Wednesday, January 31, 2007

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.

17 comments:

Thom McGregor said...

I'm no Julie Andrews fan, and for the most part I think she deserves the abuse of her name in "Bedazzled." But I really like "Mary Poppins" as a movie, as a musical, as a kids' film. Great music, good dancing, kids that, yes, fade into the background and don't sing much. And I think there's more than a touch of arsenic in Andrews' Poppins. Much more. In fact, she's almost delightfully sociopathic. But I think you would only be satisfied if she were psychotic and actually tortured the kids! Maybe watching "Turistas" and "Hostel" has affected you more than you know. Sorry for the MAB moment. Anyway, it's the only time I've liked Julie Andrews. You know how I feel about the dreaded "Sound of Music" and all the characters in it. And I think it's Disney's only good musical (other than "Beauty and the Beast.")

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Mmm! Julie Andrews pulling out David Tomlinson's liver while he watches! Now you're talking!

I will grant that the songs are infectious, but I find the whole enterprise overbearing, and it starts with her pursed-lip, imperious performance, which I have never been able to warm to, no matter how much the swelling of the Sherman Brothers score tells me I must.

David Lowery said...

I love that Scary Mary trailer. It's probably my favorite trailer remix since Shining. Although Titanic 2 might be its equal: http://youtube.com/watch?v=vD4OnHCRd_4

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I would agree, David. The Shining set the standard, and this is the best one I've seen since then. Good enough to stoke the fires of my dormant anti-Andrews outrage! And thanks for the link to Titanic 2. I'm on my way!

Cerb Chaos said...

I've never been a fan of Julie Andrews, though I've never hated her. To me she was a good singer who appeared in a few good movies (I liked Mary Poppins, and I think that The Sound of Music is beyond any doubt the best of the overproduced 60's musicals, super-syrupy or no.) Of course much of the hyperbole lobbed at her at the SAG awards was more due to residual child-hood goodwill then any real love of her acting ability. I agree with you completely when it comes to her Blake Edwards material though.

Anonymous said...

I really don't know what makes you such an expert on Julie Andrews, so being that I am a huge fan I am trying to exercising some restrain. I also feel that it is important to be objective. You can dislike ‘Mary Poppins’, but I think you are missing the point. Disney's intent was not to have this highly philosophical film that you seem to think was warranted. Second, I do agree with your some of your thoughts about the Blake Edwards films. I have never been a huge fan of his, but by default I have been exposed to more than usual b/c of my affection for Julie Andrews. Most of those films were done as a F@%k you to the industry as a whole. They were done more to disprove the sweaky-clean image she was type-cast as. That is why she turned down ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brody’ for which Maggie Smith won an Oscar. It is apparent you have PERSONAL issues against Julie Andrews, but I will leave you with one movie to watch and that is ‘Duet For One’. It is quite simply one of the best dramatic performances I have ever seen or ever will see for that matter. She was actually nominated in 1986 for two Golden Globes…one for ‘Duet for One’ in the Drama category and your so boorish mention of ‘That’s Life’ in the Comedy category. There are others like ‘Hawaii’, ‘The Americanization of Emily’, ‘One Special Night’, and ‘Star’ that display her vast acting range. I was not particularly fond of ‘Star’ but there is not doubt that the acting ability is there. Unlike you, I don’t base my opinions one or two movies. If you can’t see the talent there then you are even blinder then I originally thought. With 3 Oscar nominations and one win; multiple Golden Globes and nominations; Emmy’s awards; multiply Tony nominations as well as A Kennedy Center Honor, BAFTA and SAG Lifetime Achievement Awards the entire film/theater/music industry must be crazy. They must also lack the ability to spot talent when they see it. I will not dare mention her activity as a Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations, UNIFEM, UNICEF, and co-founding Operation USA which received a Nobel Peace Prize for the help it provided to millions of impoverished all over the world. If you accomplish just one of the things in this long list then your opinion might mean something but until then stick to amateur.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Anonymous: I will accept your challenge and rent Duet for One as soon as possible.

As for personal issues with Julie Andrews, other than the fact that I find her on-screen persona very unappealing and downright distracting, I have none, nor am I basing my reaction to her on anything other than her movies, of which I have seen considerably more than one or two. In fact, I applaud all the good work she does for the various charity and relief organizations that you cite.

I will say that, while there are other performers who I find more annoying than Julie Andrews, none grate on me in quite this way, and few of those whom I don't appreciate come with such pedigreed status from industry and fans alike, status that seems (for some) to make them above criticism-- even regarding a 43-year-old beloved-by-the-world Academy Award-winning performance.

