BEST PICTURE REVISITED: “OLIVER!” (1968)


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1968 was a turning point for the movie musical. Voters had given Best Picture to three musicals so far in the sixties: West Side StoryMy Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music. But then the Academy speciously nominated Doctor Doolittle, the Rex Harrison tuner that nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox and, rumor has it, was up for Best Picture because of an aggressive wine-and-dine voter campaign.

After that disaster, the movie musical came into question. The panorama of American music had changed drastically in the sixties: you’d find your LP of Hello, Dolly! shelved alongside The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. I think it’s revisionist to say the musical was dying out, when Funny Girl (where Barbra Streisand told us herself she was the greatest star) and Oliver! were huge box-office successes. But 1968 also saw musicals that followed Doolittle‘s approach of repeating past success. Julie Andrews reunited with director Robert Wise for Star!, but there wasn’t interest in of a plotless three-hour Gertrude Lawrence biopic. And Dick Van Dyke tried to recapture his Mary Poppins goodwill in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, where he charmed children, sang Sherman Brothers songs, and blessedly left his British accent at home.

Oliver! feels more authentically English under Carol Reed’s helm. Reed, the director of The Third Man and other forties wartime dramas, was an unexpected choice for this show, and he knows what makes a movie work. There are several smart set pieces: The opening sequence of hundreds of boys blindly marching to eat their gruel, singing “Food! Glorious Food.” Or “Who Will Buy?,” which starts with a lone woman selling in the square and blossoms into a festival of choreography with all the town merchants. Oliver sings about who will buy because he’s finally been adopted by a rich benefactor; there’s a conscious class edge to the whole Dickensian story. On the other hand, this musical lives in Hollywood back lots just like George Cukor’s stagey My Fair Lady did. The sets are obviously artificial.

The character of Nancy is a problem. Played by Shani Wallis, she’s everyone’s favorite G-rated prostitute. Her pimp, Bill Sykes, is cruel and abusive toward her — the pimping and the abuse are off-screen, since this is a family film. And what does she do in response, but sing a song of co-dependency? The song is “As Long as He Needs Me,” and it’s really about how she needs him:

Nancy, you in danger, girl. The moment you sing a troubling torch song about your man, we know it won’t work out. In Funny Girl, at least, Fanny sang “My Man” about a husband who embezzled money and went to prison. Here, Nancy’s man takes it out on her instead, and beats her to death when she saves a child. Nancy is never mentioned again after her death, and no one seems to mourn her. We don’t even know where her body went.

Why It Won

Oliver! seemed to surprise movie critics, who were very impressed how Carol Reed translated the Broadway musical to the screen. Even Pauline Kael, who soured at The Sound of Music, didn’t mind three more hours of singing children:

Carol Reed has just made the kind of movie they don’t make anymore, and it’s as good as ever–maybe better, coming when it’s more difficult to do… I’m not being facetious when I suggest that the quiet, concealed art of good craftsmanship may be revolutionary now.

Funny Girl is the more popular choice now, but that movie existed solely for its star. Without Barbra Streisand, we’re left with a handsome production of an independent woman dragged down by her gambler husband, who can’t bear letting his wife be the bread-winner. The stage musical originally ended with a reprise of “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” but Streisand’s screen performance ends with a rousing “My Man,” just like the unnaturally supportive Judy Garland in A Star Is Born before her.

Then there’s Olivia Hussey, drinking poison over Romeo’s body. Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet has that ornate late-sixties look that’s dated so poorly: lots of dust swirling and ugly Renaissance clothes. Hussey and Leonard Whiting traipse innocently through the Shakespearean verse; the whole enterprise has gusto, and there’s a youthful hippie energy that jars with Zefferelli’s sweeping romantic vision.

Paul Newman, thankfully, directed the pro-feminist Rachel, Rachel, more contemporary than the other nominees. Joanne Woodward captures the aching of a small-town schoolteacher in her thirties, at the exact middle of her life, and her late awakening to carnal pleasures and heartbreak. It’s a richly emotional movie, anchored by an understated Woodward, and it may be Woodward and Newman’s strongest collaboration.

Meanwhile, Katharine Hepburn anchors The Lion in Winter with wry nobility. She’s an old-fashioned actress in great form, “Medea to the teeth,” as she’s described; every line delivered precisely, in contrast to Peter O’Toole’s rabid dog of a king, shrieking and wailing at every turn. This movie has the washed-out look Romeo does, and is overly stagy. But it’s full of style, from James Goldman’s play presented faithfully to Hepburn’s way with a one-liner.

Not Nominated

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the ultimate psychedelic experience! Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski’s delicious tale of Satanism for rich Manhattanites! Planet of the Apes, that futuristic allegory of humanity overtaken! The Academy was still too old-fashioned to honor the sci-fi and horror genres. Then there’s Mel Brooks’s The Producers, which somehow won Original Screenplay despite being (enjoyably) tasteless.

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