After a two-year pandemic delay, Julie Andrews was finally honored with AFI’s Life Achievement Award on Thursday, in a star-studded celebration that included Carol Burnett, Steve Carell, Gwen Stefani and Cynthia Erivo.
The 86-year-old star of The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins and The Princess Diaries made a rare public appearance at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood to receive the honor, telling The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the event, “I’m still taking the wonder of it in because it’s such a huge evening.”
And living up to that, the evening kicked off with a spectacle, as a woman in costume as Mary Poppins descended from the ceiling and flew around the theater, followed by an onstage Sound of Music cast reunion with the film’s child stars, including Angela Cartwright, Debbie Turner, Duane Chase, Kym Karath and Nicholas Hammond, now all grown up. They led the entire crowd in a singalong of “Do-Re-Mi,” before a video began with Andrews reflecting on her upbringing and key moments in her career, which would be woven through the rest of the evening.
Burnett, Andrews’ longtime friend who sat beside her for the whole celebration, recalled when the two then-theater actors met in 1960, went to dinner and never stopped talking — and haven’t since.
“It was if we’d always known each other, and that evening kicked off what was to be, so far, a six-decade relationship, professional and best of all, personal,” Burnett said, reflecting on their multiple comedy specials together.
“This award is so very much deserved. Julie has constantly given us her all and her all is awe-inspiring,” she added. “You’re a great dame in every sense of the word. I love you. Congratulations Chum,” referencing a nickname the two call each other.
Dick Van Dyke, who starred opposite Andrews in Mary Poppins, sent a video message, joking that “first of all I want to thank you for not criticizing my Cockney accent because it was really bad — the worst ever seen in cinema, someone once wrote.” He also declared, “For a lady who doesn’t have any blue blood, you’re royalty, I really mean it.”
Next up Carell, who plays Andrews’ animated son in the Despicable Me franchise, appeared on stage, teasing that her character in the films is “an absolute horror show” while the actress is quite the opposite.
“It’s kind of a miracle when you meet someone who is an authentic legend and they not only live up to your expectations but succeed them,” Carell said. “She is the epitome of grace and elegance. She is kinder, funnier and more charming than you’d ever imagine. She’s even better than you’d hope she’d be. It has been a career highlight for me to able to know her and work with her, even in some small way.”
Jane Seymour, Bo Derek and Hector Elizondo also took the mic to sing Andrews’ praises, and Stefani — a lifelong fan who said The Sound of Music changed her life — gushed, “I would not be me without the inspiration of Julie Andrews. I have to pinch myself right now because this is crazy.”
Near the end of the evening, Erivo made a surprise appearance to perform a rendition of The Sound of Music’s “Edelweiss,” followed by a video package of sweet sentiments from Anne Hathaway, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ariana DeBose, Kristin Chenoweth, Kelly Clarkson, Hugh Jackman and Bridgerton‘s Nicola Coughlan.
“Not only is she real, she’s better than real, she’s aspirational. I’m so lucky that she was there to set an example for me when I was starting,” Hathaway, who starred alongside Andrews in The Princess Diaries, said. “I love you Julie. Cheers to you.”
Then it finally came time for Andrews herself to take the stage, which she did to a massive standing ovation.
“I had no idea what I was going to see tonight and I’m gobsmacked,” she told the audience. “Thanks to all of the friends tonight who have contributed so much.” The star noted what a collaboration the night was, and recalled a story of leaving the Fox lot while finishing The Sound of Music and running into a set painter, remembering how enthusiastic he was and how it reminded her how many people are involved in making movies.
“Usually on a night such as this, one thanks one’s agent and one’s manager, one’s publicist, and in fact I do thank all of them, and they’re all here this evening,” Andrews said. “But I would also like to thank the vast number of people you don’t get to see other than when their names are listed in those all-too-fast credits, and I wish something would be done about that one day, for they are the unsung heroes of moviemaking.”
She proceeded to highlight every job on a film set, saying, “I know that without the contributions and the talent and dedication of all those good people, I very much doubt that I would be standing here tonight.”
“I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this honor this evening,” Andrews concluded. “I’ll never forget this wonderful night and this beautiful award which I will treasure always.”
One other award was presented during the celebration, to CODA director Sia Heder (and AFI alum) for the Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medal.
In her speech, she thanked AFI for “teaching me to embrace the process, to not know, and to be OK with not knowing. To reach for things that scare me and have faith that I’ll figure it out.”
“If I could say anything to these young directors coming up, it would’ve been what I would have told myself: It is OK to feel that you know nothing. It’s a beautiful state to be in,” Heder added. “The only thing that you have to know is your story, and you’ll figure out the rest.”
The AFI Life Achievement Award Gala Tribute to Julie Andrews special will air June 16 on TNT.