Oscar Gold: Oliver!

It’s not Oscar season if someone isn’t upset. It’s absurd that such-and-such movie didn’t get nominated. That piece of crap got in? Man, insert pandering / boring / uninventive movie here is going to win, isn’t it? For something many cinephiles purport to brush off, we sure care a lot about the Oscars. That’s because they’re a barometer by which more casual moviegoers in our lives measure what’s best. Instead of carping about controversial selections for Best Picture — which could fill a year’s worth of columns no one would read — we figured it would be more interesting to arguments from advocates for these choices. Welcome to Midwest Film Journal’s Oscar Gold.


I’m into stage musicals. 

Unapologetically. 

In my CD collection, cast recordings and theatrical songbook collections easily outnumber all other genres combined. I’ve travelled significant distances to see lesser-known shows such as Children of Eden and was thrilled when I moved to Indianapolis and found that a local theater was staging the Kander & Ebb obscurity The Happy Time. I’ve hosted bus trips to musicals in Chicago and have written pieces for The Sondheim Review.

And yet …

When it comes to movie versions of stage musicals, there are only a handful that I ever want to watch more than once.

Of course there are the train wrecks, including Richard Attenborough’s “huh?” version of A Chorus Line and the Rob Marshall transformation of Nine into an Italian perfume commercial. But there are also the good-enough film versions of such shows as Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd. I’ve seen multiple stage versions of each — including the original Broadway companies — and I’ll likely see more. But I have no desire to watch either onscreen again. Hairspray would be fine if John Travolta didn’t get in the way. And I’d watch Cats again before I suffered through what Hollywood did to Mame or Camelot.

Which brings us to Oliver!, the occasionally maligned film that I believe deserved its Best Picture win at the 1969 Oscars.

It’s competition included Funny Girl, another stage-to-screen transfer, that one featuring Barbra Streisand and a hit-packed score to save a merely fair film;  The Lion in Winter, with the unmatchable cast of Katharine Hepburn, Peter O’Toole and Anthony Hopkins as well as a smart-smart script; Rachel, Rachel, which I haven’t seen and you probably haven’t either; and Romeo and Juliet, whose youth focus earned attention but really loses energy after Mercutio and Tybalt bite the dust. (Sorry. Should I have posted a spoiler?)

Now I know there were other terrific films that year. And some that broke new ground. I see you, 2001: A Space Odyssey and my beloved Planet of the Apes. But the Oscars are rarely about groundbreaking films. And when they think they are (Birdman, The Artist) they really aren’t. And I have to look at the choices given. 

In this case, I believe a great, enduring film won.

Why?

Short answer: Oliver! provides a horribly dark and surprisingly joyful experience featuring terrific songs, a range of great characters, a story with strong forward motion, a set of indelible performances and one of the greatest villains in cinema. 

If you’ve read this far, you probably already know the plot, but here are the basics anyway.

The titular orphan finds residence in a workhouse where he is peer-pressured into asking for more gruel at mealtime. Sent out for sale, he eventually runs away and finds himself in London, where he falls in with a gang of junior pickpockets. Their den master, Fagin, does business with the evil Bill Sikes, who sees a potential payoff when the kid gets a social upgrade. 

Digression: The stage musical was something of an oddity. For decades, musical theater as we know it was primarily a U.S.-born thing with the number of notable musicals birthed in England being few and very far between. Oliver!, though, proved a breakout, setting a record with a six-year run in London — which remained unbroken until Andrew Lloyd Webber came along with Jesus Christ Superstar. A healthy year-plus run on Broadway helped build its reputation in the U.S. 

Digression within the digression: I wouldn’t dare compare Oliver! to Hamilton, but it is worth noting that it’s that rare musical hit where a single person — in this case, Lionel Bart — wrote the book, music and lyrics. 

I’ll confess that I’ve only seen the stage version once — in a high-school production during my formative years. But I don’t see how any stage production could top the film. 

Why? 

In part because scale serves this story. 

A handful of workhouse orphans craving “Food, Glorious, Food” can’t rival the movie’s army of kids progressing down the stairs for their disgusting meal (especially the young dude in the second room when their imagination kicks in). The way the London streets come alive when on-the-lam Oliver arrives in town and meets the charming Artful Dodger. And the way a simple morning call from a street vendor evolves into the joyful explosion of “Who Will Buy?”

The close-ups are just as important. 

Ron Moody’s Fagin telling a kid to “shut up and drink your gin” before breaking into the life-lesson tune of “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two.” Shani Wallis’ Nancy trying to convince herself that standing by her awful man is worth it as she sings “As Long As He Needs Me.” And the murderous look on Bill Sikes’ face when he realizes that a silly sing-along in the bar actually is merely a distraction to thwart him. Thanks to set design, costuming and makeup design, the scenes almost have their own smells, tastes and textures. The air seems dramatically different in Fagin’s den than it does in the bedchambers of the rich. 

There’s a weight to what’s happening here. Unlike frivolous musicals, the events here matter. And the forces acting against our young protagonist feel real. 

I can’t think of a more terrifying musical villain than Sikes, as played by Oliver Reed. Bart and company wisely upped the chill factor by giving him minimal lines and no songs at all. As much as I like a good villain song (“Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid being a particular favorite), they can often diminish rather than increase the tension in musicals. Sikes’ silence — his non-singing — sets him apart.

But it’s not all black and white. One of Oliver!‘s major strengths is the zone between evil and good. On the one hand, Fagin is a thief and corrupter of children. On the other, he’s also the first adult Oliver encounters who actually cares for him. Dodger is out for himself, too, but also protective of his protege as he enthusiastically welcomes him into this new world. And neither Dodger nor Fagin finds a path back to the strictly straight and narrow.

Another side note: Jack WIld’s performance as the Artful Dodger is up there with Barry Gordon in A Thousand Clowns on the short list of my all-time comic-kid performances. 

None of that would matter as much without a solid song stack. Rarely do musicals — especially those with any weight to them — integrate musical numbers so smoothly into their cinematic language, providing repeated opportunities to bask in the emotional life of a song without losing the drive of the story. The music and lyrics may not be wildly ambitious here, but there isn’t a dud in the lot. 

Yes, Oliver! has been accused of being “Dickens Light.” I’m not going to argue with that. But it’s also “Dickens De-Light” — a rare stage-to-screen musical I delight in every time I see it.


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About

Lou Harry’s more than 40 books include Creative Block, The High-Impact Infidelity Diet: a novel, the recently released Little Book of Misquotations, and the novelization of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. His produced plays include Midwestern Hemisphere and Popular Monsters, and his podcast, Lou Harry Gets Real, can be heard via Apple podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify. He is Chair of the New Play committee for the American Theatre Critics Association and serves as editor of Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists. Follow him on Twitter @louharry and / or visit www.louharry.com


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