April 5, 1965. ABC pre-empted the hospital drama Ben Casey for the Academy Awards and TV viewers got to see Julie Andrews graciously accept sublime revenge on Jack Warner.
Studio boss Warner famously passed on Julie for the lead in My Fair Lady. Never mind that she created the role of Eliza on Broadway and played it successfully for hundreds of performances. According to various reports, Warner said she wasn't glamorous enough for the big screen … or not "right" for middle America … or not powerful enough a talent to ensure box office success.
The lady herself admits she was hurt and upset at the time. Who wants to be told that she's not pretty enough, not good enough? Also, she was justifiably proud of her carefully crafted Eliza and would have liked to have seen that performance preserved on film.
Fortunately, the people at Walt Disney Studios had complete faith that she would play in middle America and invited her to accept the lead in their big budget, live action extravaganza, Mary Poppins. The result was literally Oscar gold, while Warner's Fair Lady Audrey Hepburn wasn't even nominated.
Some Oscar experts opine that the award was less about Julie and more a swipe at the very unpopular Jack Warner. Today Carrie Fisher makes fun of Julie's award, saying she can't believe her mother, Debbie Reynolds, lost her Unsinkable Molly Brown Oscar to Mary Poppins. But I think Julie Andrews is a wonder in her first film role and this award was completely deserved on its merits.
From the moment she descends upon Cherry Tree Lane, Julie's Mary Poppins commands attention, admiration and respect. She virtually hires herself, and Mr. Banks is helpless in the face of her common sense, confidence and efficiency. She introduces herself to the children, bringing order and rules into their lives so that they will be prepared for adulthood. She also makes sure Jane and Michael get a lot of music and magic.
It's a neat balancing act. Yes, the Banks children get to dive into chalk paintings, participate in a fox hunt and derby while riding carousel horses, and take their afternoon tea on the ceiling. But they also have to keep the nursery neat and clean, take their tonic each morning, mind their manners and go to sleep on time. She's as firm as she is fun. She takes the screen with such authority it's hard to believe this is Julie Andrews' first time before a film camera.
Maybe Warner was right and the camera doesn't love Julie the way it does the always luminous Audrey. But it certainly was charmed by her. With her clear skin and bright eyes, she is a pleasant, comfortable screen presence.
Then there are the musical numbers. Like everything else about her performance, her voice is both beautiful and exquisitely controlled. Its inherent warmth helps keep Mary from seeming officious. So does her chemistry with Dick Van Dyke, especially in three of their most memorable scenes -- "Jolly Holiday," "Chim Chim Cher-ree," and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." Their eye contact is constant as they regard one another's dance moves with interest and affection.
Julie followed Mary Poppins by doing the impossible -- making an even more commercially successful film. The Sound of Music is still a veritable cash register, bringing in continuous and awe-inspiring revenue from DVD sales, soundtrack sales, audience-participation sing-alongs and regular showings on TV. But Julie's performance as Mary Poppins is better than her Maria Von Trapp. More layered, more unexpected, more interesting. It's ironic that the more complex characterization is a magic, fictional nanny rather than a real woman who fled Nazis, but such are the vagaries of movie musicals.