Yesterday I was ready to give up on Hollywood for good. Still smarting from my disappointment over the awful “Bewitched,” I had a momentary lapse of sanity while walking by the magnificent Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard and slipped in for a matinee of the new Spielberg film “War of the Worlds.” Steven, Steven, Steven, what happened to you? This film was such a load of crap I wanted to fax the Library of Congress urging them to add “Bewitched” to the National Registry of Classic Films. What an agonizing two hours. It’s not that I don’t like scary movies. I’m a huge fan of films like “The Exorcist” and “Poltergeist” and even alien takeover films like “The Day the Earth Stood Still, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” or the more recent “Mars Attacks!” But this nightmarish hooey? All it produced was a theatre full of shell-shocked people with dangerously high adrenaline levels. It was hideous, ugly terror from beginning to end with no rationale, no message, no three-dimensional characters, and no thought-provoking analogies to world events such as the McCarthyism, the Cold War, or international terrorism. We see the disgusting, murderous aliens at various points in the film but there is never the slightest clue why they are destroying our planet with their machines that they buried in the ground thousands of years earlier and are only now activating. (Interesting that with all the high-rise construction on the eastern seaboard that no earth-bound crew ever noticed one of those things!)
This vile depiction of alien life seemed even sadder to me coming from Steven Spielberg, the same man who brought us the inspiring “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.” What has happened in the past 25 years to so sour Spielberg’s take on the possibility of other life in the universe? I realize this film was based on H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel “The War of the Worlds” but this modern depiction of the story carried none of the visionary charm of that book or even the creative terror of Orson Welles’ 1938 radio mystery (despite the bookends of Welles’ opening and closing narrations which in the context of this film seem pompous and out-of-place). It isn’t hard to see the message Spielberg and screenwriter Josh Friedman were trying to get across—Tom Cruise as incompetent and bitter divorced dad gets his surly kids for the weekend and through the gift of alien world domination and mass destruction proves that he really, really cares about them after all. I wanted to puke at the ridiculous ending of this film, if you can even believe that a movie showing most of humanity being exterminated has a “happy” ending! While “Bewitched” irritated me for its lack of creativity, “War of the Worlds” made me angry and ashamed that I added my $9.00 to the profits of such a meaningless, ugly slice of American culture that will spread its tendrils around the globe with the same speed as the tripod-walking aliens. And frankly, I’m not that thrilled to be paying into the coffers of Tom “I know psychiatry—you don’t!” Cruise although I’ve never been one to boycott films because I disagree with the personal peccadilloes of the actors. Since I’m on the subject, I’ll say that apart from being a shoo-in for 2005’s “Jackass of the Year” award for his disinformation campaign about post-partum depression and other mental conditions he knows nothing about, Cruise's performance in this film is so dull and opaque that I’d rather watch him jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch having a manic episode about his new lady love.
Feeling wobbly and traumatized as I walked back onto Hollywood Boulevard, I was relieved that it was time to pick Leah up to go to last night’s “Sing-along Sound of Music” at the Hollywood Bowl. Watching Julie Andrews twirl on the top of that mountain as 18,000 people in the sold out Bowl cheered her on was like a salve for my spirit. I know there are plenty of folks who dismiss “The Sound of Music” as a treacly insulin-inducing saccharine fest, but I love every beautifully composed frame of it. Not that I agree with every decision that was made, such as forcing bad British accents on the American actors playing the Von Trapp children, but I think it’s a near perfect film that rises above its faults, including its frequent departure from the actual life events of the Von Trapps. (And have you ever noticed that there’s not a single reference to Jews? But why should there be in a story about Nazi-occupied Europe?)
This being the 40th anniversary of the film’s release, they had plenty of surprises at the Bowl before the film began. Besides the traditional costume parade and contest, the pre-show last night included a reunion of all seven of the kids from the movie. Charmian Carr (Liesl) usually attends the sing-alongs, but this was the first time all of the “kids” (now in their 40s, 50s, and 60s) were on a stage together in 15 years. They are all still close to each other and I was especially happy to see one of my favorite former child stars, Angela Cartwright, who brought back fond memories of lusting after Penny Robinson. There was a filmed message on the big video screens from the Captain and Maria, Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews, saying how much they wished they could have been there, and looking like the old married couple we all wish they were.
