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The Canadian Behind 'The Sound of Music's' Historic Oscar Wins

02/25/2016 05:10 EST | Updated 02/25/2017 05:12 EST
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Christopher Plummer pose in the press room at the 84th Annual Academy Awards held at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, California on February 26, 2012.

Captain von Trapp seizes the Nazi flag obscenely hanging on his front balcony for all to see -- and Christopher Plummer rips it down with the swift fury of a man who will not see his family befouled. He tears the offending symbol to shreds as his children return to greet him and his new bride, their former governess, Maria -- played flawlessly by Julie Andrews. The Nazi Party has taken advantage of Captain von Trapp's honeymoon, and Christopher Plummer will make them pay.

It's an electrifying moment from The Sound of Music -- the most beloved Best Picture Oscar-winner of all time, and maybe the most beloved movie of all time.

The Canada connection -- Christopher Plummer, who played the proud Austrian naval hero Captain Georg von Trapp -- was born in Toronto and raised in Senneville, Quebec, on the western tip of the Island of Montreal. Plummer is the great-grandson of John Abbott, who was Canada's third prime minister, and the Abbott family raised the young Plummer after his parents divorced.

The Sound of Music was cinematic solace in 1965, that frightened and helpless time right between president John F. Kennedy's assassination and Robert Kennedy's death in Los Angeles just a few years later.

With the Vietnam war shifting into deadly high gear, families and neighbourhoods across the country lined up to buy tickets weeks in advance for the optimistic, song-filled big screen musical. Our entire family drove 44 miles to see it at the Warner Cinerama Theater in Fresno, California. Packed house.

The Sound of Music won five Academy Awards exactly 50 years ago in 1966 -- with nominee Julie Andrews losing to Julie Christie's performance in Darling. To be fair, only a year earlier Andrews had nabbed the Best Actress Oscar for Mary Poppins.

Warner Brothers Studio had passed Andrews over that same year to cast Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady , the role Andrews had created on the Broadway stage.

Holding her Poppins Oscar that year, Andrews impishly said, "Finally, my thanks to a man who made a wonderful movie and who made all this possible in the first place... Mr. Jack Warner."

Cut to Jack Warner at his table wiping away crocodile tears and laughing. Hooray for Hollywood.

Christopher Plummer was unhappy with his participation in the icky sweet musical, dismissing The Sound of Music in an interview with the BBC as "so awful and sentimental and gooey."

He had just finished shooting an important epic, The Fall of the Roman Empire , with Alec Guinness and James Mason, and recently Plummer had received an Emmy nod for his title role performance in the BBC's acclaimed Hamlet at Elsinore co-starring with Michael Caine and Robert Shaw -- which much have been interesting during tea breaks.

Given the sugary quicksand surrounding the popular Rodgers and Hammerstein stage version of The Sound of Music, Andrews gave Plummer credit for the success and balance of the movie, telling the Museum of Living History in Washington D.C., "It was his performance that was the glue, the vinegar that held the film together."

When Plummer sees the wild tribe of von Trapp children sail up in the family canoe while shouting ribald oaths and singing with Julie Andrews at the helm, Plummer plays it so subtly you don't know whether he wants to murder them or embrace them. He's that good in this movie. But things turn ugly faster than you can say "Do-Re-Mi."

"Don't you DARE tell me about my son!" he thunders at Maria when she chides him for parental neglect after the children had left them alone. It's played as a boiling scene of poorly restrained rage and Andrews and Plummer carry it off perfectly.

"I am not finished yet, Captain..." Maria asserts.

"Oh yes you are, Captain!... er, fraulein..." Plummer retorts to Maria, Freudian slipping all the way, in frustrated, complicated triumph.

"You brought music back into the house. I had... forgotten," he says later by way of apology after their fight.

Plummer's performance as the Captain is said to be a lot sterner than real Georg von Trapp, by all accounts a warm family man. Director Robert Wise refused requests to soften Plummer's gruff authoritarianism and it makes Plummer's transformation near the end of the movie all the more rewarding.

Audiences have long assumed "Eidelweiss" is the Austrian national anthem -- but it's not. "Eidelweiss" was one of the very last songs from the partnership of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the lyrics and died only months after The Song of Music's Broadway debut.

Plummer's vocal solo with guitar is the dramatic anchor in the climactic festival scene as the entire audience sings along with him in a powerful moment symbolizing Austrian loyalty to country and patriotism in the face of the recent Anschluss -- or unholy alliance -- with Nazi Germany.

Austrian roads and borders closed by the Nazis? No problem. In real life, the von Trapp family simply boarded a train to Italy, but the inspiring finale for The Sound of Music sees them escape over the Austrian Alps.

Ironically, that scene was shot on the Obersalzburg near Berchtesgaden -- site of Adolph Hitler's lair, the Eagle's Nest. The children? "They'll be all right," the Captain assures Maria. After all, they were raised with Christopher Plummer's boat whistle discipline.

In his 2008 autobiography In Spite of Myself, Plummer at last came to terms with The Sound of Music's overwhelming worldwide popularity. In fact, Plummer's campaign for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in 2011's Beginners saw some expert cinematic fence-mending -- with Plummer reaffirming his appreciation for the movie he once dismissed as The Sound of Mucus.

Sure enough, the 82-year-old Plummer became the oldest person in Academy history to win an Oscar, purring to the award, "You're only two years older than me darling... where have you been all of my life?"

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