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Just Another Mountain to Climb : Despite vocal woes and tabloid wars, a spirited Julie Andrews soldiers on.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“It’s been a tough two years,” Julie Andrews muses. “I can’t pretend it’s been easy. But I’m a very optimistic lady.” She says this with a brisk, determined nod--an attitude Mary Poppins herself would appreciate.

It certainly has been a hard couple of years for Andrews, to the extent that it comes as a relief to find her working, healthy and in good spirits. In 1997 she underwent surgery to remove noncancerous throat nodules, a procedure that leaves it unclear whether her famous bell-like singing voice will be heard in public again.

More recently she and her attorneys have been battling a U.S. supermarket tabloid, a British daily newspaper and a London-based celebrity magazine over a range of allegations about the state of her 30-year marriage to veteran film director Blake Edwards and claims that she had entered a rehab clinic for help with substance dependency. Andrews fought back, insisting that her marriage was solid and her spell at the clinic was for grief counseling after the death of a favorite aunt.

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And she was in a resolute mood recently on this green, tranquil island off the northwest coast of England, where she is starring in a film based on Noel Coward’s 1951 play “Relative Values.”

“I don’t feel as if I’m sucking my thumb,” she said wryly. “This movie is a lovely result of all that [upheaval], I think. I’m one of those rudely hefty girls, and healthy too.” She roared with laughter. “By which I mean I’m very strong and in good health most of the time.”

For legal reasons Andrews, 64, has elected not to talk about her recent anguish. But at least her speaking voice--clear, articulate, with that precise English accent--sounds unimpaired, without a trace of hoarseness. (‘Thank you,” she says politely, when this is pointed out to her.)

So, will she ever sing again? “I think I will,” she said firmly. “I hope to. As I say, I’m an optimistic lady. And I have not ruled out that possibility.”

In “Relative Values,” which Coward labeled “a light comedy,” she plays Felicity, a widowed English countess living in a stately home. Her son, who will inherit the house, is unwisely about to marry a Hollywood starlet (Jeanne Tripplehorn) who still harbors a passion for a movie actor (William Baldwin). It turns out the starlet is actually the estranged sister of Felicity’s English maid (Sophie Thompson) who opposes the marriage. Felicity, for whom Coward wrote several devastatingly witty put-down lines, is supported in her dilemma by her witty, sympathetic nephew (Colin Firth) and a wise butler (Stephen Fry).

The modestly budgeted British film is produced by Christopher Milburn and directed by Eric Styles, a team which has already made the much-vaunted drama “Dreaming of Joseph Lees,” to be released by Fox Searchlight in October. For Andrews, “Relative Values” was irresistible.

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“I’d seen ‘Dreaming of Joseph Lees’ and was very impressed,” she said. “This script [by Paul Rattigan and Michael Walker] is terrific and it’s a lovely role. It’s rather nice to be playing a countess. And it was a chance to work with people like Colin Firth and Stephen Fry.”

She extended her arms. “Shooting here is wonderful too. It’s begun to feel like home.”

Film Could Be Vehicle to Revive Coward’s Work

Andrews’ new “home” is a huge manor house in the southwest of the island, with countless rooms and set in sweeping grounds. Andrews talked in a dining room beside a table used for a banquet sequence in “Relative Values.”

There is currently something of a vogue for Coward (1899-1973), the distinguished English playwright, screenwriter, director, actor and songwriter, here in his centenary year. Films of three of his plays (“Easy Virtue,” “Hay Fever” and “The Vortex”) are in development, though “Relative Values” is the only one in production. His reputation fluctuated wildly in his lifetime and continues to do so; his plays--class conscious, both funny and sad, full of brittle wit--speak to some generations, but not others.

“I’m hoping this film might do for Coward what other films did for E.M. Forster and Jane Austen,” Andrews said. “That is, spark a revival.”

Her own reputation has never dimmed like Coward’s, though it rests largely on just three roles from more than three decades ago. But what roles. Andrews first became an international star as Eliza Doolittle in the stage musical “My Fair Lady” in the 1950s, following up with starring roles in two classic film musicals--as the nanny in “Mary Poppins” (1964) and governess to the Von Trapp children in “The Sound of Music” the next year. More recently she made a triumphant comeback with “Victor/Victoria” in 1995, her first appearance on Broadway in 35 years.

She has never performed an entire Coward work, though in “Star!” (1968), the unsuccessful biopic of stage star and Coward collaborator Gertrude Lawrence, she performed excerpts from his play “Private Lives” and his revue “The Red Peppers.”

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“I love Coward’s music,” she said. “And I knew him. He was around a lot during the run of ‘My Fair Lady’ on Broadway. He’d come backstage to see Rex Harrison, and was very gentle, friendly and sparkly.

“I remember wonderful evenings, one in particular when Roddy McDowall invited over an amazing assembly of people to his New York apartment, and Coward played his musical ‘Sail Away’ for us before it was ever produced. Rex was there, Judy Garland and Richard Burton. [Coward] wasn’t a close friend but he was a pretty constant acquaintance.”

Since becoming an international star, Andrews has moved easily in such glamorous circles--a fact not lost on producer Milburn, who can barely believe she is starring in his film.

“To me it’s bizarre that I’m working with Julie Andrews,” he said. “She’s a legend. And she’s a true professional with no airs and graces. . . . There were all sorts of more obvious people, I suppose. Judi Dench, maybe, or Maggie Smith. But we felt Julie was absolutely spot-on when it came to the character of Felicity and could lend that humor without taking it over the top and making it too theatrical.”

“Relative Values” should be finished by the spring, by which time Andrews will have moved on to several other projects. She has a new children’s book coming out in October, is collaborating on another book with her daughter Emma (from her first marriage to designer Tony Walton) and will start writing her autobiography, covering her early life in England.

She and Edwards commute between homes in Gstaad, Switzerland, and New York City. They also have a pied-a-terre in Los Angeles, where he is preparing his next film. Is there a part for her? “Only being an enthusiastic and supportive wife,” she said.

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“Blake also has a wonderful [stage] idea he’d like to write for me and Carol Burnett, who I’ve worked with a lot before. She’s a great friend and Emma’s godmother. But so far, it’s only a germ of an idea.”

(In November, Andrews will star in a CBS Sunday Movie, “One Special Night,” which reunites her with James Garner, her co-star in 1982’s “Victor/Victoria” and the 1964 film “The Americanization of Emily.”)

Andrews says she’s still on the lookout for appropriate film roles: “I certainly couldn’t play ingenue roles anymore. But I don’t feel ready to retire, or anything like that. I don’t see why it should be considered. I seem to be as busy as ever, though maybe one isn’t doing as much as one used to. Still, it doesn’t stop the joy of doing it when you do it.”

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