The Sound of Music 50th Anniversary
The year 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music, which first captivated audiences in 1965. Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer reflect on the making of the classic, their decades-long friendship, as well as the mountains they've climbed since then.
It would surprise no one, perhaps, to learn that Julie Andrews travels with her own teakettle.
On a late afternoon last winter she and Christopher Plummer met me at the Loews Regency Hotel, in Manhattan, to talk about the 50th anniversary of the movie version of The Sound of Music, which is being re-released in theaters in April. For anyone who saw it originally, in 1965, it hardly seems possible that so much time has passed. Now that Plummer is 85 and Andrews is 79, you can imagine how they feel.
It was during the filming of The Sound of Music that Andrews and Plummer began a friendship, which, half a century later, is still going strong. Andrews’s husband, Blake Edwards, directed Plummer in The Return of the Pink Panther in 1975, and they remained friendly until the director’s death, in 2010. (Edwards and Andrews had been married for 41 years; Plummer has been married to his wife, Elaine, since 1970.) In 2001, Andrews and Plummer co-starred in a live television production of On Golden Pond, and in 2002 they toured the U.S. and Canada together in a stage extravaganza called A Royal Christmas. By now, they have perfected the well-worn patter of an old married couple themselves.
Once Andrews’s kettle was pressed into service and the tea was brewed and poured, the two of them settled onto the couch in a suite to talk. They had just returned from a photo shoot. I asked how it went, and Andrews leapt in: “Well, I was dressed in black. He was dressed in black. We were against some white, I think. I had a great pair of earrings, and my hair was really exciting. It was done up rather wildly.”
“You didn’t notice me at all, did you?” Plummer asked wanly.
“No, I didn’t,” she answered vigorously.
He pouted. “I haven’t eaten anything for days,” he announced.
She responded on cue. “Oh, honeybun, that’s terrible!”
Heartened, he continued, “There was a charity dinner last night, and the food was so awful nobody ate anything.” She fumbled through her bags. He looked on hopefully, but she landed on a bottle of Advil. “I have to have these—I’m sorry,” she said, shaking out a few pills, which dropped onto the carpet. She picked them up and swallowed them anyway. “There were just so many stairs today,” she said, continuing to dig until she unearthed a Kashi peanut-butter granola bar. “I brought half a peanut-butter cookie with me,” she told him cajolingly.
He eyed it shrewdly. “Not half,” he said. “A quarter.”
O.K., guys. Part of the reason we’re here today is to talk about your 50-year friendship.
“What do you mean, friendship?” Andrews asked.
“Exactly,” Plummer said.
NOT HIS FAVORITE THING
Through the decades, Plummer has remained unabashedly ornery about playing Captain von Trapp. He was, even in the early 1960s, a celebrated stage actor and chose to do the film primarily as training for playing Cyrano de Bergerac in a Broadway musical (a role that would not materialize until 1973). Instead, at 34, with gray highlights in his hair, he found himself shipwrecked aboard what he considered the Good Ship Lollipop as an unwitting party to seven chipper children, a warbling nun, and a bosun’s whistle. Indeed, when The Sound of Music was released, the reviews were awful. Pauline Kael trounced it as “mechanically engineered” to transform the audience into “emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs.” In The New York Times, Bosley Crowther allowed that Andrews “goes at it happily and bravely” while noting that the other adult actors “are fairly horrendous, especially Christopher Plummer as Captain von Trapp.”
Plummer returned to the theater, where he was, is, and always will be a giant. (His Iago was masterly, as was his Lear.) Ten years after The Sound of Music, he found his footing on-screen as a character actor portraying Rudyard Kipling, opposite Sean Connery and Michael Caine, in John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King, and he has worked steadily in film ever since. In 2012, he accepted an Academy Award for best actor in a supporting role for Beginners, in which he played (underplayed, beautifully) a husband and father who comes out as gay in much later life. He has just shot the lead in Remember, a thriller directed by Atom Egoyan, and is choosing between two new film roles.
PLUMMER HAS REMAINED UNABASHEDLY ORNERY ABOUT PLAYING CAPTAIN VON TRAPP.
