All in the Family
Film history is rife with dream teams, all too frequently auteur-muse in nature: von Sternberg and Dietrich, Godard and Karina, Tarantino and Pitt. But few have surpassed Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards in talent, daring, or capacity for mischief. After falling in love on the set of Edwards’ ill-received and costly spy musical Darling Lili, the reluctant show business couple married in 1969. Both boasted celebrated careers ahead of that: She was synonymous with Maria von Trapp; he’d conjured up Pink Panther and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But it’s the six films they worked on together — heady espionage dramas and screwball visions of a long-gone entertainment industry — that speak to their strengths: his biting wit and madness; her vocal range and ability to hold scene after scene no matter the genre. Together, gifts fused over, and often commented on, their art and love. He was no auteur and she was no muse; proudly so.
The year the U.S. Skylab Space Station decayed and plummeted back down to Earth, Edwards assisted the American male in meeting a similar fate in his screwball comedy 10. Newly-discovered actor Dudley Moore takes up the role of George Webber, a fortysomething composer ensconced with actress Samantha Moore (Andrews) yet hellbent on destroying his life by chasing after the nameless woman he considers perfection, played by Bo Derek.
Georgie’s frantic, international attempts to ensnare his ‘Perfect 10’ result in an array of maladies, from bee stings to his long-term girlfriend’s deft tongue-lashings. Yet all of Edwards’ patriarchal self-deprecation delights. Witnessing George and Samantha match one another so squarely in intellect underscores what a fool’s errand he’s on. Yet desire is universally fickle and, when expressed by a neurotic, makes for grand physical comedy. A memorable extended burst happens early on in the film when the couple spars over the pejorative nature of word ‘broad.’ A dictionary is snatched from a shelf as the debate cascades into romantic separation. For Andrews and Edwards, art seems to have not imitated life, at least in this instance. “Paul Newman calls her ‘the last of the really great broads,’” the director once recalled in fondness.
The writer-director and actor reunited several years later in 1981 for another tale of love in La La Land, only in this case the former takes a backseat to the latter. Drawing from his own fits of fury over the shabby treatment of Darling Lili, the tragicomedy S.O.B. tails unhinged producer Felix Farmer as his musical starring Farmer’s estranged wife Sally (Andrews), is snatched from theatrical release by the studio. After a quartet of expertly-composed suicide attempts, he decides to give the milieu’s masses what they want and re-shoot his opus as an erotic flick: including a topless scene with a reluctant Sally. It would be Andrews’ first and last risque pose, though one that poked fun of the perma-pristine image that The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins solidified. For exaggerating the seedy characters that flank the studio system — from the young groupies to the haggy lesbian agent — Edwards received quite the finger-wag from the era’s critics. But as conversations about filmmaker autonomy, Netflix, and Disney balloon today, S.O.B. offers an essential dose of laughter through tears.
Edwards’ adaptation of Reinhold Schünzel’s gender-bending bohemian comedy Viktor und Viktoria premiered a swift six months after S.O.B.. With Andrews (whose agent had discovered the original) in the leading role(s), the musical would become a commercial-critical hit and, in turn, Lili Smith’s long-awaited revenge. Ardent critics of Lady Gaga’s “100 People in a Room” spiel will appreciate that Edwards once praised Andrews for never giving the same interview twice. Though the ways in which Victor/Victoria challenged her unlike any other film have regularly entered conversation. “All through the film I was constantly looking for more,” she conceded the morning after Victor’s Los Angeles debut. “I never had it under my belt completely.” A year later, the sentiment remained. “… it was a very difficult, multifaceted role,” she told Playboy. “There were so many things to work out. As someone who likes to be in control, I felt wobbly.”
And for good reason. Here was an actress portraying, through song and dance, a wretched chanteuse with a high D-flat who masquerades as Polish count who moonlights as sequined female impersonator: a feat requiring far more effort than the “Broader! With tons of shoulder!” that Victoria’s diva mentor Toddy (Robert Preston) demands. As the more fluid among us can attest, the demarcations between gender personae often seem unreliable, hostile even; all the more for the performer tasked with them during a moment as removed from the liberated Parisian cabaret as one can get: the early 1980s. While its titling may seem caught in a démodé binary, Victor/Victoria’s restlessness and uncertainty are anything but retrograde. The same goes for its Art Deco drip.
Four years later, Edwards and Andrews would gift us with their final collaboration. Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1986, That’s Life! is a work so unlike the others. It’s almost earnest, plenty domestic, and transpires at a safe distance from the punishing gears of show biz; qualities that must never be mistaken for newfound piety on the family’s part. Andrews plays Gillian Fairchild, a singer — a la Florence “Cléo” Victoire — who secretly awaits the results of a biopsy. Meanwhile, her architect husband Harvey (Jack Lemmon) enters an adrenopausal mania as his 60th birthday celebration draws near.
Independently filmed on Andrews’ dime in the couple’s Malibu home and starring their two daughters, That’s Life! is an intimate culmination of two lives well-spent together, fittingly disguised as a raucous comedy. After an extended battle with cytomegalovirus and Epstein-Barre, Edwards desired to flip the script. “I was sitting outside in the jacuzzi with Julie and Jenny, my daughter, and I just jokingly said, ‘We’re all professionals in this family, there’s nepotism anyway, why don’t we really just go whole hog, do it all, and just do a family film?’” he told audiences at TIFF.
While her characters in her husbands’ films are often subject to — and gracefully navigate — the varied labyrinths of masculine insanity, this familial experiment offered Andrews a criminally rare shot at seriousness. “Dramatically, nobody’s really explored what she can do,” the writer-director hinted a few years earlier. “I have a feeling that as Julie gets a little older and starts getting into more character roles, her dramatic potential will be realized.”
Caught between nurturing her adult children and tempering the disruptiveness of her husband, Gillian maintains the wavering resolve of a matriarch whose own needs threaten to burst forth. That tension is not easily resolved — as in 10, S.O.B., and Victor/Victoria — with Andrews’ bursting forth into song, but with a conversation that vibrates between a marriage of expert dialogue and performances. It is relieving, perhaps most so for Andrews, to not associate the Dame with the sound of music.