Thursday, October 1, 2015

Birthday Take: Julie Andrews in "Mary Poppins" (1964)

Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Julie Andrews
Born: October 1, 1935 (80 years old)
Nomination: Best Actress (won) for Mary Poppins as Mary Poppins

The Take

There is one thing that is commonly considered: Disney doesn't do great live action musicals. It's something that seems borderline fact based on the success rate. One doesn't even have to look far for the last clunker: last year's Into the Woods. Even if the studio continues to excel in making films that are immersive and fun, there's something missing when the animation is put aside for a bit. Could it just be that performers nowadays aren't capable of singing the songs with that familiar enthusiasm? That seems like a stretch. However, there are those few that actually withstand the test of time and have produced something so endearing and powerful that you're almost willing to forgive the studio entirely. The premiere example is Mary Poppins.

What exactly works about Mary Poppins? It doesn't have the greatest story, especially as it focuses on a magical nanny who teaches children to fly kites. However, it is the sheer energy that you should expect from Disney to compensate for any weaknesses. For instance, the song writing is in top form and the acting is really good. However, there's one person that almost makes the film entirely their own. Yes, for all of the strengths of the other actors, it is Julie Andrews who continually makes the film so incessantly watchable. Her confidence and charm create a role that has become iconic in the decades since. All she has to do is sing to birds and dance in the park, and you'll believe in the power of song.

Again, the film is well constructed and it is impossible to find a weak note within it. With this being Andrews' breakout film, it managed to capture her skills on stage while also proving that she had acting chops. There's not an ounce of cynicism in her role, but there's also emotional complexity as well. Andrews is the perfect family film star for a lot of reasons, and they're all on display here. She is confident and her snide remarks flutter through the atmosphere with ease. In the time since, she has made a solid career bouncing back between serious dramas and family films, recently making appearances in The Princess Diaries, Shrek 2, and Despicable Me. Even if she doesn't have the gravitas that she used to, she still commands a certain respect with every role she picks. It's a legacy that will probably be remembered not by one generation, but by many who have different entry points into her career.

One of the highest compliments that one can give Andrews in Mary Poppins is that it ended up becoming Walt Disney's favorite production of his. While it was made into a debatable, unnecessary film Saving Mr. Banks, the story of Mary Poppins continues to inspire and provide hope for audiences. The songs are nonsensical and infectious in equal doses. Alongside "Supercalifragilisticexpialadocious" are more dour songs like "Feed the Birds." No matter what the occasion, she sings with grace and power. She is a figure that is unlikely to be topped in family musical entertainment. If nothing else, you won't forget her as the character, especially as she is continually lampooned in pop culture.

If anything has to question the lasting appeal of Andrews, just watch this past year's Oscars. True, she didn't perform, but she did get a ceremonious entrance following a number by Lady GaGa. The cheers for her as Lady GaGa finished singing songs from The Sound of Music were unstoppable. The renditions were loving and fun and captured exactly what makes Andrews so compelling. She is a singer, performer, and able to make us care. Even if there's nobody quite like her, one can only be grateful that she exists and brought such great contributions to the world. The only question now is how soon until the Mary Poppins soundtrack gets stuck in your head. Oh well, "Chim-Chim-Cheree," I guess.

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