Spirited women; two beloved movies

  • By Betsy Sharkey Los Angeles Times
  • Thursday, March 26, 2015 2:29pm
  • Life

There is a very specific portrait of a lady that has long enthralled Hollywood. A young woman of modest means falls for an older man of wealth. Both the woman and the man are transformed by love, and though it might seem indelicate to mention, the money factors in. A significant improvement in social station for the woman comes with the commitment.

That scenario is the spine of “The Sound of Music,” which is being celebrated this month for hitting the 50-year mark and remaining such an enduring favorite.

It is also the narrative blueprint for “Pretty Woman,” whose 25 years are being so fondly remembered at the moment, too. I can’t help but think of “My Fair Lady” in that vein as well, now 51 and still aging gracefully.

The scenes and the settings change from film to film, but that central core is constant.

If you ask fans of this year’s milestone movies, “The Sound of Music” is beloved for its heart and its courage, “Pretty Woman” for its heart and its humor. One story is born of a harsh reality, the other a popular fantasy. But the action in both is driven by the sheer verve of a strong, spirited, independent young woman.

Julie Andrews’ performance in the musical drama, which was based on the real-life Von Trapp family, earned the actress an Oscar nomination. The film itself won five including best picture. “Mary Poppins,” a year earlier, is what gave Andrews her only Oscar win, at least thus far.

Julia Roberts earned her first lead actress nomination for “Pretty Woman”; it was the only nod the academy gave the film. Not surprising given that the romantic comedy is about the love that emerges — in the most blunt terms — between a hooker and her well-heeled john. (Roberts would win her Oscar in 2001 for playing another strong woman in “Erin Brockovich.”)

A series of external forces come into play in each film, but the question that hovers is the same — what will become of the relationship? Because that relationship, whether it cements or crumbles, affects the way all that follows will unfold.

Maria knew the hills, and that became the path for the Von Trapps’ escape from the Germans. Vivian saw the humanity in helping, which changed the way Richard Gere’s Edward, a ruthless corporate raider when she met him, conducted business.

In “The Sound of Music,” the initial connection between Maria and Christopher Plummer’s Capt. Von Trapp is his children — she’s their quirky new governess, he’s the distant father. In “Pretty Woman,” it is isolation and loneliness that bring Vivian and Edward together. In the exchange of money, Edward is paying for company as much as sex.

Actual intimacy in either film is implied.

Maria and the captain are the souls of discretion. They look dreamy-eyed at each other, but there is nary a suggestion of things a married couple might do behind closed doors — even when the children aren’t around, even when World War II and the Nazis aren’t closing in.

Though there is some discussion of the deed in “Pretty Woman,” Roberts’ working girl does little more than kiss and cuddle Gere’s dashing bachelor. And the one time Edward kisses and tells — to his smarmy financial guy (played by Jason Alexander) — he regrets it ever after.

Despite the transactional nature that brings both couples together, both relationships are ultimately forged by love and respect. The love that blooms in both ends in marriage.

It’s not a question for the Von Trapps. And certainly that’s what “Pretty Woman’s” ending suggests would have been the very next chapter. (Screenwriter J.F. Lawton’s recent revelations that his original had a darker ending plays better as a Trivial Pursuit question than it would have on-screen, given the teasing, playful tone the film adopted.)

Despite very different circumstances defining Maria’s and Vivian’s lives, there is a striking similarity to their character arcs. Both are essentially left to navigate life and figure out their fates on their own.

The men become their proving ground. In the push and pull, the agreements and disagreements, the women’s sense of self as individuals and as part of a unit begins to be more sharply defined.

The resistance and the redefining of a person always make fascinating watching. That Maria and Vivian are literally bubbling over with good humor and kindness in ways that captivated moviegoers when the films were released, and have kept them coming back year after year to watch them again, is due to the magnetic appeal of the actresses. Their strength is just as intoxicating. Though the endings might seem like a fairy tale, and the men definitely had the money and position, the women held the power — and the star roles.

Roberts’ and Andrews’ acting styles are quite different, their physical appearances poles apart, their careers divergent. But they each possess the kind of inner glow that illuminates the screen. It is as irrepressible as it is infectious.

Whatever else each film offers, without that essence and without the artistry of those particular actresses, we wouldn’t be celebrating “The Sound of Music’s” 50th anniversary, “Pretty Woman’s” 25th. Andrews and Roberts brought Maria and Vivian — and their worlds — to vibrant, unforgettable life. It is their smiles and their strength, as much as the stories, that stay with us.

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