Last night was the annual Academy Awards broadcast, and as always, it was bloated and self-congratulatory and unfunny and often sort of weird. I liked it anyway. I always do. Neil Patrick Harris was a perfectly adequate host, a movie I liked a lot won Best Picture, lots of total strangers shared with the world the happiest moments of their professional careers, while the orchestra rudely played them off the stage, John Travolta seems to have thought that the way to apologize to Idina Menzel was to paw at her face disconcertingly, lots of people wore horrifically unflattering clothing, and Jennifer Lopez’s dress, heroically, managed, barely, to not fall off her. It was an Oscar night. As Bette Midler (bless her) once put it: ‘betcha didn’t think it was possible to overdress for this occasion.’
There were, as always, several musical numbers. Most of them were quite forgettable, but three in particular that stood out. First, the frenetically choreographed number for ‘Everything is Awesome,’ that fabulous song from The Legos Movie. The biggest Oscar travesty of the year is that TLM didn’t even get nominated in its category, Best Animated Feature. It was just too inventive and amazing and fun and funny and smart; can’t have that! Anyway, I liked the number; love Tegan and Sara. Second, I really liked the performance of ‘Glory,’ the song from Selma, John Legend and Common. One of the pre-Oscars’ narratives had to do with that movie, and how its director and star were both snubbed. The song and performance were powerful, as was John Legend’s comments after it won best song.
And then Lady Gaga performed a medley of songs from The Sound of Music. She sang very very well, and then introduced the still-radiant Julie Andrews. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of that film, and apparently it’s being re-released. And I said something rude about it on Facebook. And lots of friends told me, kindly and with great forbearance, that I am an idiot. I probably am. Still, let me explain myself.
The Sound of Music. It’s the most uplifting, triumph of the human spirit, relentlessly upbeat movie ever made. Fresh faced, incandescently talented young Julie Andrews and her mob of well-scrubbed adorable urchins. ‘Climb Every Mountain.’ Grouchy Captain van Trapp healed by the power of True Love. The heroic escape from evil Nazis. ‘Doe, a deer, a female deer.’ All those kindly nuns worrying about how to solve a problem like Maria. ‘The lonely goatherd.’ What kind of grinch wouldn’t like The Sound of Music? The great Pauline Kael was supposedly fired from McCall’s because she gave it a bad review. (Not true; she was fired because she gave every big popular movie a bad review.) Serves her right, you might think. (And apparently, most of my friends do think).
Let me be clear: I don’t think Art has to be a downer. I don’t think that Art shouldn’t be happy, cheerful and uplifting. I have no objection to art that is upbeat and positive. Art can be anything: gloomy, sad, tragic, funny, mean, crushing, and also buoyant, jaunty, merry, fun. I love ‘Anything is Awesome,’ a song so relentlessly cheery it burrows into your brain like a remora into a shark’s hide. I just think that there’s something strange about a movie musical being as upbeat as The Sound of Music when its subject matter is the German annexation of Austria, the Anschluss. I think the shadow of the Holocaust darkened everything about that time and place. Don’t you think maybe Liesl’s Nazi boyfriend, Rolfe, could sing something a trifle darker than that condescending ‘sixteen going on seventeen’ number?
Other cheerful happy musicals managed it. Take the musical 1776. A fun show about our Founding Fathers and the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Charming cute songs. But then there’s the song ‘Molasses to Rum to Slaves.’ The South Carolina delegate, Rutledge (otherwise a minor enough character), sings it, attacking the hypocrisy of the North over the slave trade, pointing out how they benefit from it too. The shadow of slavery darkened those deliberations, and although it’s a fun musical, an upbeat musical, that shadow is given a face and voice and point of view. Or South Pacific, with the song ‘They’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’. Or the dream ballet in Oklahoma, where Laurie imagines the death of her lover. You can do dark, amidst cheerful.
More to the point, the actual story of Maria von Trapp and the Trapp Family Singers is essentially ignored in the stage musical and film. For example, Maria did not want to marry Georg von Trapp. She wasn’t in love with him, and she really, genuinely wanted to be a nun. She was ordered to marry him by her Mother Superior. She says she went through the entire wedding ceremony seething with resentment towards him, the Church, and God. ‘Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, ’til, you, find, your, dream!’ Not so much the case. More like ‘Do what you’re told girl, do as I say, ignore your real feelings, obey, obey, obey, o-bey!’
What bothers me about this isn’t the fictionalizing. I get that in the late fifties-early sixties, you couldn’t have authority figures be wrong. A Mother Superior had to be portrayed as kindly and wise; mainstream audiences of the time wouldn’t stand for any of that commie subversion-of-authority stuff. I get that. No, what bothers me is that the real story is so much better. It’s a much more compelling, honest, powerful, human conflict. By turning truth into uplift, they cheapened the power of actual human experience. Maria was raised an atheist. She was converted by the music of Bach. So include some Bach in the film! Maria von Trapp became the powerful matriarch of a family choir (and the loving wife of the Captain) through sheer force of will. She made herself strong and independent. You could say that she obeyed, and was rewarded for her obedience. But I see it as the triumph of someone who made the best of terrible circumstances.
Like starting a family choir. Which she did out of sheer necessity. That lovely huge home in Austria where they all live in the movie? They lived in a much smaller house, and took in borders. Captain von Trapp lost his shirt in the great depression. They sang to put food on the table. They were not a wealthy family. And again, that’s a more interesting story. You couldn’t have all that in the early sixties either; fathers were all-wise patriarchs, not spend-thrift ne’er-do-wells.
Nor was Captain von Trapp a distant, brooding father. Nor was Maria a freespirited young woman. She was moody and a strict disciplinarian; he was charming and fun and very close to his children. He liked singing with them, but found the prospect of earning money from their music embarrassing.
They also didn’t sneak off with their musical instruments and suitcases in the middle of the night, hiding in a cemetery so the Nazis wouldn’t catch them. They carefully weighed the offers they got from the Nazis (which were more lucrative than the fees they earned initially in the US), and decided, on balance, it would be better for their kids if they left. They told everyone they were leaving, and left on a train, their papers in order and fares properly paid. And they didn’t sneak off to Switzerland. They went to Italy, and from there, to America, all arranged by their agent. That’s, again, a better story; not fake persecution, but adults, coolly and thoughtfully weighing their options, making the right decision for their kids.
Anyway. I really can’t stand The Sound of Music. It’s nothing but compromises, fake moral uplift, phony conflicts and ludicrous character depictions. And the von Trapps hated it too, especially the portrayal of stern and distant Captain von Trapp.
But there’s the music. Those songs are really famous and really pretty. And Gaga does have an impressive set of pipes. I get why she might want to sing those songs, and I thought Julie Andrews’ appearance last night was lovely. But it grated, it really did. I mean, I get why Elvis Costello made an album with Burt Bacharach. And Lady Gaga has recorded with Tony Bennett. And that’s fine. And Gaga’s career has stalled, and she’s getting married, and wanted, perhaps, to go back to her roots, in musical theatre. Still. It felt tone-deaf, after the Selma song. It felt like a white girl celebrating whiteness. It felt . . . off. Someone as relentlessly avant-garde and post-modern and intentionally transgressive as Lady Gaga should probably use the Oscars to do, I don’t know, something radically transgressive. It felt like (and I hate this, I genuinely hate this), a sell-out.
And I’m sorry if I offended even more people. I just don’t like that musical very much.