Then they brought out the great-grandchildren of Georg and Maria Von Trapp who have carried on the family tradition and now tour the world as the Von Trapp Children. I thought to myself, “Oh no, just because their last name is Von Trapp we’re supposed to listen to them sing?” So I was shocked when they opened their mouths and out came the most beautiful music this side of the Nonnberg Abbey. They sang songs from the film as well as other German and modern favorites, and far outshined the vocal talents of the movie kids (who, except for Charmian Carr and Angela Cartwright, were dubbed by professional singers). Leah and I got to meet the Von Trapp offspring and get a close look at their costumes which were the actual dirndls and lederhosen sewn by Maria and worn by the real-life Von Trapp children in the 1930s and 40s, complete with 100-year-old Austrian gold coins as buttons!
The traditional “Sound of Music” costume contest and parade featured its usual mix of Drag Queens (one enormous man dressed as “Big Maria” made it to the top five!), whole families dressed up as “My Favorite Things” (everything from brown paper packages tied up with string to wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings), adorable little girls dressed as Marta, Brigitta, or Louisa Von Trapp, and some really innovative costumes including this year’s winner, a guy dressed as the carburetor the nuns remove from the Nazis’ car (“I have sinned, Reverend Mother”) so that the Von Trapps can escape into the Austrian Alps and make their way to safety in Switzerland (no matter that such a journey is geographically impossible). An audience favorite was the group of five women with huge breasts wearing tight, plunging neckline shirts on which were written “These hills are alive!”
Have you ever watched a movie with 18,000 other people? It is a true communal experience and the film was a joy, especially since I was still recovering from the end of the world as we know it. The only thing that always rubs me the wrong way at these sing-alongs is the treatment of Eleanor Parker’s Baroness Von Schrader, the woman Captain Von Trapp almost marries before Maria enters the scene. Every time Von Schrader appears on the screen the entire crowd erupts in hisses and boos. I’ve always felt that this was undeserved and that the Baroness gets a bum rap. True, she threatens to send the Von Trapp children off to boarding school (but only after nasty Friedrich hurls a soccer ball at her gut) and she does sort of trick Maria into going back to the convent, but hey, she was just trying to hold onto her man! In the end, when she realizes her fiancé is truly in love with someone else, she removes herself with such dignity and class that I think that all 18,000 patrons of the Hollywood Bowl owe her a written apology. Luckily, I found one woman in my row who shared my take on the Baroness and we cheered loudly for her—as risky a move in this mob as Boston Red Sox fans cheering in Yankee Stadium.
At the exact moment when Georg and Maria finally kiss for the first time, we all took out the paper firecrackers from our goodie bags and popped them in unison. What a sound! I love the story that Julie Andrews tells of that scene. To get the proper angle, director Robert Wise had Andrews and Plummer standing nose to nose during the song “Something Good” in which they announce their love for each other. The actors found this position very odd and ruined take after take of this serious moment by bursting out laughing. Finally, an exasperated Wise decided to film much of the song in silhouette, just to hide the slap-happy actors’ shenanigans.
Another cool moment last night was during “Edelweiss” when everyone opened their cell phones and waved them in the air, creating an ocean of tiny blue and white flickering lights that was something to behold. This is the modern-day equivalent of waving your cigarette lighter at a rock concert! I guess no one even carries lighters anymore, except the army of costumed nuns Leah and I noticed during intermission who were getting in their last drags while fixing their wimples.
Even though I thought “War of the Worlds” was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, it still scared the bejeesus out of me. I realized as I was watching “The Sound of Music” that I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. As I gazed down at the gigantic screen in the bandshell, I kept imagining the giant alien machines springing forth over the Hollywood Hills and obliterating all of us with a few well aimed shots of their death rays. Luckily, just as I started to freak out, thinking of the aliens going after Leah the same way they tormented poor Dakota Fannning, Herr Zeller, the Anschluss supporter who tries to bring the Von Trapps down, appeared on the screen. Hooray, a villain we could understand! I never thought I’d be so grateful to see a Nazi.