At the movies: Julie Andrews

(Minimal linguistic content.)

In the March 30th NYT, “After 50 Years, It’s Time for a Better ‘Sound of Music’” by Lawrence Downes, beginning:

“The Sound of Music,” the movie, turns 50 this year, as popular as ever, a bedrock memory of untold millions of childhoods. Mine, for sure. Some far-off day, when neural engineers do a digital download of my dying brain, they will find, way back with the oldest grudges and PIN numbers, the “Sound of Music” soundtrack, every line and rhyme. She climbs a tree and scrapes her knee. When the dog bites. Yodel-ay-hee-hoo.

The movie is returning to theaters for two days in April, and no doubt many in middle age will go, to visit an old friend who they hope hasn’t aged a bit.

A few may be disappointed. “The Sound of Music” is a great movie, but it isn’t a very good one. Critics in 1965 recoiled from its operetta schmaltz, its wooden acting, the sentimental goop poured all over what was already considered one of the sappier Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. They were right, even though the movie’s many devotees will disagree, now and forever.

Don’t get me wrong — I love the movie and still enjoy making fun of it. But I often wonder why it has never been reimagined, rescued from its reputation, reborn as a movie to enjoy for reasons other than nostalgia or camp.

Downes’s criticisms are right on the mark, I think; considered dispassionately, The Sound of Music is a dreadful movie. But notice that he doesn’t indict the star, Julie Andrews. I submit that her oh-so-sweetly sentimental persona fits right into the rest of the travesty, and that it detracts from almost all of her other performances. Yes, this is very much a minority opinion, but there it is.

Downes continues his proposal to fix The Sound of Music:

I had this thought after seeing “South Pacific” in its first Broadway revival; the director, Bartlett Sher, shook off the dated racial themes and left it radically refreshed. I remember, too, how the director Trevor Nunn, with Hugh Jackman as Curly, darkened “Oklahoma!” and made it almost terrifying.

Shouldn’t it be possible, without total demolition, to respectfully upend everyone’s idea of “The Sound of Music”? To unearth cruelty and carnality, honesty and deep feeling, all the things that lie buried under all that Salzburg sunshine and the radiance of Julie Andrews? [Note that Andrews is blameless in all of this: she’s radiant. But fix all the rest, Downes says.]

(#1)

In other words: Is this story really as one-dimensional as we think it is?

Here is Maria, a girl supposedly so wild and unfit for the convent that one nun suggests tying a cowbell on her neck. Another supplies the perfect tag line: “She’s a wonderful girl — some of the time.” There is the captain, who has seven (seven!) children. He also has issues, as we see from the moment he meets Maria and tells her he wants her out of that dress.

Rodgers and Hammerstein were no babes on Broadway. [Perhaps the problem is that with The Sound of Music they were at the end of their collaboration, which started with Oklahoma! in 1943, and they’d just run out of steam.] Their shows often have secondary couples who, unlike the prim leads, couple from the get-go. In “Oklahoma!,” Ado Annie just cain’t say no. “South Pacific” has Lieutenant Cable and young Liat, who meet and mate in about a minute. In “The Sound of Music,” it’s the daughter Liesl and Rolf, the Nazi telegram boy, whose name sounds like what I want to do whenever he’s on the screen. Their duet, in a gazebo in a thunderstorm, is all about sex and crossed signals. She’s ready; he’s an idiot. Later, she sneaks into the house, soaked, and Maria lies to cover for her.

“The Sound of Music” is never going to be “Spring Awakening,” the rock musical about sex-addled 19th-century German adolescents. But there is a lot that isn’t saccharine in the source material: devotion and desolation, spiritual fervor and erotic longing. A lonely captain who dumps his rich girlfriend for the babysitter. All that, plus lusty goatherds. And Nazis!

Now back to Andrews:

Poor Ms. Andrews has been lugging this rucksack over the Alps for 50 years. It’s time for another Maria to take it from here. What’s Lady Gaga doing?

I mean no insult to the lovely, the luminous, the practically perfect Ms. Andrews. But I liked her better in that other movie, the one where she plays an unlicensed caregiver who is hired to provide structure to two at-risk children, but instead brings them to hang with her boyfriend, a street musician who likes to get high at his uncle’s house. Can there be wit, irony and genuine laughs in a family film? Yes — keep “Mary Poppins” just as it is.

(#2)

Oh, God. Mary Poppins is the very nadir of Andrews’s oeuvre. The title character has been transformed from the stern and often cross Mary Poppins of the Travers books to a sweetly fey Julie Andrews character, and Dick Van Dyke‘s Cockney chimney sweep is deeply embarrassing.

Despite what I see as damning flaws in both movies, both of them won five Academy Awards and seem to be beloved by millions.

Wikipedia on Andrews:

Dame Julia “Julie” Elizabeth Andrews, DBE, (born 1 October 1935) is an English film and stage actress, singer, author, theatre director and dancer. Andrews, a former child actress and singer, appeared on the West End in 1948, and made her Broadway debut in a 1954 production of The Boy Friend. She rose to prominence starring in musicals such as My Fair Lady and Camelot, both of which earned her Tony Award nominations. In 1957, she appeared on television with the title role in the musical Cinderella, which was seen by over 100 million viewers.

I’m not totally down on Andrews, though; I very much like Victor Victoria, in which her character (a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman) has some edge to it — and in which she was working with a very strong supporting cast: James Garner, Robert Preston, Lesley Ann Warren, Alex Karras. Still, I think the high point of the movie is Preston’s broad burlesque “The Shady Dame from Seville”:

One Response to “At the movies: Julie Andrews”

  1. Stan Carey Says:

    It might amuse you to know (if you didn’t already) that a line in The Sound of Music has become a minor running joke in Australia for phonological reasons: Peggy Wood as the Mother Abbess asks Julie Andrews’s character, ‘What is it you can’t face?’, and the penultimate phrase is reanalysed as a coarse insult. I edited a guest post on this at Strong Language last week.

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