In Anticipation of Jim Emerson's Contrarianism Blog-a-Thon: JULIE ANDREWS: GOVERNESS OF GOODNESS or NANNY FROM THE NETHERWORLD?
Recently, the eponymous proprietor of Edward Copeland on Film invited responses to a survey to determine the best and worst of the crop of Academy Award nominees for Best Actress. If you must, call it residual distaste for a career filled with smarmy, treacly overkill (The Sound of Music) and dour self-seriousness (The Tamarind Seed, 10, S.O.B., The Man Who Loved Women and the execrable That’s Life!, all films made under the guidance of husband Blake Edwards), but when I had the opportunity to cast my vote for Julie Andrews as a worst Best Actress winner for Mary Poppins, I jumped at it. Here’s what I wrote for Edward’s survey:
Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins? Over Sophia Loren in Marriage Italian Style or Kim Stanley in Séance on a Wet Afternoon? Please! This performance isn’t half as charming as it’s been drummed into everyone my age to believe. Andrews seemed to me like Captain Bligh with bloomers and an umbrella when I was a kid, and her icy, imperious persona as an actress (which is never quite masked by the doily of cheerfulness she drapes over herself) has done nothing to help me warm up to her as an adult.
Had I not been rushed for time, I probably would have mentioned that I recognize the movie itself is okay, if a tad overlong (that partially animated sequence depicting the chaste outing had by Poppins and Bert, the chimney sweep, could have been half so long), and Mary Poppins is notable in that it sets itself up as a rarity in the Disney canon by dealing, however peripherally, with a social issue (women’s rights) at the precise time (1964) when that issue was poised to become forefront in a lot of people’s minds, even if it did so by issuing the proclamations of budding feminist mom Glynis Johns from the safe and comfortable distance of the bygone age of Susan B. Anthony. And I’ve always been a sucker for the work of David Tomlinson, Hermione Baddeley and Ed Wynn—as a child, these supporting players captivated me with their dry, acerbic wit (Tomlinson), oddball cadences (Baddeley) and genial, cartoonish buffoonery (Wynn), and they continue to do so today.
Dick Van Dyke’s ghastly affront to self-respecting Cockney chimney sweeps everywhere is almost redeemed by his cameo as Tomlinson’s ancient and decrepit bank boss Mr. Dawes. And as Poppins’ charges, the monstrous duo of Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber, who were reunited for Poppins after The Three Lives of Thomasina, are the prototypically unbearable Disney brother-sister unit, the scars from which can be seen and felt in everything from Bedknobs and Broomsticks-- which upped the ante from two to three insufferable Brit brats for its Poppins version 1970.0, embodied by Angela Lansbury-- through the Witch Mountain twins, Americans Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards, and beyond. (Dotrice and Garber would be reunited once more post-Poppins for The Gnome-Mobile, where they withered in the presence of the character actor trifecta of Charles Lane, Ed Wynn and Walter Brennan, who doubled as daffy and unstable millionaire D.J. Mulrooney and his doppelganger, the uber-gnome Knobby.) These little ghouls are so wide-eyed and misunderstood and well-intentioned, the movie could have swerved from a P.L. Travers wonderland straight into a Dickensian nightmare (albeit one populated with wacky nautically-inclined rooftop neighbors and cartoon penguins) had they only let Elsa Lanchester’s Katie Nanna stick around.
But, no-o-o-o, despite what the famous lyrics intimate, in Mary Poppins a spoonful of sugar is never quite enough, and a truckload-sized chaser of whimsy and tidy lessons in good behavior are always at the ready. Wrapped as they are in the warm blanket of pinched propriety and smothering smugness that Julie Andrews brings to the table as the titular baby-sitter from God-knows-where (and so, I'd guess, would Lucifer), she creates a child-care professional far more frightening than anything the Bride of Frankenstein could have ever conjured. Andrews has always been a performer who never quite seems of the world she is called to inhabit, a quality one would think would place her in good stead in this role. (The one movie that found a way to exploit Andrews’ cold-fish-out-of-water tendencies was Victor/Victoria, the most relaxed and vibrant performance she ever gave on screen—conversely, her stabs at earthy, and moneyed, everywoman-ness in movies like 10 and That’s Life! seemed like sour miscalculations of her appeal for audiences, and she came off even more tightly wound and humorless than ever. At least in S.O.B. she had the nerve to take her top off—had Blake Edwards cut away from that shot, I doubt anyone would even remember she was in that movie.)
