There are two things that immediately pop into my head whenever I think of Robert Wise's Best Picture winner The Sound of Music. It seems odd that there are only two, when you consider how iconic the film has become, but I am what I am, and whenever I think of the film, I always think of that opening shot of Julie Andrews spinning on the mountaintop (a vision of pure joy matched only by Gene Kelly on the lamppost singing Singin' in the Rain) and the gazebo.
Yes, the gazebo. Not the sailor uniforms, not the clothes made from drapes. Not the marionettes, not the nuns. Not the gorgeous location shots of Vienna, not the stained glass windows of the abbey. The gazebo.
The gazebo on the von Trapp family property is where declarations of love are made. And coming out of the coldest February in memory in NYC (thanks, Mother Nature, for making my first winter living here such a delight!), and my first Valentine's Day as a singleton in eight years, I find myself needing the warmth of movie romance right now. Thankfully, The Sound of Music delivers on that front spectacularly.
Early in the film, the gazebo is the site of our first real glimpse into the character of anyone in the von Trapp family, as eldest child Liesl excuses herself from dinner to meet her paramour, letter-delivery boy Rolf. They have a lovely duet, "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" to declare their love as it starts to rain, and Liesl gets a lovely moment of joy in the rain to herself.
In keeping with the film's two halves (or acts, as it were, this being an adaptation of a stage show), the next time we see the gazebo is for a meeting between adults, postulate-nun-turned-nanny-to-seven-children Maria and Captain Georg von Trapp. They've been slowly needling their way into each other's hearts, almost without knowing it, but they finally confront each other (at the urging, it must be said, of poor Baroness Schrader, and the fact that you can even say that about the woman who callously tossed off a line about sending those adorable children to boarding school just so she could have the Captain all to herself is a testament to Eleanor Parker's great, great performance). As joyous as Liesl and Rolf's first kiss is, that of Maria and the Captain is muted, thoughtful, and mature. And beautifully, defiantly soft focus.
It's also interesting in how it mirrors the earlier, younger kiss. The women in flowy, almost sheer dresses, the men buttoned up; the men on the right side, the women on the left... but in this case, Maria and the Captain are equals. No games, no shyness. They come to each other openly and honestly and sing their love for each other in as beautiful a song as Richard Rodgers ever wrote.
It's shots like this one that lead people to deride The Sound of Music. "It's too sickeningly sweet!" they say. "It's dull and boring!" they cry. "The Sound of Mucus" they call it. But I think that shots like this are exactly why the film not only works, but has become an enduring classic. Yes, the image is a cliché, but it is also deployed thoughtfully, meaningfully. This is a sweet film, no doubt about it, but it rises above any stage version (despite the lessening of the show's two liveliest characters, the Baroness and "Uncle" Max and the removal of their duet "How Can Love Survive", one of the show's best songs) because it brings out an intimacy and maturity the stage show so often lacks.
The other reason the film works so well, of course, is Julie Andrews. I always think she won an Oscar for this, and frankly, she should have. Point blank, the film does not work without her. It's not just her golden singing voice, but her presence, and the thoughtfulness behind her acting. She works with the (seven!) children astonishingly well, and also paints an always-vivid picture of Maria's inner life. Her eyes and body language tell you absolutely everything you need to know about how Maria is feeling and just how much she cannot bring herself to say. It's a remarkably full performance from a character who can read extremely simple on the page, and far better than most people realize, because Andrews makes it all look so effortless. Which is a perfect word for the whole film, really. The Sound of Music breezes through its 174 minutes with effortless scene after effortless scene. It takes real skill to make a film look as effortless as this one feels. And oh, what a feeling!