Let’s face it, Julie does everything with a touch of class, even bitchery. Despite being a superstar of the highest order, she seldom indulges in diva behaviour, at least not of the stereotypical waspish kind, and, on the rare occasion she does, it’s invariably tempered with a spoonful of sugar-coated civility.
Take the way Julie is mistress of the genteel put-down, the tactful barb so delicately delivered as to seem almost benevolent. The classic textbook example is her celebrated acceptance speech at the 1964 Golden Globe Awards when, receiving the Best Actress gong for Mary Poppins, made on the heels of her crushing rejection by Warner Bros for the screen version of My Fair Lady, Julie cheekily closed with a note of special thanks to “the man who made all of this possible in the first place…Mr. Jack Warner.” A more audacious smackdown could scarcely be imagined: the young neophyte starlet taking aim at one of the most powerful studio execs in Hollywood and getting away with it through the sheer charm of her poised delivery, so disarmingly winsome that nobody in the audience, Warner included, could take offence. Ever the lass with the delicate air, Julie worried afterwards, “I didn’t mean it to sound bitchy,” but this masterstroke of genial mordancy ensured she garnered the lion’s share of the following day’s headlines, as seen here, here and here.
This kind of ironic counterpoint whereby a sarcasm or insult is slipped in under the cloak of disarming gentility became something of a trademark for Julie. It was for example a stock element of her comedy routines with Carol Burnett where, as discussed in an earlier post, Julie typically played the patrician ‘straight man’ to Carol’s goofy Texan clown. From the classic "You’re So London" opening number on their very first 1962 special, Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall to the hilarious “tea party” scene from 1989’s Julie and Carol Together Again, much of the humour in these routines issued from the deft juxtaposition of Julie’s resolutely composed ladylike performance with the anarchic unruliness of the verbal and physical comedy.
It’s a doubled dynamic that also informs many of Julie’s screen roles. Consider, for example, Mary Poppins, who on the surface assumes the practically perfect guise of the respectable English nanny, that bastion of haut bourgeois propriety, but who slides up banisters, speaks in tongue twisting nonce words, dances with chimney sweeps on rooftops, and generally “brings chaos in her wake.” “She is special and she’s kind of wicked underneath, ” Julie likes to say of her first and possibly most famous film character, “just look at the colour of her petticoats,” explaining how former-husband designer, Tony Walton tried to suggest a “secret life” for the apparently prim Poppins by designing “a riot of red, orange and violet underpinnings beneath the sedate outer garments” (Stirling, 112). Then there’s Maria, another outwardly respectable governess—and nun, no less—who twirls sylphlike on hilltops and warbles angelically of raindrops on roses but who is, at the same time, characterised by her peers with such a litany of contradictory personality types—“unpredictable as weather, she’s as flighty as a feather, she’s a darling, she’s a demon, she’s a lamb”— that it’s possibly surprising the good sisters at the convent hadn’t summoned an exorcist. Add to the list Millie the thoroughly modern flapper and would-be mercenary gold digger who is really “an old-fashioned romantic” at heart; darling Lili, the singing English rose and doughboy sweetheart who is secretly a German spy…and it’s no wonder that by the time we get to Victor/Victoria, this predilection to dissimulative characterization and multilevel masquerade becomes externalised as a Chinese-box narrative of a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman!
And, like Julie, these characters are all experts of velvet-gloved acerbity. No sooner do Mary and Maria arrive at their respective posts than they effectively throw the whole power system of the bourgeois patriarchal family into subversive disarray with a series of deftly aimed swipes: “On second thoughts, I believe a trial period would be wise. Hmm. I’ll give you one week. I’ll know by then.”; “I’m sorry, Captain, I don’t know your signal”…all delivered with Julie’s characteristically guileless, butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth countenance.
This carefully managed glimpse of fire beneath the serene exterior helped imbue Julie’s persona with a vital dash of astringency. Not enough to subvert her dominant public image of ‘sweetness and light’ but still sufficient to earn her a string of paradoxical sobriquets from “nun with a switchblade” (Cottrell, 155) to ”the Iron Butterfly encased in a metal sheath of charm” (Graham, 61). It’s just Reason #673 to love this genuine, positive, totally, marvellous, perfectly, wonderful Star!
Cottrell, John. Julie Andrews: The Story of a Star. London: Arthur Barker, 1969.
Graham, Sheilah. Confessions of a Hollywood Columnist. New York: William Morrow, 1969.
Stirling, Richard. Julie Andrews: An Intimate Biography. New York: St Martin’s Press, 2007.
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