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, starting in Part I, here. This time around we dive into musical theatre and Christopher Plummer’s disdain for his role.
Sam Sklar: Musicals live on in cartoon a lot – in the ’80s and ’90s – it shifted away from being for families to being for children. The genres broke apart and they became a little more post-modern. A lot more dialogue around what is for kids for adults and not for families. Everyone’s time is a little more compartmentalized, ideas need to be put into compartments instead of just having an experience. It is interesting to look back and see this. This shift away from musicals and then back into musicals with this new skin on it.
I’m not drawn to musical theatre either. When I was a kid I would think: ‘Why are they singing?’ until I realized, you know, “that’s the genre,” and that’s what it is. I didn’t understand. I get opera because they’re singing all of the time, and I get drama because they’re singing none of the time.
Zach Schonfeld: So, why are they singing some of the time?
S: Ha, right! Why are they randomly breaking into song? And then I got older and understood that’s the point, the form of entertainment.
S: I’m just not drawn to it naturally. I appreciate it though. I think it takes a lot of talent to sing and dance and act. It’s just adding more to the entertainment value.
Speaking of which: Christopher Plummer did not do his own singing in this.
Z: No, he did not. Someone else did.
S: You don’t — didn’t — really notice that. So the question is: why was he cast in this role?
Z: I don’t know. I feel like there’s probably a story but i don’t know what it is.
S: might be worth looking into when I write this up and put a little aside in there.
[Aside: In 2012, Plummer sat for an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon, where he discussed how the film’s producers overdubbed his part with singing from maestro Bill Lee. The team of Lee & Plummer, in effect, tag-teamed the role, with Lee sounding astoundingly like Plummer as Captain von Trapp.]
Z: It’s interesting because this role made him a real star and was the most famous role of his career. And he’s made it clear that he resents how much this role has followed him around. He doesn’t really want to be known as Captain von Trapp. When I interviewed him [for Newsweek in June 2018] he said something like, “Oh as soon as I played that role, all the roles that were offered to me were uptight sons-of-bitches like Captain von Trapp. I didn’t want to be a leading man; I couldn’t wait to be a character actor.”
He thought it was a dull character. He wanted to play more interesting characters and he complained a lot on set that the film was “too sentimental, too gooey,” and he’s credited himself as pushing Director Robert Wise to make it less sentimental, to cut down on the sentimentality, which I think is a noble pursuit and made the film better.
But i think over the years he’s referred to it as The Sound of “Mucus” and has expressed a lot of irritation as being known for that movie out of all his roles.
S: I see his point. I can’t speak about how I would be if were him, but it did launch his career. Everyone’s got to start somewhere. Everyone’s going to be remembered – if you’re a good actor – you’re going to be known for a role or two and think about it like this. What if he bombed this role what if he was not good in this role – then NO more parts. is that preferable?
Z: no, I think he recognizes that the role brought him quite a bit of wealth and fame, and led to many different opportunities. I think just after 50 years he’s sick of being associated with that movie even though he’s done so many other great movies.
S: I see and I get it: time does compound the resentment. I didn’t even know it was him until I watched it again, recently.
Z: Yeah, I mean, until I was much older (well I never actually saw the movie when I was a kid), from the movies I know him from now – recent roles – I never would have recognized him. It’s a different era — he’s so much younger.
S: Julie Andrews looks the same though. She’s older but has the same — look I’m not sure she’s strayed so far from Maria, whereas Christopher Plummer was interested in pursuing the art form, it sounds — more dynamic roles as an actor, and Andrews was content being Julie Andrews.
Z: That’s true. I think The Sound of Music was more characteristic of what Julie Andrews is great at rather than what Christopher Plummer was great at, which is not to say that he’s not good in it, just to say that role doesn’t give him a lot of room.
S: He was basically a straight man for Julie Andrews’ character.
Z: Yeah, exactly.
S: His dynamism was, this narrow band of “whelp, I’m boring and I’m tight” to “whelp, I’m free and not,” whereas he was one thing the whole time and never wavered. and he was put there to foil her. It’s fine.
Back to what you said earlier: It’s about her performance and the music. I’m glad this move exists, it’s a good showcase of the era.
One thing I did notice as I was doing some research — I wanted to know where the kids went after this movie – there were six kids. I looked and none of them really had acting careers. One’s now a software developer.
Z: He’s a software developer?
S: He’s a software developer best known for playing Hansel von Trapp in the ’60s film, The Sound of Music. Some of them had long and scattered careers the would act occasionally but did other things. One’s Wikipedia page drew a clear conclusion that she left acting and became a mother — that was her “job” — she raised four kids was how her life story kind of went.
It launched Christopher Plummer’s career and solidified Julie Andrews’ career but no one else. I just found that very odd.
Z: It is odd. There’s a story in Christopher Plummer’s memoir in which he was doing some Broadway play in the ’80s and he’s backstage and some blond woman shows up backstage and walks up to him and says “Do you remember me?” and he’s like “No” and she’s like “I’m Gretel von Trapp.”
S: She’s now in her 30s and he’s in his 50s and contemporaries they are, but there you have it.
What else did Wise direct?
Z: He directed West Side Story and he did some sci-fi movies as well, right? He did The Day The Earth Stood Still and he directed the original version of The Haunting, which is a classic horror film. He was a very versatile director.
S: Ah! he did the first Star Trek movie. He also was an editor on Citizen Kane and was nominated for Best Editing. super versatile very interesting. I wonder what made him give up musicals?
