LOS ANGELES—Julie Andrews was honored by the American Film Institute last week for a Hollywood career that couldn’t have started more supercalifragilisticexpialidocious-ly—with an Oscar-winning performance in a film that would become an instant classic: “Mary Poppins.”
Before the AFI Life Achievement ceremony, which airs Thursday night at 8 p.m. Eastern on TNT, the 86-year-old Andrews recalled landing her first major movie gig.
“Walt Disney gave me my first big chance and I learned so much on that film. It was a wonderful film to learn the craft of moviemaking on because there were so many special effects, so much waiting around, so many complicated things to do because it was animated as well,” Andrews told The Associated Press.” It was a wonderful learning film to start my career with.”
A musical adaptation inspired by the beloved P.L. Travers children’s novels about a magical nanny, it first hit theaters in late August 1964. Quickly, “Mary Poppins” was a commercial and critical smash, becoming the year’s highest-grossing film released in North America. It earned 13 Oscar nominations including best picture, and won in five categories, including best actress for Andrews.
Just six months after “Poppins” hit big screens, along came what would be not only Andrews’ biggest hit—but one of the all-time box-office successes: the adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s stage smash “The Sound of Music.” Andrews played the real-life Maria von Trapp, the nun-turned-schoolteacher-turned-stepmother and matriarch of the Trapp Family Singers.
Originally released in early March 1965, the film would stay in cinemas for more than four years. And while the critics weren’t nearly as kind to it as they were to “Poppins,” the academy again showed its love, with 10 nominations and five wins. There was no statuette for Andrews, but winning best picture was a great consolation.
On both the arrivals line and at the ceremony, Andrews spoke of “Sound of Music,” but only in general terms. “I’ve been the most lucky lady, because happening to be in the right place at the right time and having the wonderful directors and people that I’ve worked with and just learning my craft and learning what it’s all about. I never expected it to be like that.”
Fortunately, the celebrity guests inside the AFI tribute made it clear that “The Sound of Music” and Andrews are among their favorite things.
Viewers will discover recording artist Gwen Stefani says she idolized Andrews since childhood, after seeing “The Sound of Music” at the cinema with her parents. Decades later, Stefani was in a studio writing with Pharrell Williams, in a session that eventually resulted in Stefani’s 2006 hit “Wind it Up.” The tune ended up incorporating elements of a key “Sound of Music” song, “The Lonely Goatherd,” which didn’t thrill Williams.
“Obviously, I had to fight with Pharrell to get that in there,” Stefani recalled. “And it was a big fantasy of mine to be able to have that incredible sample in my song—it made the song. And it’s a dream come true. So, I’ve always been way too nervous to meet my idol. But tonight’s the night and I’m ready. I am beyond honored. I can’t believe this is happening.”
The special includes guests representing chapters of Andrews’ careers through the decades, including longtime friend and TV partner Carol Burnett, whose 1971 “Julie and Carol at Lincoln Center” won them Emmys; actor Hector Elizondo, her co-star in the two “Princess Diaries” films (2001, 2004); Steve Carell, who worked with Andrews on the upcoming animated “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” and Bo Derek who portrayed the titular perfect “10” in the 1979 comedy written and directed by Andrews’ late husband and frequent collaborator Blake Edwards. He and Andrews were married for 41 years, until his death in 2010.
“When Julie talks about her decades with Blake, of the love they had for each other, you can tell that’s not acting, that’s real, that’s authentic, and it’s very, very rare,” Derek said.
Including “10,” Edwards directed Andrews in eight films, also including the 1982 musical “Victor/Victoria,” earning seven Oscar nominations, including one for Andrews, with a win for the music by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse.
While accepting her AFI Award, Andrews thanked everyone from her directors to a studio security guard for her success. “And I really honestly mean that, she said, adding, “My husband Blake…” Andrews paused for moment. “I mean… thank you.”
As for Andrews’ professional legacy?
In addition the AFI’s turf of film and TV, there are award-winning recordings, books, Broadway and West End appearances.
“I just hope I gave a little pleasure,” she told The Associated Press. “That’s the only legacy I would be happy about. That’s what it’s all about. It’s the giving. And I just hope that, you know, they had a good time.”
By Mike Cidoni Lennox