Best Actress 1982: Julie Andrews in "Victor/Victoria"
In some ways, Julie Andrews wasn’t only one of the biggest stars of the 60s – she was a phenomenon. My Fair Lady, the show that made her a star, was the biggest hit on Broadway and the soundtrack among the most successful ever. Over 100 million people had watched her in a TV production of Cinderella. Her performance in Disney’s classic Mary Poppins earned her an Oscar. And The Sound of Music not only brought her very close to a second one, but also turned her into a legend at the age of 30. So it’s rather surprising that she did hardly anything memorable after that. She continued to work but movies like The Graduate or Bonnie and Clyde already showed that the time of the sugarcoated musical-sweethearts was over – the upcoming decade wanted women like Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, Jill Clayburgh, Glenda Jackson or Ellen Burstyn. So, maybe it’s actually not that surprising that her image as the loveable, singing and magical nanny or the loveable, singing and Austrian nanny didn’t really help her in the 70s – not even showing her breasts did. But in 1982, Julie Andrews finally found a part that brought her back into the spotlight – because it allowed her to demonstrate all the qualities that made her such a delight in the 60s but she could also combine it with a sense of self-parody and sarcasm that fitted better to the new surroundings of a different time.
Victor/Victoria is an engaging, funny and playful farce that tells the story of a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. It juggles themes like gender roles, sexuality, jealousy, desperation, happiness but never in a way that turns it into a commentary on contemporary society but always in a very matter-of-fact way – Victor/Victoria is neither a great comedy, nor a great drama nor a great musical but the finished result it still extremely enjoyable. Just like all the characters in the story present a very devil-may-care-attitude and a disinterest in everything but besides themselves, Victor/Victoria also never tries to pretend to be more than it really is. And this beautifully reflected on Julie Andrews’s performance – she’s much more loose and free-spirited than in her other Oscar-winning roles. Her biggest achievement in Mary Poppins and The Sound ofMusic was to take her parts much more serious than expected and that way helped to establish the credibility of their characters. In Victor/Victoria, she drops this sternness and seems to enjoy herself much more in a part that doesn’t ask her to be a role model or a beacon of morality – instead, she visibly has fun in this risky role and finds exactly the right balance between taking herself and her role too serious and not serious enough. Her very relaxed portrayal of a woman who is trying to earn a living and then finds herself in a complicated love affair fits perfectly into the style of the movie and also the other players of the cast – Victor/Victoria doesn’t focus itself on its leading lady but is always an ensemble movie that lives from its strong cast – a fact that Julie Andrews gladly realized and she never tries to outshine her cast-members but instead constantly puts the importance of the relationships in the foreground. Especially her chemistry with Robert Preston as her gay friend/agent/supposed lover is the highlight of the whole production.
Julie Andrews enters the story with her most distinctive feature – her singing voice. Her unique soprano can be heard already before her face appears for the first time. Is it believable that a woman with Victoria’s talents cannot find a job as a singer? Hardly, but hey, times are hard in the 30s and so Victoria’s life remains gloomy and hopeless. A wonderful little moment in Julie Andrews’s performance is the scene when Victoria sings a very high note at her audition and then needs to hold on to the wall, as if she has to recover first. But just a few moments later it becomes clear why Victoria lacks the strength to even sing – she’s out of a job and out of money. Weak and hungry, she tells her landlord that she would sleep with him for a meatball – and it becomes clearer than ever that Victoria Grant is definitely no Mary or Maria. Just like Julie Andrews allows herself to be more silly and dirty-minded, she also finds a more desperate and serious note in her performance. Essentially, she gives a performance that combines everything she is famous for but at the same time she constantly finds new shades about herself and more than once rejects and parodies her own image.
Considering that most people think of Victor/Victoria as a musical and the fact it was actually turned into a Broadway show in the 90s, it is a little surprising that there are not really a lot of musical numbers in it. But whenever Julie Andrews is allowed to deliver a catchy tune, she reminds the viewer why she was such a popular musical actress at the beginning of her career. Her singing may actually be better than it ever was – she doesn’t have to overuse her soprano as she used to but is a lot more natural and joyful in her stage scenes. Especially her performance of ‘Le Jazz hot’ is a true show-stopper! And that final note? Let’s just say that Victoria certainly knows her do-re-mi!
Julie Andrews combines the more serious moments in which she shows Victoria’s true desperation with a very light style of over-the-top-comedy. Her scenes in the restaurant with Robert Preston are incredibly overdone but Julie Andrews is so charming and hilarious in these moments that it all works incredibly well. Victoria, a little bit like Maria, is a character who is both independent and dependent from the support of others. She is a rather nice, but at the same time outspoken and practical woman, surrounded by manipulating and mean characters and needs a guidance through her own life. In this case, it is her gay friend who also poses as her lover once Victoria has turned herself into Victor. Ah, yes, there is also the role-playing. To be honest, Julie Andrews is mostly shockingly unbelievable as a man. When she finishes ‘Le Jazz hot’ and takes off her wig, she is basically a woman with short hair. It’s hard to believe that everyone in the audience immediately thinks that she is actually a man. But there’s no use to blame Julie Andrews for this and she also gets some benefit for her believable acting in the more quiet scenes as a man – she finds an intriguing way to become almost ‘sexless’, an androgyny figure with a distinct way of delivering her lines and moving her body. But she unfortunately lacks a lot of the energy and entertainment in those scenes.
Is Julie Andrews sexy? It’s almost obscene to ask this question and when she exposes her breasts in S.O.B. it’s as uncomfortable as to watch your mother do that. Her wholesome image has turned Julie Andrews into a sweet sister, mother or grandmother – but certainly not a sex goddess. And, yes, she also isn’t either sexy nor erotic in Victor/Victoria so it becomes rather questionable when James Garner watches her on the stage with a sort of amazed, fascinated and turned-on look. But Julie Andrews gets some bonus – she may not be erotic but she’s incredibly exotic. She knows how to wear her over-the-top costumes and how to sell her numbers, she’s isn’t trying to be sexy but concentrates on the mysteriousness of this ‘man’ pretending to be a woman. It takes some effort to accept Julie Andrew’s success as a female impersonator – but once one has, it’s not hard to believe that Victoria/Victor becomes such an overnight sensation in Paris. Julie Andrews simply has all the qualities it needs.
On the movie star – character actress-scale, Julie Andrews always placed more on the movie star-side. Most of her performances depend on her own charisma and her strong voice and she rarely ever portrayed a truly challenging role. Victor/Victoria is no difference in this aspect. Victoria Grant needs Julie Andrews’s personality to become such a delight. But Julie Andrews is an actress who is in absolute control of her own image and abilities and knows how to use them to her biggest advantage. She may remove herself from her wholesome image but she never does anything that would be out of her comfort-zone. She is both grown-up and very childish in her part but she’s not perfect and often suffers from the fact that her role is very showy but at the same time lacks any depth or challenge. Her acting is both very controlled but also appears very spontaneous thanks to her comedic timing and lack of self-awareness. She crafts a character that serves the story more than the other way around but Julie Andrews’s magical screen presence helps her to achieve a memorable and captivating performance. For this, she gets