The Stands Were Alive as Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer Relived THE SOUND OF MUSIC
Godspeed, Christopher Plummer, whose star blazed across seven decades and who still made me sigh when he glided onto the screen in Knives Out just a year or so ago. Just a few years earlier, he’d taken on the daunting task of subbing at the last second for Kevin Spacey in All the Money in the World, astounding director Ridley Scott with his mastery of the complex, demanding role with little time to even memorize his many scenes, let alone prep for the murky role.
My Mom and I were lucky enough to see him in his one-man show of Barrymore, which amply called on his natural wry wit and deep emotional range, on display in his film career as well—playing everything from ruthless film producers and Nazi generals to legendary newscasters and sympathetic detectives. He finally won an Oscar for his role in Beginners, as an elderly man who comes out to his family and finds love during the last years of his life. “I have a confession to make,” he told the adoring crowd. “When I first emerged from my mother’s womb I was already rehearsing my Academy thank-you speech.” (And yes, that was me you heard, laughing and sobbing in my living room.)
But his most famous role was one he often dismissed, but finally embraced: Baron von Trapp in The Sound of Music.
Back in March 2015, when the new print kicked off the TCM Classic Film Festival, he and Julie Andrews—who still clearly adored each other—gave us a glimpse of their Music memories during a pre-screening interview with Sid Ganis, first vice president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Ganis kicked things off by asking who in the audience had never seen the film—and the first hand to shoot up was Plummer’s. Turns out that during the film’s New York premiere,”all the males went to a bar,” Plummer laughed. “We’d kind of seen it, you know? So we spent most of the night in the bar. I can’t do that any more like I used to, damn it.”
The actor had derided the film in the past, even jokingly referring to it as The Sound of Mucus—and at one point, didn’t think much of film work, period. He and Andrews touched on that, and more, during their conversation:
CP: Funnily enough, I was asked to do The Sound of Music on Broadway… Mary Martin took a shine to me but her husband said, ‘Mary, he’s 29 years old, darling…” And of course Theodore Bikel did it beautifully.
In those days I thought the stage was it. You think the theatre is so intellectual but then you think, ‘What am I doing?!? They pay so well in the movies!’ But early in my movie career, you’ll see me walking around not really knowing where to go.
Working with Julie, though… I sort of fell in love with her when I was sitting up in the theatre balcony watching her as Eliza Doolittle. She’s wonderful… an old-fashioned saint… you’d follow her into battle the way you would Joan of Arc.
JA: <laughs> You called me a saint? How dare you, sir! Ruining my reputation! We’ve always been great chums though.
CP: And for all I’ve said about the film, I think this is the primal family movie of all time… it’s a fairy story brought to life—the last bastion of peace and innocence in a terrible time.
JA: Richard Rodgers’ daughter Mary said it was the one show that translated better to the screen from the stage—of all those walloping hits! And everyone making the film was at the peak of their talents. And the quality of the music is phenomenal.
CP: The arrangements were extraordinary—just magical!
JA: And a huge orchestra!
CP: Well, yes, as someone who was trying to sing above them…
JA: And the beautiful Alps and the children and the nuns…
CP: …could have been really mawkish!
JA: You made it less saccharine—you made it have an astringency because of the way you played the captain. And without that, we would have been sunk, my love. I really mean that. You and [director] Robert Wise made sure of that. With his innate good taste, he saw the problem, that it could go that way.
He was a gentleman and a gentle man. And of course was one of the editors on Citizen Kane. He had a great sense of economy of emotion. He taught me something—he said, ‘Julie, look in one place only, don’t look left-right-left-right, keep still.’ What a gift that was! That huge close-up—be still! I guess we were rattling back and forth in some of the early dailies that he saw.
And the wonderful choreographers went ahead to the locations and took measurements of how many steps for each number, etc. so when we got there it was all laid out for us!
CP: We filmed backwards, first in Austria and then back to California. And you were always carting oxen up a hill or something…
JA: I was on top of the carts, going up the hill with the cameras! Often in the mud! Austria has Europe’s seventh-highest annual rainfall… but the rain made so many beautiful, glorious puffy cumulus clouds in the background. When you see the movie, notice the strength of the background, because it made a difference. Robert Wise said that gave a texture to it. It makes a difference… it wasn’t just a picture postcard.
CP: And the cameramen didn’t try to soften Austria. They almost shot it as a documentary.
JA: Not all of the locals liked us, though. We had the speakers set up outdoors, and one farmer came out with a pitchfork and screamed, “You’re ruining the milk from my cows!” Did you have any problems with things like that?
CP: I went straight to the bar.
And on that happy note, the Q&A closed, and the curtain rose…
Thank you, dear Christopher, for everything.