That's why I felt, in the spirit of "contrarianism," I would try to express why I dislike her performance in Mary Poppins probably more than I dislike the actual movie.

You don't have to agree with me-- I suspect few do. But I'm hoping more than a few would be able to detect the tongue poked slightly into cheek with which I approached my hyperbolic review. In the future, I promise to save the real gall for more deserving targets, like The Sound of Music.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Oh, wait, I did that already.

Brian #2 said...

Dennis--
I like Julie Andrews a lot more than you, but that Mary Poppins trailer is brilliant. Speaking of transforming 60s musicals, have you seen this one for West Side Story?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itJjyVpUGsI

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Dennis: A big spoonful of castor oil for you. Go to bed early. No watching TV, no snacks. You are a naughty, naughty boy.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I promise never to do it again! But please, Mary Poppins, not the castor oil! Not the hot castor oil! No-o-o-o-o-o!

Dan W. said...

It's been a while since I watched Mary Poppins or anything else with her in it, but reading this has made me even more glad that Audrey Hepburn got her Broadway part in My Fair Lady.

blaaagh said...

I, too, love Julie Andrews in MARY POPPINS and fell in love with her in it when I first saw it--so I think you're crazy not to like her/it--but I still enjoyed your essay and loved the SCARY MARY trailer! And, of course, I haven't seen the movie since I was five, so I might well have a different opinion now.

CK Dexter said...

While I agree with your overall characterization of the character and of Andrew's performance, I'm not sure your view is as contrarian as you suggest, and it's not obvious that your view should lead us to a negative assessment of the film.

On the one hand, you accuse the fans of gobbling up the sugary tooth-decaying moralism and cutesiness of the film, but on the other hand, you complain about that the true essence of the character is her icy, severe, and frightening authoritarian qualities.

If the latter is a bad aspect of
Andrew's performance, does that mean the failure is that she didn't make the character saccharine enough? Should she have been pleasantly, moderately saccharine, so that the "medicine"--that is, the father's puritanical, obey-and-get-a-treat, morality would have gone down better? (The father is, after all, nothing but Poppin's alter-ego, the bad cop to her good cop, the very medicine that her sugar coats).

I'm willing to admit that many fans of this movie failed to consciously realize the painfully obvious fact that Mary Poppins is a diabolical character (and symbol). But surely this is an unfair criticism of either Andrew's performance or the film. On the contrary, it is to the film's credit that it has, unlike most films aimed at wholesome family entertainment, conscientiously undermined its purported wholesomeness.

Surely it is not an accident that the theme song explicitly tells the audience: "we're tricking you into taking a bitter pill"? The film, and Andrews in her performance, clearly intend to make Poppins an ambivalent character. Why else would they portray the father's work-ethic as villainous, but then still have the purported hero, Poppins, obediently and effectively do exactly what the villain hired her to do: make the children line up straighter than Mussolini's trains, to "step in time" in exchange for kite-flying weekends off?

The only characters left unscathed by the film's own implied self-critique are not Poppins--nor the jack-booted little darlings she manufactures. It's the insane, the criminal, the dropouts: the sea-faring crackpots in the next building; Poppins' good-for-nothing, somewhat shady, jack-of-all-trades loafer-pal, and his (clearly chemically assisted) pals, who laugh their way to the ceiling.

So, should the sadistic, disciplinarian streak have been taken out of her character? How would the film, or her performance, be better without this underlying tension of authority and rebellion, sense and madness, subversion and reaction? Why would anyone want to receive the movie's treacly family message without the tonic of its bitter medicinal aftertaste?

Honestly, whether anyone realizes it or not, Poppins' character seduces precisely because the audience realizes her purity and perfection are a pose. No one can take seriously, or intend seriously, a character who describes herself as "practically perfect in every way." The audience didn't entirely miss all of this, they surely, whether they realized it or not, delighted in it. Mary Poppins is a marvelous embodiment of the sado-masochistic seductions of obedience, severity, and discipline (by the way, surely it's not also a coincidence that the mother mirrors this militant aspect of Poppins whenever she goes about suffragism?). She's the sort of nanny that the children secretly pray believes in corporal punishment. She's diabolically delicious.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

C.K.: You might be interested to know that my wife would probably agree with everything you’ve written in your comment! And I’m glad that you took the time to honestly and intelligently engage with my point of view.

You write: “It's not obvious that your view should lead us to a negative assessment of the film.”