Whether Plummer likes it or not, the legacy of The Sound of Music feeds his currency. The incurably handsome, subtly grieving, widowered Captain von Trapp was always the heartthrob in the movie, never Rolf, the twerpy teenage messenger boy. The fact that it took a guitar-playing nun with bad clothes and good values to trump the elegant yet shallow Baroness is pure Hollywood justice. Off-screen, the well-born Plummer (his great-grandfather Sir John Abbott was prime minister of Canada) spent his life compensating as a notorious bad boy—drinking and carousing, skewering himself with self-deprecating humor as he happily trashed the conceited or self-important along the way. His 2008 memoir, In Spite of Myself, is a show-business tour de force.
Andrews is a different animal altogether. The Sound of Music followed Mary Poppins by six months; they were preceded by her Broadway triumph as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Jack Warner famously rejected her for the movie version of My Fair Lady, hiring Audrey Hepburn instead (and dubbing her singing voice). During the 1965 Golden Globe awards, when Andrews won best actress in a musical or comedy for Mary Poppins, she made it a point to thank Warner in her acceptance speech.
She has been a movie star ever since. Although frozen in the minds of millions as an improbable hybrid of nanny and nun, Andrews is much more, obviously; her triumph both on-screen and onstage in her husband’s Victor/Victoria is an example of her range, along with her critically acclaimed dramatic turn in the film version of Duet for One. Besides her preternatural singing voice, what has always defined her is plain hard work. During rehearsals for My Fair Lady, her co-star, Rex Harrison, was disdainful of her dramatic abilities and wanted her replaced. The director, Moss Hart, dismissed the cast to spend 48 hours working solely with Andrews to improve her performance. As she tells it in her memoir, Home, when Hart finished, his wife, Kitty Carlisle Hart, asked how it went. “Oh, she’ll be fine,” Moss replied wearily. “She has that terrible British strength that makes you wonder how they ever lost India.”
In Andrews’s case, she’s earned every bit of that strength. Her womanizing maternal grandfather contracted syphilis and died at 43: the cause was “paralysis of the insane.” He had infected his wife, and she died two years later. Andrews’s mother, a gifted pianist, left her father to marry a vaudeville performer, Ted Andrews, and they and Julie worked together on the road for years. Her alcoholic stepfather tried to molest her on a number of occasions. Her mother also became an alcoholic. When Julie was 14, her mother confessed that her first husband was not Julie’s biological father. Her real father had been a “one-time liaison.” Although Andrews met him, she never encouraged a relationship.
She worked to support her family financially all through her childhood; she also helped raise her younger siblings. Her unshakable good-girl persona served as an antidote to her tawdry circumstances, certainly, and it also served to turn her into an expert politician, ideal training for a star. She shakes hands, makes eye contact, uses proper names, and has perfected the art of answering a question not with its actual answer but with the answer she chooses to give.
As she and Plummer munched their respective fractions of peanut-butter bar, they recalled A Royal Christmas. “We played every awful hockey rink all the way from Canada to Florida,” Andrews said. “We had huge buses we could sleep in. It was with the London Philharmonic and the Westminster Choir and the Somebody Bell Ringers and the Something Ballet. And Chris and me doing our bit. It turned out to be great fun under awful circumstances, didn’t it?”
“The bus was the most fun,” he said. “We had our own bar, so we couldn’t wait to get there.”
Yes, but as we were now drinking tea, perhaps we could return to The Sound of Music, which began its life as a Tony-winning Rodgers and Hammerstein musical in 1959. William Wyler signed on to direct the film version but never fell in love with the story; he dropped it to make The Collector instead. Robert Wise, an Academy Award winner for directing West Side Story (and a nominee for best film editing on Citizen Kane), took over, and The Sound of Music won best picture for 1965, earning him his second best-director Oscar.
But at least someone in this room seems to regard it as the child he never wanted and can never get rid of.
“Well, I never knock it,” Andrews said staunchly, “because it was the moment in my career where everything exploded. That and Poppins.” (Andrews reportedly earned all of $225,000 for a two-picture deal that included her role as Maria.)
