As part of the Conversation Series, I’ll be speaking with certain contributors about certain movies at certain times.
Zach Schonfeld is a “writer” living in “Manhattan.” He is currently a reporter for Newsweek Magazine and studied English and American Studies at Wesleyan University, for which we’re all very proud.
We spoke at length about 1965’s Best Picture winner, The Sound of Music.
Sam Sklar: Let’s first start with overall impressions and thoughts about the movie.
Zach Schonfeld: Well, I’d seen the play before but I’d never actually seen the film before. And it was very whimsical I thought; it was very family friendly. It is interesting that movies like that were pretty frequently nominated for Oscars in the ’60s. And now musicals don’t win best picture anymore.
S: The last one was Chicago [in 2002]
Z: I mean, La La Land, came close…but today, movies that are so whimsical are seen as being un-serious by critics, but that wasn’t the case back then, which I find interesting. There’s an historic element to the film, too. It captures a specific era of history, which would be the Nazi era. But it translates it for family-friendly audiences.
S: It sanitizes it a little bit, where the Nazis were just your typical adversarial element rather than a world-changing evil, in a way.
Z: Yea, it didn’t really contend with the reality of Nazis, but you can’t really expect it to do that. The music – not my thing, as I don’t really listen to show tunes, but it’s obviously endured incredibly. It’s hard to think of another musical from that era that has endured.
S: The only on I can think of “My Fair Lady”.
Z: Yea, I mean. Even that hasn’t been quite as ubiquitous. Maybe West Side Story?
S: So what do you think it is about these songs, because you can remember, “Doe, a Deer…” and obviously you’ve got “My Favorite Things” (wait is that that song, yes that’s that song). Then there’s, “How do you deal with a problem like Maria” songs that are very nostalgic.
For me, I first saw this as a kid with my dad [probably around 1996], and I liked it because it was basically made for kids. I enjoyed more now [in 2018] as a piece of nostalgic media rather than a “great movie,” but the story’s pretty solid. I don’t know what classifies it as a “timeless, great film.”
Z: I agree. I think some of the whimsy of it has not aged particularly well. It’s corny – you know – and maybe the corniness grated on me because I’m not a huge musical theatre guy. The scenes with Maria and the children were sort of the heart of the movie. The most memorable songs are the ones during those scenes. I thought Christopher Plummer’s character’s development was so ridiculously swift: he magically transforms from tight-ass dad to loves whimsy guy falls in love with Julie Andrews.
That falls-in-love plot was pretty silly.
S: It needed to happen for this movie to make sense. The family’s dynamic is one thing; then you’ve got the Baroness coming in and this Max guy, big-deal producer, coming in, chipping away slowly and allowing Plummer’s character to develop over time. But, I agree. It doesn’t feel believable: a military-style father just meets a great, kind of free-flowing, going-against-the-grain woman and automatically changes who he is to please her. That’s not a thing.
S: Or was it? Were people more open in the ’30s? I find it hard to believe. I’m finding it hard to believe. I’m looking for any time in human history where people change their stripes once their of a certain age: you are who you are.
Z: It happened very fast in the film. It’s a little silly. But it’s iconic…what makes it so iconic? I found two things: one is the music, the nature of the music, the fact that kids in fourth-grade classes are singing these songs still, today. And two: Julie Andrews’ performance. It just a definitive performance for her. It’s hard to imagine another actress playing that role as well. I think she’s great in it. She can summon the energy and spirit of Maria.
S: I want to dig down on what you said about fourth-graders all over the world singing this music. One of the things that I found iconic was that every person, of every generation, can find something to like about this movie. It’s a true family film: it’s not “geared toward kids” and parents just have to endure. And it’s not meant for adults, where kids just have to figure it out [or not, as it turns out. i read this film much differently at 29 than i did at 8]. The themes can be interpreted from whatever perspective you’re looking at it.
Even for what stage you’re at in children’s development; there’s a 6-year-old and a 16-year-old. Those human elements don’t change so much. A 16 year old girl is looking to have a tryst with a local boy; and a younger boy is trying to be flirtatious but doesn’t know how to talk to women; and the youngest child is still precocious and it’s cute in a way. So kids can see themselves in each of the von Trapp children.
Then as you get older you get the “Marias”; you get the Georg’s and the Baroness are having this “adult relationship” and you get the outside perspective of the older folks. Every age in that film has been characterized. It’s very relatable.
Z: There’s a very rich melodrama element to it that spans generations of characters and audiences.
S: I agree with you, too, that Julie Andrews – ‘is Maria’ – I think she’s that same person today [in 2018] She’s very much a whimsical person in a way. I think of George C. Scott as “Patton”. Julie Andrews is cute, and fun and I agree, who else could have played that role?
Z: I was just looking at the list of BP winners in the ’60s. My Fair Lady won in 1964; West Side Story, which was also directed by [The Sound of Music director] Robert Wise, won in 1961, and Mary Poppins was also nominated in ’64. This was clearly an age of film-adaptations of popular musicals.
S; Still, Oliver!, won in ’68, so it continued on.
Z: Oh, yeah, good point. It just striking to me that so many winners in this period were film adaptations of musicals. A lot of people would regard The Sound of Music as the pinnacle of that trend.
S: It’s right in the center. Go back to the ’50s and The King and I starting the trend of movie musicals having much higher production value. The stories have grown with the audience in a way. Lots of these stories have been adapted. My Fair Lady is a good example: the story had been adapted from a story from the ’30s [Pygmalion was the story], and the people who may have seen that as kids in the ’30s are now older, had grown up with the story, and now get to see this great production, with music written by Rogers and Hammerstein. It’s well-respected, well-known, and flamboyant – ostentatious – in the best way.
I continue to look at this trend and right around 1970 is when film “technique” became much more important, and serious themes. and that trend continues to this day.
Z: What year did you name?
S: 1970. is when it kinda switched.
Z: It appears to me that the most acclaimed movies of the ’70s were grittier and more violent and more obviously geared toward adult audiences.
S: Why do you think that is? There was a noted shift in what studios wanted to make and what audiences wanted to see. You can talk about world events like the conflict in Vietnam, and that the world had become a little less whimsical. Vietnam became this sticking point in a way that Korea wasn’t, and World War II had happened too long ago for people to be “activists” about it. Do you think film culture reflected this?
Z: Yea i think there was some loss of innocence that occurred in the late ’60s and early ’70s with first Vietnam and then Watergate. I think the ’70s were a Golden Age of the crime movie. Both [Martin] Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola made amazing films during that decade and that had a profound influence on the movie industry, both what critics were talking about and what audiences were seeing.
Musical theatre remains popular 50 years later but now it’s niche – it’s not the default critically acclaimed movie.
S: It’s also not as profitable. La La Land, as you were saying, was an example of success – modern success – so can we maybe draw some similarities between what made la la land a success and what made The Sound of Music a success in 1963? Are there timeless elements?
Z: To be honest, I never actually saw La La Land!
S: I thought it was fine. The music was good and I think Ryan Gosling is a good actor and I think Emma Stone is a good actor, too. I think it was a nice movie, it was nice.
The themes were overly sanitized but my biggest complaint about it was that it was “white people saving jazz” which is very disingenuous and was the biggest turn-off for me. But it was fun.
To be continued on August 18th.