Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Sound of Music's 50th: Austrian Alps and Julie's Face

In honour of the 50th anniversary of the world premiere of The Sound of Music (and truer to the actual anniversary date than the swell but superfluous tribute belted by Lady Gaga at the Oscars), The Film Experience's Nathaniel Rogers has made the beloved musical the latest subject of his perennial "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" series -- always an Oscar off-season treat!

While the last two months of Oscar blogging have sapped much of the life force from my typing fingers, I have strength enough for this. How could I pass it up? The film sits comfortably within my top 20 all time, and is arguably the most durable relic of a now extinct studio culture that used to churn out lavish musical adaptations with a regularity comparable to the production of superhero movies today (I was clearly born in the wrong decade... sigh).

Director of Photography Ted McCord received the final of three career Oscar nominations for this movie, and considering that said movie was a record-breaking, Best Picture winning smash hit boasting breathtaking Alpine scenery as its backdrop, some might find it surprising that he didn't win. Admittedly, it'd be tough for any Academy member not to vote for Freddie Young's jaw-dropping widescreen cinematography in Doctor Zhivago that year, but it isn't hard to imagine McCord's splendid mountainscapes running a respectable second.

The most famous of these high-altitude shots will be, for many, the defining image of not only the film, but of the entire musical genre;
The sight of Julie Andrews spinning around the hilltops -- and trying nobly to avoid being blown over by the downdraft of the helicopter blades -- as the camera pushes in from hundreds of yards away, has rightfully earned its place as the most ravishing entrance in the cinematic headcanon.

And yet as unforgettable as it is, I'm not quite sold on it as the "best" shot of the picture. After all, McCord spun real visual magic with his interiors as well...

Take this beautifully lit frame, for instance, which is as perfect a juxtaposition of character and setting as it is a display of Maria's uncontainable whimsy...

Or this dramatically astute composition, which positions her almost a full story above Cap. Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) as he humbly asks her forgiveness for his boorish behaviour...

And then there's this one, which unites Georg and Maria in stunning silhouette...

Or this one, whose triangular backlighting allows McCord to evoke two distinct profiles through two distinct lighting techniques (shadow and silhouette) within the same frame.

So many gorgeous shots! How to choose?

But then it occurs to me, while all these images strive for -- and often achieve -- levels of iconography by emphasizing the outline of Andrew's body, they're all missing something truly special and important: Her face.

Andrews would win an Oscar later that year for playing another governess of sorts in Mary Poppins, but that was a character whose tenderness of heart came across more subtly while largely maintaining her stiff upper lip. The role of Maria, on the other hand, allowed Andrews' expressive features to run the emotional gamut, and they were never lovelier than in the film's finest shot:
Best shot

This moment is the dramatic turning point of the story (Maria comes to the thrilling and yet also terrifying realization that she's in love with the Captain), punctuated by McCord with a heavily vaselined lens and delicate light. The music softens, and so too does the focus. A shadow of uncertainty falls across her face, but McCord leaves her eyes -- as mesmerizing as they are mesmerized -- untouched. While these camera tricks are as old as the most antiquated of sappy Hollywood romances, this brief praxis of performance and photography is one that transcends; The first true 'movie star closeup' of a newly bona fide movie star.

Other considerations:

And I'd be remiss if I didn't include and caption my favourite mini-morsel of acting in the whole movie, from young Kym Karath as Gretl:

5 comments:

  1. LOVE THIS ARTICLE. Hope you'll keep doing them! particularly this bit "perfect a juxtaposition of character and setting as it is a display of Maria's uncontainable whimsy..." i hadn't even remembered that image until watching it this time and I paused to really look at it.

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  2. Love all the shots you shared here, and yeah, Julie sure is a stunner in your best shot. I also love the one soon after where one of the kids says her face is red and almost before the line is finished, Maria's hands cover her face and she says "Is it?" Such a perfect performance.

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    1. "I don't suppose I'm used to dancing," is one of my favourite line deliveries in the film.

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  3. Highly enjoyable article and I love that you shared all the shots you considered. The film offers so many choices and the one you decided on is wonderful.

    Of course at that time in her career she didn't need it but the vaseline diffused lens is such a star shot for a lady of a certain age. It reminds me so much of a Doris Day closeup from her Pillow Talk era.

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