“As cynical as I always was about The Sound of Music,” Plummer said, “I do respect that it is a bit of relief from all the gunfire and car chases you see these days. It’s sort of wonderfully, old-fashionedly universal. It’s got the bad guys and the Alps; it’s got Julie and sentiment in bucketloads. Our director, dear old Bob Wise, did keep it from falling over the edge into a sea of treacle. Nice man. God, what a gent. There are very few of those around anymore in our business.”
That’s probably true, though, all things considered, Plummer seems to be doing pretty well these days.
“I’m not complaining about me,” he said, raising his hands. “It’s nice to be discovered again at this exalted age. You know, I really tip my hat to Mickey Rooney. He was in his 90s and still touring.”
What an unlikely person for him to admire.
“I think, of all the old guys who have lived to an extraordinary age who kept working,” Plummer continued, “he was the most vital. John Gielgud was still working when he was 96, but that was an ornate life John brought to the stage. Mickey Rooney was a little animal who attacked everything with just as much fire as he did when he was a kid. He was so good at everything—tap dancing, singing with Judy, then breaking your heart in The Black Stallion as the coach. And he managed to marry about 18 times. They were all tall. God bless him.”
It seems as if growing older while staying handsome in Hollywood equals having no looks at all.
“Yes,” he said, laughing. “It’s extraordinary, isn’t it? But I’m thrilled that I turned into a character actor quite early on. I hated being a poncey leading man. You really start to worry about your jawline. Please.”
O.K., back to your friendship, you two. They looked at each other.
“She can’t think of anything to say,” Plummer said, amused.
“IT WAS THE MOMENT IN MY CAREER WHERE EVERYTHING EXPLODED.”
Andrews rallied. “He was such a hugely great actor that when he was cast in Sound of Music all I could think was, How will I ever live up to that? But we had a very good time. We never had a cross word, nothing.”
“No,” he agreed. “She may be a terrible martinet, but she’s not an unpleasant one.”
“Who was it that called me a nun with a switchblade?” she asked.
He chortled. “That’s right. Nun with a switchblade.”
“I thought it was you,” she said.
Is it true that Plummer shot only 11 days in Austria?
“Something like that,” he said. “It was a terribly short schedule.”
“It couldn’t have been only 11 days,” she protested. “Come on.”
“No, really, there were very few days. I had so much time on my hands, that’s why I got so fat. I drank so much and ate all those wonderful Austrian pastries. When I got to shooting, Robert Wise said, ‘My God, you look like Orson Welles.’ We had to re-do the costume.”
“I never noticed. I didn’t,” she insisted. “I do know that you and I bonded a couple of times. Once was when I was soaking wet, after the boat I was in with the children turned over. It’s one of my favorite moments in the film. I’ve never told you this—it was just before we go into the gazebo and you’ve said good-bye to the Baroness. You were trying to say that you were glad Maria was back. And like a child, you said that it was all wrong when I went away and it would be all wrong if I went again. It was so endearing.”
He beamed, while I pointed out that she actually has said this before. Many times.
“I have?” She looked surprised.
“Well, it’s the first time I’ve heard it,” he protested loyally. “It was hard to find playable scenes. Ernest Lehman, who was such a wonderful screenwriter, did marvelously on Sound of Music considering it’s written as a musical, not as a play.”
Andrews nodded. “There were so many potentially cloying possibilities. You were the glue that bonded us all together because you wouldn’t allow that and I tried not to.”
“It’s easier for the Baron, of course,” Plummer said, “because he was a bit of a bitch.”
The real baroness, Maria von Trapp—stepmother to the seven von Trapp children, the last of whom, also named Maria, died in 2014 at 99—wanted much more influence over the film than she had; she was relegated to appearing as an extra. “We met, but I had more to do with her later,” Plummer said. “A friend of mine in the Bahamas asked Elaine and myself—oh no, Elaine wasn’t with me; well, whatever wife it was at the moment—to tea, and I went to my friend’s house, and her other guests were the governor-general of the Bahamas and the baroness. There she was again. She had just swum a famous channel swim in the Bahamas—and won, of course. They had a boat follow her, and they’d throw her a banana now and then. But I thought, My God, what an extraordinary contrast to this creature.” He pointed to Andrews. “She was very big.”
