camelot, earning a second Tony nod. But Hollywood was not impressed, and she lost all three roles she had created on Broadway to other actresses. Walt Disney, however, saw enough to offer her the title role in Mary Poppins, although she kept him waiting until she was sure that Jack Warner intended to cast Audrey Hepburn, and not her, as the onscreen Eliza Doolittle.

"Actually the old mogul's instincts were dead-on and we got the best of both worlds," Michael Gebert would later write in The Encyclopaedia Of Movie Awards. "Andrews could get away with Eliza Doolittle on stage, but the camera would have revealed her shamming trying to play Rex Harrison's social and intellectual inferior: she's about as socially insecure as a Sherman tank. Winsome, vulnerable Hepburn was just right for the movie, and the imperturbable Poppins was just right for Andrews's debut."

Mary Poppins rocketed Andrews to international stardom but, coupled with The Sound Of Music, it had the disadvantage of bestowing on her a goody two-shoes image she determinedly set out to shake off. She once took to driving around Beverly Hills in a station wagon bearing the bumper sticker "Mary Poppins Is A Junkie" and, at the same time, began seeking out roles with a harder edge. She went topless in the 1981 satire S.O.B., which was directed by her husband.

Christopher Plummer, her Sound Of Music co-star, once described her as being like "a nun with a switchblade" and memorably declared, "Working with Julie Andrews is like getting hit over the head with a valentine." And Alan Jay Lerner, the lyricist for My Fair Lady and Camelot, described her as "a cold person" in his biography. She considers the criticism and concedes: "Some people say I'm far too reserved, but I think Alan was probably summing up an impression that he had. I was very shy, and I didn't know very much in those days. What he thought of as cold was more shyness and reticence. I was green and frightened and very naive."

Some of her films were reasonably successful, such as Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain, 10 and Victor/Victoria, while others, such as Star! and Darling Lili, were flops. After making That's Life in 1986 with Edwards, she only appeared in one film, A Fine Romance, in the next 15 years, although she returned to the stage in the Broadway performance of Victor/Victoria.

Two years after her operation she ventured back to work, appearing with James Garner in a made-for-television movie, and her feature film comeback began in 2001 when the director Garry Marshall cast her as Queen of Genovia in the modern-day fairy tale The Princess Diaries. She was then cast as another queen, providing the voice for Shrek's mother-in-law in Shrek 2, followed by Princess Diaries 2 and, inevitably, Shrek The Third.

"It's a whole new audience," she laughs. "I had a wonderful experience when a mother asked her little girl if she knew me through Mary Poppins and The Sound Of Music. The girl said she did but sounded doubtful. Then the mother said, 'And The Princess Diaries?' And the little girl lit up and said 'Oh, cooool.'" Despite her many efforts to vary her output, Andrews accepts that she will always be best known for her roles as Mary Poppins and Maria. "I did a lot of other different films along the way in an attempt to diversify, but they weren't huge box-office successes and it is the big films that are best remembered and that give you your image," she says. "But I wouldn't change anything. Those two films gave me so much pleasure, and I know they gave a lot of people pleasure, too, so I don't knock them, not at all."

She has three grown-up daughters, two of whom were Vietnamese orphans she adopted with Edwards, and Emma, her daughter with her first husband, the costume designer Tony Walton, whom she divorced in 1968 after a nine-year marriage. She is clearly a woman who likes to keep busy. "I'm fortunate in that I do so many lovely things and I love to keep active," she says. "My dad set a wonderful example. He was a schoolteacher and when he was 76 he decided to go back to university and learn German. He thought it was our God-given duty to keep the brain as stimulated as possible for as long as possible, and I completely endorse that, so I'm having a wonderful time writing my books, doing lectures, performing or doing whatever movie happens to come along.

"When careers last as long as mine, and it's been a lot of years now, I'm very fortunate that I'm still around. All careers go up and down, like friendships, like marriages, like anything else? and you can't bat a thousand all the time. It's impossible, so I think I've been very, very lucky in the films that have come my way and the fact that I love to write my children's books now. "I've worked my whole life and I'm still learning and still trying things that I love to try. It's such fun for me."

Sign up to:

* Please select one