Like the iconic nanny who made her an international star, Julie Andrews’s second memoir is brisk, no-nonsense—a spit-spot, spot-on walk through the crowded hours of her prime Hollywood career. But Home Work is also eloquently introspective, and further proof, if any were needed, that Andrews’s personal life has been anything but “practically perfect in every way.” The title is a play on her best-selling 2008 memoir, Home: A Memoir of My Early Years, but it does double duty as a meditation on the challenges of work-life balance for a brilliant career woman whose reality has always been more Mrs. Banks than Mary Poppins.
So, Andrews’s charming, well-told accounts of the making of Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and 10 share these 300-plus pages with her candid exploration of a complicated domestic existence. She recounts the friendly breakup of her first marriage, to the British scenic-and-costume designer Tony Walton (their daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, is the co-author of Home Work, along with several other books by Andrews); her second tumultuous but enduring marriage, to the screenwriter and director Blake Edwards; and their raising of her daughter, his two children by a previous marriage, and the two Vietnamese girls they adopted together.
A spit-spot, spot-on walk through the crowded hours of her prime Hollywood career.
There are highs: longtime friendships with the likes of Carol Burnett, Mike Nichols, and Henry Mancini; dinner à deux with a dying Cole Porter; skiing in Switzerland; and cruising on the family yacht. But there are also trials: Andrews’s close but pained relationship with her aging, angry mother; Edwards’s recurring bouts of depression, abuse of pain pills, and a nervous breakdown that culminated in (and seems to have been partly cured by) his 1986 film à clef, That’s Life!, in which Jack Lemmon plays an obsessive, hypochondriacal architect facing his 60th birthday and Andrews plays his tenderly patient wife. The film was shot in the family’s real-life home in Malibu, and it is full of the sort of exasperating interactions that Andrews captures well in this book when she describes losing it with her bickering young daughters at breakfast one morning. “I suddenly heard myself saying, ‘We will have harmony in this house!’ as I whacked a pancake onto a plate,” she writes at one point.
Once a Brit
Andrews is a natural writer—alone and with Walton Hamilton she has a string of successful children’s books to her credit—and her authentically British voice shines through here. Days aren’t rainy; they are “pouring with rain.” She is aided by her reliance on the apparently meticulous diaries she kept over the decades, and is engagingly honest about her emotional journey as a performer. She writes of going weak in the knees after her first intense on-screen love scene with a devastatingly handsome James Garner in The Americanization of Emily in 1964—and of doing the same thing all over again nearly 20 years later after their first kiss in Victor/Victoria.
Andrews’s first memoir chronicled a traumatic upbringing: her parents’ divorce; the revelation that the man she’d always known as her dad was not her biological father; the abusive alcoholism of her stepfather, a small-time music-hall performer who made her take his name. If this second book falls more in an established star’s genre of “and then I made … ” it nevertheless has its own share of insights, born of Andrews’s long years of psychoanalysis.
A brilliant career woman whose reality has always been more Mrs. Banks than Mary Poppins.
She was often crippled by a lack of confidence, and confesses that she kept her Oscar for Mary Poppins in her attic for a time because she felt unworthy of it. After an early therapy session in the mid-1960s, when she wondered if she really loved singing, since she’d always had to work so hard at it, her psychiatrist suggested that she might love it too much. She burst into tears, because, she writes, “I realized then that singing had become such a part of me, was so profoundly ingrained in my soul, that if the wonder and joy of it were ever taken away, I might not survive.”
That’s an eerie foreshadowing of the botched vocal-cord surgery that robbed her of much of her voice after she strained it during the Broadway run of Victor/Victoria. This volume ends before that tragedy—and Andrews’s resulting third-stage career as a non-singing Disney star all over again in The Princess Diaries—but she makes clear that she has, indeed, survived, even thrived.
“The truth is, I never anticipated any of it,” she writes. “I just took the opportunities that were in front of me and waded in. I wobbled, and I waffled, and there were certainly challenges along the way…. Was I scared? You bet. Did I feel inadequate? All the time. Did I want to overcome those feelings and succeed? Absolutely. Thankfully I was willing to pay my dues, and to learn. And I never took anything for granted.”
How lucky for us that she didn’t.
Todd S. Purdum is a staff writer for The Atlantic and the author of Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution