THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘The Sound of Music’ (1965)

In 1966, the 38th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in Santa Monica. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1965 and December 31, 1965 the awards were held on April 5. The ceremony was broadcast in colour for the very first time.

To truly highlight the introduction of the colour broadcast, art directors Alexander Golitzen and William Morris designed an elaborate and spectacular setting for the stage’s backdrop. The set featured 42 working fountains which sprayed water throughout the ceremony. It made each presenter’s entrance unlike any before.

The real star of the show wasn’t one of the nominees. Or anyone from the industry, for that matter. Lynda Bird Johnson, daughter of President Lyndon Johnson, attended the ceremony, on the arm of her new boyfriend George Hamilton. It created an enormous wave of publicity, and almost entirely derailed focus from the awards themselves.

But, once again, the night belonged to a big musical, with The Sound of Music leading the way, with 10 nominations and five wins, including Best Picture. The film became the first Best Picture winner since Hamlet in 1949 to win the top prize without a nomination for writing. This would not be repeated again until Titanic in 1998.

The nominees:
Doctor Zhivago
Ship of Fools
The Sound of Music
A Thousand Clowns

The winner:
The Sound of Music

Based on the 1959 stage musical of the same name, The Sound of Music is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s sweeping tale of romance. Set in Austria in 1938, the film finds our heroine Maria (Julie Andrews), a free-spirited young nun, in a convent in Salzburg. Maria is known to miss morning prayers and bend the rules to her favour, much to chagrin of the Mother Superior (Peggy Wood). After deciding Maria needs to learn more about the world before committing to life as a nun, the Mother Superior sends her to be the governess for the seven children of the widowed Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer). Maria is shocked to find the Captain is cold and distant, particularly with his children, who run riot when he is not around. But, as the children warm to Maria, so does the Captain, and their blossoming love begins to complicate her commitment to the convent, while the looming march of the Nazis into Austria will complicate matters even further.

Why did it win?
Marking one of the rare moments the Academy repeated themselves, in terms of back-to-back winners of similar genres, The Sound of Music was another movie musical to capture the attention of voters. The public response to the film was unlike anything before it, and it quickly became the most beloved musicals of all time – a title it arguably still holds to this day.

Filmed on the sound stages of 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles, and on location in various locations throughout Europe, the film was a mammoth production, costing over $8 million to craft. The studio embarked on a massive marketing campaign for the film, with lavish premieres and a huge roadshow in 40 key American cities. The result was astounding.

In its initial release, the film took $138 million at the US box-office, and was the highest-grossing film of 1965, almost double its nearest rival. This was attributed to a high number of repeat viewers. In some US cities, the number of tickets sold exceeded the city’s total population. The film also broke box-office records in 29 other countries, including the UK and Canada. By November 1966, it surpassed Gone with the Wind as the highest-grossing film of all time – a title it would hold for several years. When adjusted for inflation, The Sound of Music is the fifth highest-grossing film of all time, with a total adjusted box-office of $2.36 billion.

Despite the overwhelming public response, the film received decidedly mixed reviews from critics, marking one of the first times a Best Picture winner was not a critical darling. The New York Times called the film “romantic nonsense,” and criticised the adult characters as “fairly horrendous,” while the New York Herald Tribune dismissed the movie as “icky sticky” and only designed for “the five to seven set and their mommies.” On the flip-side, Variety called the film “a warmly pulsating, captivating drama, magnificently mounted and with a brilliant cast,” while the Los Angeles Times hailed it as “three hours of visual and vocal brilliance.”

Regardless of the mixed critical response, the film was a huge success with the Academy, scoring 10 nominations and five wins. It stands as one of the few times they weren’t swayed by critics, and instead were as taken by the film as the public were. However, it would mark the second-last musical to win Best Picture for several decades until Chicago in 2003, heralding a change in Academy tastes was on the way.

Did it deserve to win?
It’s pretty damn impossible not to love The Sound of Music. It’s a gorgeous film filled with gorgeous songs and a gorgeous romance. Oh, and gorgeous cinematography, costumes, production design, editing, and score too. But, hey. You can say the same for Doctor Zhivago (minus the songs), so it’s hard to definitively say if The Sound of Music deserved to win or not. You can’t argue with those box-office dollars. This was clearly the one piece of cinema in 1965 audiences considered the best, or, at least, their favourite. That can be enough to snatch Best Picture.

The film has endured as a beloved classic for a reason – it’s just so damn joyous and memorable. Every single song is a classic, and Julie Andrews’ performance is a dream. It cemented her as a true star of cinema, and, had she not won the previous year for Mary Poppins, likely would have earned her an Academy Award. Andrews’ vocals are stunning, and her warm and inviting performance is every bit as endearing as her work as Mary Poppins. Her chemistry with Plummer is magnificent, and their romance is truly iconic.

The location shooting is still glorious to behold, particularly the iconic aerial photography in the film’s opening sequence, and it’s remarkable how well the film holds up over 50 years later. This really is the kind of film you can watch at least once a year, and never tire of, even with its epic running time of 174 minutes. I know this film gets a lot of hate, mostly due to overexposure and most of us being forced to watch it by our parents as youngsters. It’s a rather divisive film, in that you either absolutely adore it or you cannot stand the sight and sound of it. But, at least for me, it’s always been the former, and I find the film a true delight. Call it a guilty pleasure, if you must.

Is it groundbreaking, powerful or socially relevant like other Best Picture winners? Well, no. Musicals often aren’t. But that doesn’t mean they’re any less deserving of winning an Academy Award for Best Picture. If something is so beloved and cherished by the public, but met with a mixed reaction from the critics, that should not be enough to stop that film winning the Academy’s top prize. Is Doctor Zhivago perhaps a “better” film? Sure. Is The Sound of Music just a little too sweet and fluffy for its own good? Absolutely. But it stands as another example of the Academy simply falling in love with a film. Whether that makes it a deserving winner is up for you to decide.