Z: It’s interesting that he made great films in so many different genres. Have you seen The Haunting? It’s a great film?
S: I have not seen The Haunting.
Z: It’s a great film. It’s a classic suspense-horror film.
S: I’m definitely interested in it. Who’s in it? I don’t know any of these people. Was it kind of a “B Movie?”
Z: Not really; it’s not corny. It’s a classic ’60s era suspense movie — pretty Hitchcock-ish. Claire Bloom [who acted in the haunting] was married to [famous author, known for “American Pastoral” and “Portnoy’s Complaint,” among many others] Philip Roth – is that the right person? Yeah, that’s right. Anyway The Haunting was later remade in the late ’90s and the remake did not go over well.
S: Reading an unconfirmed source here that Scorsese put The Haunting on his list of the 11 scariest films of all time.
Z: That sounds very plausible.
S: They remade the movie with Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and… Owen Wilson.
Z: The remake is very over-produced, big budget and got terrible reviews. Though, it’s better than it gets credit for.
S: incredibly, the budget was 80 times larger than they had in the ’60s.
S: It came out ahead, made a profit….anyway we’re digressing
It’s continuously interesting that Robert Wise had such a diverse career. I wonder if him having a storied career, you gotta wonder what made him so interested in being sentimental, that Plummer had to “talk him down?”
It’s also interesting how his greatest success came from his musicals: he won Best Director, Best Picture for both West Side Story and The Sound of Music. And then had a couple of nominations here or there and didn’t win anything else. Maybe he was also a little resentful? Eh, speculation.
Z: I don’t know.
S: I’m interested also in how “My Favorite Things” translated into a jazz standard. I wonder what you think about that?
Z: Coltrane’s version played a big role in that. His version turned the song into a 12 minute free jazz composition. I would assume that was the first jazz rendition of the song, but I’m not positive.
S: A fourteen minute version as a title track to an album recorded in 1960. He also played it on the very great album Newport ’63.
Z: So that’s even before the movie came out! Outkast has a really great version of “My Favorite Things.” You’ve heard that before? ‘
S: I haven’t! but now i need to listen to it…
Z; it’s on “The Love Below” it’s kind of a Drum’N’Bass version of the song.
S: It has a lot of the jazz features in it, in a way. It’s written about and around a musical scale for the most part. It allows then for a lot of riffing. That’s what Coltrane also apparently saw?
Theo Parrish — I don’t know if you know him — he’s a House musician for the most part. H did this great compilation a couple of years ago called “Black Jazz Signature,” where an artist called Gene Russell did a great version of the song which made me go back and listen to Coltrane a bunch of times.
That has a lot of significance in what makes this film endure so much that I can connect Coltrane to The Sound Of Music, even subconsciously or without thinking about it so much. I didn’t even realize that it was “cover” when i first heard it. it would be interesting if someone edited it into the movie.
S: No voices, just these white people running around the hills of Austria with Coltrane’s jazz soundtrack synced up.
Anyway, I thought that the other films that came out in 1965, this was probably the right choice for Best Picture. One of the interesting things about this blog is that I haven’t necessarily seen the other films nominated. So I try to make a statement and leave it open for interpretation. The only one I’ve heard of from 1965 is Doctor Zhivago and even still. The other ones: A Thousand Clowns? Have you even heard of this? There’s…
Z: I haven’t seen any off these.
S: …Ship of Fools?
Z: What other movies came out in 65?
S: Good question. Thunderball! the James Bond films — those are never going to be nominated. they’re not “good films” they’re just “fun” films. Shenandoah, Jimmy Stewart kinda got into a Western kick, late. What’s New, Pussycat? it’s Woody Allen.
Z: Yeah, it doesn’t seem like I know any other great movies from that year.
S: It’s not a particularly strong year.
S: Doctor Zhivago was a very famous story from the ’30s.
Z: I know what it is, but I’ve just never bothered to watch it.
S: It’s hard to judge here but we’re right in the middle of the Musical frenzy, in the States at least. People wanted Musicals, they wanted to feel nostalgic about the time period, instead of thinking about war.
People wanted to see more Julie Andrews after her performances in Mary Poppins [for which she won Best Actress]. She won over Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. I wonder if that was considered an upset? Anyway she didn’t win 1965, Julie Christie won for…..
Kind of a weak year for film. It’s one year that correlates how much money a film made with a win in the Best Picture category. In 1966 when A Man For All Seasons won — it was only fifth at the box office, compared to The Bible: In The Beginning, which pulled in $34 million [in 1966 dollars, or over $250 million in 2018 dollars]. So, The Sound of Music is widely regarded in terms of box office success.
I’m looking now, The Graduate made a lot of money but that made just over $100 million and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made over $100 million in 1969 but The Sound of Music made $160 million – in terms of today’s dollars must be the highest grossing film of all time. [It’s not: though in 2018 dollars it made over $1.292 billion. Perhaps more importantly, look at its return: for a movie that cost just $8.2 million in 1965 ($66 million in 2018), the return is outrageous. Looking at a more modern film: Avatar, which brought in over $900 million, adjusted for inflation, but cost $237 million ($282 million). The margins are slimming.]
I wonder when films started made a TON of money [budgets also increased, massively]. It’s a combination of more people seeing films, more films being made, and ticket prices increasing. So yeah, The Sound of Music, Best Picture winner, 1965.