The Charming Candor of Julie Andrews’s New Memoir

In Home Work, the legendary actor comes to terms with an acting career she couldn’t always control.

Dame Julie Andrews at the 76th Venice Film Festival in 2019 in Venice, Italy
Franco Origlia / Getty

In 1971 the actor Julie Andrews and her husband, the director Blake Edwards, went to a party hosted by a Hollywood agent in Los Angeles. “I can’t remember why we chose to attend,” Andrews writes in her new memoir, Home Work. “We were so seldom partygoers.” When the couple arrived, they noticed guests doing cocaine in the living room; by the time everyone had eaten dinner, lines were being passed around for dessert. Andrews declined. “The hosts began pushing me hard, curious to see how ‘Mary Poppins’ would react,” she writes. “The peer pressure was intense.” Finally, Edwards intervened. “She doesn’t need any of that stuff,” he told everyone. “She’s high enough on life as it is.”

The scene is at once totally charming, enormously on-brand for Andrews—who has the purest heart, it would seem, in show business—and quietly telling. Mary Poppins, the acerbic, reality-bending, devastatingly self-assured nanny who sweeps down from the sky on an anthropomorphized umbrella in Walt Disney’s groundbreaking 1964 movie, was the first heady obsession of countless little girls, myself included. But for Andrews, Poppins was far more complicated. Both that particular role and one that followed, The Sound of Music’s Maria von Trapp, became distinct amalgamations of actor and character; it was hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. If Andrews does cocaine, Mary does it too. (Which would bring a bold new meaning to “Jolly Holiday.”) Before she turned 30, Andrews had played two of the most canonical female characters in film—a kind of reputational alchemy that is hard for an actor to reverse.

Looking back at her career now, Andrews, who’s 84, told me in October—when she called from her home in Long Island to discuss Home Work—that what surprises her most is how arduous it all was. “What I learned from writing the book was how hard I was working on any given day, whether I was doing the movie or learning the choreography or perfecting something or doing a costume fitting,” she said. Andrews has lived in the U.S. now for longer than she lived in England, but her diction is still markedly precise and she occasionally blesses humble words with more syllables than they typically get to contain. (Hawaii is pronounced huh-why-YEE, while “mum” is thrillingly continuant, like mumm.) Andrews is a dame of the British Empire, an Academy Award winner, an author with what she describes as a “small, you know, imprint,” and No. 59 on the BBC’s polled list of the 100 Greatest Britons, 11 spots ahead of Jane Austen. At this point in life, she’s settled into her status as one of the most regal, gracious, and reassuring presences in entertainment, serenely embracing “dear Lady Gaga” onstage at the 2015 Oscars, and spoofing her own reputation by voicing the cruel matriarch Marlena Gru (“the worst lady I’ve ever played”) in the Despicable Me franchise. What she wants to make clear now isn’t that Mary and Maria were characters, but that they were work.

Home Work, her second memoir (this one co-published with her eldest daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton), is an account of what happened between Andrews’s film debut in 1964’s Mary Poppins and her performance in the 1982 movie Victor/Victoria. The motivation for the book, Andrews told me, was twofold. After the 2008 publication of her first memoir, Home, which detailed her difficult childhood and her earliest days as a performer, fans and friends had urged her to dive into the next phase. “The first one ended as I was heading to Hollywood,” she said, “so of course everybody said, ‘When, when, when are you going to do the next one?’ Because they wanted to hear all that.” Home, in other words, ended right before the moment when Andrews took the role that would change her life.

The book is a dance between candor and diplomacy, as Andrews navigates the imperative of honesty with the courteousness that seems to be her governing instinct. Implicit in the book’s title is a reminder: For most of us, Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp are pleasures, diaphanous cultural entities, but for Andrews, they were jobs—demanding, exhausting work. The steel panels of the harness Andrews wore to film flying scenes for Mary Poppins left her hips badly bruised, and in one scene, the wires suspending her failed, leading to a catastrophic fall. For the opening scene of The Sound of Music, in which an aerial camera swoops in from above over verdant alpine scenery to reveal Andrews’s Maria, the shot was captured from a helicopter, and every time it completed a take and rose up to return to its original position, the downdraft from the engine flung Andrews to the ground. “I’d haul myself up, spitting mud and grass and brushing it off my dress, and trek back to my starting position,” she writes. “Each time the helicopter encircled me, I was flattened again.”

If the book was going to be a memoir, Andrews told me, then it might as well be frank. There are revelations about Rex Harrison (“imperious and impatient”) and James Garner, with whom Andrews filmed her first love scene in 1964’s The Americanization of Emily—after which her legs “literally buckled beneath me” when she tried to get up from the on-set bed. There are also accounts of marital tension, family members falling into addiction, and Andrews’s efforts, as she started undergoing psychoanalysis, to address what she finally realizes is “a fundamental sense of inadequacy.” In Home, Andrews relayed the reality of her childhood and early experiences as a performer: the seedy stages of vaudeville, the backdrop of the Blitz, what she describes as the abusive behavior of her stepfather, a Canadian tenor called Ted Andrews. Those years had instilled in her a powerful foundation for life as a performer, thanks to singing lessons and the pressure of having to work to support her family financially. But these years robbed her, she felt, of an education, and of the chance to make an active decision about who and what she really wanted to be.

The level of fame she reached during the 1960s took away still more of her individuality, as she became known for who she wasn’t—the saintly Maria, the practically perfect Mary, even Audrey Hepburn, who played the movie version of the My Fair Lady role Andrews originated onstage—rather than who she was. In 1974, a decade after Mary Poppins, Andrews and Edwards were interviewed by the British TV presenter Michael Parkinson. “Did you resent … this thing that people expect you to be something that one imagines that you’re not?” Parkinson asks. Andrews’s face during the question is a model of glacial restraint, as she absorbs this wholly unoriginal line of interrogation. “Really, it was a slow-growing thing,” she replies. Parkinson turns to Edwards. “How much is she like—if we can stick with this Mary Poppins thing for just a moment longer?” “If you insist,” Andrews interjects, with the steely poise of a queen facing down a particularly impertinent court jester.

Andrews dealt with the strangeness of her reputation the same way that many people try to overcome their issues: in therapy, which she began in the mid-1960s, around the same time she started regularly keeping a diary. Analysis was, she said, transformative. “I’d always admired the friends of mine who had been in therapy,” she told me. “They seemed to have a clarity and an understanding of themselves, and of life, and I wanted it. And I needed it, by the time I asked for it.” Writing, too, seems to have been clarifying. Andrews’s authorial voice in Home Work is authentic; her narrative is stately, funny, open, and characterized by an outright refusal to indulge in self-pity. It’s also enhanced by excerpts from her diaries, which convey some sense of how heavy she could find the emotional burden of performing. During a stint of Vegas shows in 1977, she describes a feeling she imagines as “that small dot, tiny and black at my core.” She wants to “catch it, look at it, wipe it clean. It is to do with the deepest me.”

It feels noteworthy that most of the acting Andrews has done over the past 15 years has been voice-over work—something that allows her to lean in to comedy, and a wider range of characters, while also keeping her presence off-camera. “Oo-er,” she said about Marlena Gru. “She’s the most terrifying character. But such fun too.” When I asked her if she was surprised that so many little girls are still falling wildly in love with Mary Poppins, she said that first and foremost, she was profoundly grateful. “I mean, look at what she did for me, and for so many others.” The work, she’s come to realize, is what matters the most—not the way it’s received afterward. The interpretation or longevity of a performance can’t be anticipated or controlled. But “the doing,” she writes in Home Work, “is everything.”