“SHE MAY BE A TERRIBLE MARTINET, BUT SHE’S NOT AN UNPLEASANT ONE.”
Andrews nodded. “She was a hefty girl. Later, when I was doing my own television series, she came on and sang with me. She was very sweet.”
In 1997, Andrews’s singing voice was essentially destroyed after she underwent surgery to remove non-cancerous nodules from her throat. “I don’t talk about it much,” she said, looking miserable once I mentioned it.
In the aftermath, she sought out grief counseling at the Sierra Tucson rehab center. “It was devastating,” she said. “I thought maybe I would get it back. That was before I realized that he had actually taken tissue away. But for the year and a half that I waited for something miraculous to happen, I thought I must do something or I’ll go crazy. My daughter Emma and I began to work together and formed our small book-publishing company.” (The two have written 26 children’s books together under Andrews’s own imprint.) “I was bemoaning my fate one day and said, ‘God, I miss singing, Emma. I can’t begin to tell you.’ And she said, ‘I know, but look, you’ve found a new way of using your voice.’ One of our books has been made into a musical, The Great American Mousical, which I directed at the Goodspeed Opera House, in Connecticut. And another, Simeon’s Gift, has been adapted for a symphony orchestra and five performers. I’m also a very proud member of the board of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.”
“Classical music was my first love,” Plummer volunteered. “It’s given me such extraordinary joy and has been a huge influence on my work, particularly in the classics, where you have to know where the coda comes and where the climax. You make your own symphony out of the words. I do regret that I didn’t continue studying classical piano, which I started to do as a kid.”
“And I regret not going to university,” Andrews added. “I had no education whatsoever, and my mother said, ‘Oh, you’ll get a much better education in life.’ I did to some extent, though I always wish I could have tried it.”
Well, as icons in a classic movie that will last forever, if they each could change one thing in it, what would it be?
“I would have changed me altogether and gotten somebody else,” Plummer said.
“Oh, shut up,” Andrews replied wearily. “I’d probably change a couple of renditions of how I sang something,” she went on, “because it always feels wildly high to me when the movie begins. But you know what? It’s also a movie from a particular era that has held up over the years. You never start out being a star. You take any job that comes along, and if you’re really lucky, the movie takes off. My mother did drill that into me: ‘Don’t you dare get a swollen head. There’s always somebody that can do what you do and probably even better than you.’ That was great training.”
BLOOM AND GROW FOREVER
In recent years, The Sound of Music sing-alongs have become popular, from Salzburg to London’s West End to the Hollywood Bowl, with audiences attending screenings in full costume. Neither Andrews nor Plummer has ever been to one. “There’s this great story of one young man in London,” she said, “who was spray-painted from top to bottom in gold. They said, ‘What are you from the movie?’ And he said, ‘I’m Ray, a drop of golden sun.’ ”
We had gone from teatime to dinnertime. Andrews insisted I accompany them downstairs to the Regency Bar & Grill for a drink. There, they were joined by their road crew: Steve Sauer, Andrews’s manager; Rick Sharp, her makeup artist; John Isaacs, her hairstylist; Elaine Plummer; Lou Pitt, Plummer’s manager; and Pitt’s wife, Berta. These days, Plummer lives in Connecticut and spends winters in Florida; Andrews lives on Long Island to be near Emma and their business, though she keeps an apartment in Santa Monica.
Andrews and Plummer sat next to each other at the center of the long table, their backs to the room. He ordered wine—his serious drinking days are over, he’d told me earlier. Andrews ordered her usual, a Ketel One martini, straight up, with olives.
As the table toasted, I thanked the two of them for inviting me. Andrews smiled graciously, while Plummer retorted, “Well, I didn’t invite you!”
Everyone drank and ordered dinner. This group has been on the road together for so long, they could have been celebrating their own Christmas. When Plummer and Andrews spoke, they leaned close to each other, their heads almost touching. Gradually, people at other tables started noticing them, shifting forward to see if they could believe their eyes. After all, the last time most of us saw the two of them together, they were climbing over that mountain to freedom.
And 50 years later, damn if they weren’t right here. Safe. And still a family.