The point of my piece was not so much to lead anyone to a negative assessment of the film. While I understand that my own view of Mary Poppins is a lot less enthusiastic than most people who love it, either based on childhood memories or from having seen it again as an adult and having those good memories confirmed, the basis of my distaste for it lies almost exclusively in my distaste for Andrews as a performer, and as a performer in this role. Therefore, the contrarianism of my piece is more aptly directed at what I perceive as an almost-universal appraisal that she was never better or more aptly cast than in this role.

“On the one hand, you accuse the fans of gobbling up the sugary tooth-decaying moralism and cutesiness of the film, but on the other hand, you complain about that the true essence of the character is her icy, severe, and frightening authoritarian qualities. If the latter is a bad aspect of Andrew's performance, does that mean the failure is that she didn't make the character saccharine enough?... It is to the film's credit that it has, unlike most films aimed at wholesome family entertainment, conscientiously undermined its purported wholesomeness.”

Here’s what I wrote: “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,” and that Andrews’ performance is “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).”

My feeling is that while Andrews and the movie seem to think her portrayal is evenly pitched between sugared acceptance and stern obedience, I think what the film intends, and what the undoubtedly eager-to-be-loved Andrews would prefer, is that the diabolical underpinnings of Poppins’ character remain but a shadow, and that we’re to be charmed by her not just so the medicinal aftertaste of her reinforcement of the father’s values might be dampened, but because Andrews’ own saccharine qualities as a performer are far more powerful than whatever instincts she might have had to create a more ambivalent character.

That ambivalence may in fact be more apparent in P.L. Travers’ book (which I have not read), but I don’t think it’s there to any great degree in this production, which may, as you suggest, have intended to create ambiguity in that Poppins serves the father’s cause even as she undermines his authority, but which I suggest ultimately succumbs to Andrews’ bright-eyed, chirpy insistence on being perceived as “practically perfect in every way,” however absurd that insistence might be. It is this quality of ramrod insistence on her status as upright and proper and sugary good that led me to term her presence as “demonic,” an ineffectual choice of words that most likely clouded my point..

“So, should the sadistic, disciplinarian streak have been taken out of her character? How would the film, or her performance, be better without this underlying tension of authority and rebellion, sense and madness, subversion and reaction?”

It wouldn’t. My point is, the filmmakers and the actress, were they really interested in exploring this ambiguity, this undercurrent of tension between authority and rebellion, subversion and subservience, should have gone further than the slight shadowing of a scene here or there. But as I said, my main revulsion is pitched not toward the movie, which I find perfectly acceptable entertainment for my own children. My revulsion is reserved mainly for Andrews, whose smarm stands apart from any attempts by the filmmakers to coarsen the movie’s appeal away from straight sanctimony and the learning of lessons into something a bit more challenging.

"Mary Poppins is a marvelous embodiment of the sado-masochistic seductions of obedience, severity, and discipline. She's the sort of nanny that the children secretly pray believes in corporal punishment. She's diabolically delicious.”

I’m going to have read P.L.Travers, because what you describe here is exactly the movie, the one directed by Polanski or Bava, that I would be interested in seeing, yet remain convinced that Mary Poppins is not.

C.K., thanks again for taking your valuable time and articulating your own views about Poppins. I hope that you’ll continue to read SLIFR and that occasionally something will strike you as less wrongheaded than this piece did. As much as I love validation (and anyone who says they don’t, well, I’m not so sure), it’s also important to me to hear other points of view and to be challenged to clarify or stand up for my own words against someone who disagrees. And when that disagreement comes as even-tempered and thoughtful as yours, I appreciate it all the more.

C.K. Dexter said...

Thanks for the kind reply, Dennis! I seem to have read too much into your position; I think I understand it better now. I'll definitely keep reading--I enjoyed the critical bite of your take on Poppins, even where I disagreed.

Ken said...

Like Julie Andrews or not, I just think it's hilarous that anyone still thinks talent has anything to do with the winning of an Oscar! But in Julie's defense, have you ever read any of the Mary Poppins books? That Mary Poppins is downright scary- she literally turns red when she gets angry! So Julie Andrews really, really did an amazing job of mixing the smug/superior qualities with the charming. And Mary Poppins wasn't ever really about women's rights...it was about what happens when someone literally blows into your life and blows away (and some feel the later books are a subtle allegory for all the children of Post World War II London who lost parents in the bombings). The film didn't delve so deep, but I think the woman's place in dealing with children was just a given. Interesting article, though! Sorry it took me two years to come across it!