However, as Mary Poppins, the glower of the intolerant taskmistress always seems laying in wait just beneath Andrews' chirpy mask of sunshine, and the movie would be far more compelling if it was the least bit interested in letting us have more than the occasional and fleeting glimpse of its shadow. Unfortunately, as Andrews embodies her, this mysterious harridan who can bend nature and men’s behavior to her whim, has nothing but cheerful platitudes and teeth-compromising tunes to offer an audience who, given the movie’s unshakable status as a classic, seem more than willing to gobble up her cutesy medicine and beg for more. There’s precious little separating her performance here from the one she would give a year later in The Sound of Music, save perhaps Maria Von Trapp’s inability to manipulate an umbrella through unstable atmospheric conditions. Together, they construct an armor-plated template of rosy-cheeked indefatigability, insistent moral superiority and tight-lipped, ever-so-slight shadings of haughtiness (the spell of which was designed to be dismantled, as pure defense against any suggestion of darkness, by that gleaming, multi-toothed smile), a template so daunting in its impregnability that even the blasphemers Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (who would diddle with the actress in 10) could not bring her down by making her very name— Julie Andrews!— a satanic incantation in Bedazzled. Poppins', and Andrews', ultimate reign of superiority over Tomlinson’s negligent, materially obsessed father is as dictated by her own air of smug regality (a potentially ironic element to her working-class character that the movie glosses over, so enchanted is it by the actress's surely-demonic presence as Poppins) as it is by the machinations of P.L. Travers’ book or Walt Disney’s insistence on formulaic resolutions to family dramas.
I don’t expect much in the way of back-patting or agreement with the views expressed in this post. Hey, I know I’m out there, shining a beacon of wisdom and rational thought amongst all the spellbound nattering about how great Julie Andrews in this bubbling pot of treacle. In fact, it’s been so liberating showing up those foolish enough to be seduced by this Victorian-era moral claptrap (who would simultaneously snub, with the imperative of the politically ignoble and treacherous, an obviously superior Churchill-era morality tale like Bedknobs and Broomsticks)* that, if you like, you may consider this post as volley number one in my contribution to Jim Emerson’s upcoming Contrarianism Blog-a-Thon. I’ve already got a Poppins-strength umbrella at the ready to shield me from the flinging of fecal matter that I full expect in the wake of my defacing of this beloved performance. (Can we really say Julie Andrews herself, apart from this movie and The Sound of Music anyway, is a beloved actress?)
But it’s also the occasion for a felicitous display of filmmaking-as-film-criticism too. By pure chance, toady I stumbled upon this wonderful short (one minute) film which recasts Mary Poppins in a light far more fitting the way I tend to view if not the film as a whole, then at least Andrews’ chilling queen of child care. One blogger, commenting on the short, described it as Mary Poppins if it had been directed by Mario Bava. Persoanlly, it made me imagine what a Rosemary's Baby-era Roman Polanski might have done with the story. Those would both be movies I’d want to see, an uplifting tale of two lovely tykes and the stern but charming governess who righted their world and brightened their lives, made by directors of varying perversities and stylistic bravado who might just have been able, by hook, crook or out-and-out torture, to coax a little more of that sinister undercurrent out of Andrews, perhaps allowing it to overtake, if only for privileged moments, the gleaming creamy goodness radiating off of her ever-patient, often smiling face.
Here then is the spoonful of arsenic that reveals the nightshade in the blood of Disney’s most revered nanny and the actress who so unbearably portrayed her. Behold, Scary Mary!
* For those still sharpening their knives, the three sentences directly preceding this asterisk were intended as a parody of the sackcloth-and-ashes style of Armond White, whose contrarian methodology can be said to have at least partially inspired the upcoming Blog-a-Thon. The rest of the article, while sporting a tone that could be said to be occasionally and ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek, more or less accurately describes my disdain for Julie Andrews and her Mary Poppins.