The Sound of Music is one of the most successful and famous films of all time. It’s unlikely that you do not know the film, unless perhaps, unlike me, you did not watch it on video until the title song became a bit wonky from overuse.
Whenever one thinks of the film, Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer come to mind. This is to be expected as they play the film’s unforgettable leads, and Julie sings most of the songs that were to go on to be classics of musical film and theatre. But it’s also the supporting actors who complete the film and make it so memorable, from Peggy Wood as Mother Abbess to Richard Hadyn as Uncle Max, and of course, Eleanor Parker as The Baroness.
As a child I was completely unsympathetic to The Baroness. For me, quite unable to fully comprehend that the ultimate villains of the film are fascism and the dangerous obsession with patriotism that leads to death, The Baroness was the one to be disliked and totally dismissed. But as I grew older, I came to understand what her character represented, and how Eleanor Parker manages to imbue her performance with such wonderful subtlety.
By the time Eleanor starred in The Sound of Music, like Peggy Wood and Richard Hadyn, she was a veteran of the entertainment industry. She had starred in over fifty films, including Destination Tokyo, Scaramouche and Detective Story. She had also been nominated for three Academy Awards. To say that she was a successful actress is something of an understatement, and it is a huge pity that now she is often remembered as playing second fiddle to a delightful and wonderfully talented, but not yet very experienced, Julie Andrews.
For me, The Baroness represents the dying of a certain way of life as much as Captain Von Trapp does. Both of them come from noble families, a world that is presented in the section of the film where a ball is held in the Von Trapp villa. But it is a world of golden rooms and music that cannot last, and by the end of the film, it has been completely obliterated by the actions of the growing powers of the Nazis. I often wonder what happens to The Baroness and Max, and whether or not either of them manages to escape as the Third Reich consumes the country and most of Europe.
There are two scenes in which Eleanor really shines are when she underhandedly confronts Maria about she and the Captains feelings for each other, and when the Captain eventually tells her he cannot marry her because he loves Maria. In both scenes, Eleanor manages to imbue a brief period on film with a very powerful performance. Although I still cannot forgive her for her behaviour towards Maria, I understand now why she wants to cement her own place in the Captains life. She is an ageing woman of great beauty who is threatened by a younger, also beautiful young woman who has won the hearts and minds of children that The Baroness cannot connect with due to her own upbringing and the class views that she holds about children.
Later, when she is gently jilted by the Captain, it is clear why Eleanor was nominated for three Academy Awards. Her eyes shine with heartbreak, and it is clear that it will not be easy for her to recover from losing the man that she loves and the embarrassment that she will suffer in the social circle which she has inhabited for much of her life. Eleanor manages to make you understand all these things about her character in the space of perhaps fifteen minutes, and it is a performance that I marvel at each time I watch the film.
I also think that she and Christopher Plummer have fantastic chemistry, and that it does not favours to compare it to the sweet, gentle connection that he and Julie Andrews have. Eleanor and Plummer manage to show that The Baroness and The Captain have known each other for a long time, that she loves him more than he ever will her, and that their connection is one of comfortable familiarity, rather than the soul recognition of he and Maria. Eleanor also has a wonderful rapport with Richard Hadyn, and some of the most witty parts of the film are shared during interactions between the two. In the stage-show, the pair sing a rather cynical song about the changing of the world to the Captain, and it would’ve been interesting to see this in the film with Eleanor and Hadyn’s talents.
In closing, I feel that any watching of The Sound of Music would benefit from taking not of the nuances of Eleanor’s performance, and how she manages to create a memorable character from a relatively brief screen time and with focus largely being on the two main characters.
This is my contribution for the lovely Maddy’s blogathon dedicated to this wonderful actress.