The Oscars Project: Week 11 — Oliver!

For 82 years, the Academy Awards have purported to choose the year’s best film. For the next year, I’ll be watching one best picture winner per week, starting 52 years ago and working up to The Hurt Locker. Some of the films are rightly regarded as classics. Others, decidedly less so. But each of them must have had some quality that earned it the top spot, and I’ll be trying to suss out what that is, and why it holds up — or why it deserves to be forgotten.

Oliver (Best Picture, Best Director and four others)

“Shut up and drink your gin” — Fagin, to his thieving orphans

This entry marks the end of an era. With Gigi, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and now Oliver, a little under half the movies I’ve seen so far for this project have been musicals. For much of the 60s, it seems, the Academy was a sucker for the razzle-dazzle of a well-constructed song-and-dance, preferring the Technicolor sprawl of these epic road shows over quieter, arguably better and certainly more influential films.

The 1967 Oscars started to usher in the end, when the by-all-reports-execrable Doctor Doolittle fell short of the win, despite shady, food-based bribery on the part of 20th Century Fox. Oliver!’s 1968 win marks the last musical best-picture winner for 34 years — Chicago is thus far the only film to break the losing streak. It’s also the last weak link before a remarkably strong stretch through the ’70s, which includes The French Connection, The Sting, both Godfather films, Annie Hall and other movies that have the movie snob in me salivating.

Just to emphasize that shift a bit more, consider this: Oliver! Is the only G-rated film to win the Best Picture prize. The next winner, Midnight Cowboy, is the only X-rated film ever to win Best Picture (keeping in mind that the X rating was more widely used back then, and wasn’t so strongly associated with porn). Clearly, something was changing. The classic studio system was on its way out, to be replaced by the auteur-heavy (read: director-focused) “New Hollywood,” spearheaded by Warren Beatty’s Bonnie and Clyde. If In the Heat of the Night’s win was an attempt to find balance between the two Hollywoods, Oliver! is one last hoorah for the old-school before the studios gave up for good.

It’s almost as if Oliver! director Carol Reed knew he was making the last of the Hollywood road-show pictures, because he pulls out all the stops to earn that titular exclamation point. Beginning with the parade of orphans in “Food, Glorious Food” (and forgiving a couple of small exceptions), every song is a show-stopper, either through the strength of the performances or the sheer scale of the number. For all my complaints about ’60s musicals — the flat choreography, the maudlin songs, the paucity of decent melodies — Oliver! is at least a step in the right direction for the genre.

Though definitely not the largest in the film, “Food” gives an idea of the scale of the musical numbers, with throngs of orphans marching zombie-like into a cavernous cafeteria. It also illustrates something that struck me as off about the film: it somehow stands on the line between wholesome and horrifying. The scene is actually quite repulsive, and everything from the costumes to the set seems appropriately awful; there’s torn clothes for the orphans, a cramped room where the wealthy can gorge themselves relatively free from prying eyes, and — best of all — the “God is love” sign in the background, to justify the disgusting dollops of gruel as so much saintly generosity on the part of the orphanage. But, this being a family movie, nothing feels remotely gritty. Not having read the novel, I can’t guarantee that his take is any more harsh, but given the connotations of the word “Dickensian,” I can’t help but think it must be.

The same goes for “Consider Yourself,” the song that comes when Oliver (Mark Lester) first encounters the Artful Dodger, a lovable urchin who’s also a world-class pickpocket. It seems like the Dodger is eying Oliver as a potential mark, or at best figuring that his boss, Fagin, could find a use for a wide-eyed naif in his arsenal of underage criminals. Once the song starts, though, there’s hardly a trace of sarcasm. Lines like “Consider yourself at home/ Consider youself one of the family/ We’ve taken to you so strong/ It’s clear we’re going to get along” are either painfully sincere, which doesn’t fit the character of a streetwise criminal-in-training, or completely ironic, which makes the whole number a pretty remarkable put-on. By the time the number is done, Oliver has been welcomed by everyone from meat vendors to bottle-cleaners to chimney sweeps, which makes the streets of London almost impossibly welcoming. A generous reading would say that the Dodger’s sweet-talking has Oliver seeing the city with rose-coloured glasses; a more cynical approach would say that the producers are just afraid of grit.

Fittingly, Oliver! comes to life in the dirtier bits, particularly in the dive-bar where Fagin meets with his prize pupil, Bill Sykes (the only truly intimidating character in the film) and in Fagin’s den. It seems to be a rule in these musicals that the lower classes get the livelier tunes, and the songs here are never more entertaining than when they deal with crime. Ron Moody is an astoundingly good Fagin, and he’s never better than in “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” a song that both justifies his trade (as it were) and turns it into a game, to make it more acceptable to doe-eyed Oliver. Why he instantly feels the need to protect Oliver isn’t exactly clear, but it does seem that Fagin has genuine affection for his boys, even if he’s not exactly a prime father figure. Behind the machinations and the scheming, there’s at least a little paternal instinct.

This being a family film, though, from a time before that term was associated with sass-mouthed CGI chipmunks and endless poop jokes, any amount of dirt has to be balanced by cleanliness and godliness. So, before long, Oliver is scooped out of his dingy world and into the home of Mr. Brownlow, a kindly, wealthy man who takes the boy in after mistakenly accusing him of theft. In terms of plot, this section seems a little contrived, both in the man’s willingness to take Oliver in and the staggering coincidence of his relationship to the boy (his niece is probably Oliver’s mother, as revealed by a painting that’s obviously a feminized version of the young Lester). It’s probably necessary in that it shows a way out for Oliver!, but if there wasn’t an obligation to provide a solid 2 1/2 hours of content (these roadshow movies have to give audiences their money’s worth), it’s pretty cuttable. On the plus side, it does provide an excuse for another extravagant musical number; this time, it’s “Who Will Buy,” the upscale counterpart to “Consider Yourself.” Instead of fishmongers and chimney-sweeps, we get rose-vendors and housemaids. It’s something of a retread, but at least Reed and his cinematographer and choreographer manage to make the whole thing pop.

That Reed could handle the material isn’t really a surprise — a 30-plus-year Hollywood veteran, his 1949 The Third Man is a noir classic, with one of Orson Welles’ finest performances and an intuitive sense for using a city’s architecture as a character. The material in Oliver! is considerably more frivolous, but bits of the old Reed do come through, particularly in some of London’s more complex wharfs and alleyways. I’d have to re-watch it to be sure, but I got the feeling that Jean-Pierre Jeunet may have borrowed a few of the shots directly for his Dickensian fable, The City of Lost Children, and I’d be surprised if he were the only one. Oliver! is exceedingly well crafted.

Still, as I mentioned before, it was part of a dying breed. The well-constructed road-show picture was on its way out, making way first for a series of adventurous and accessible lower-budget character studies, and then for the summer blockbusters that have been the movie industry’s backbone since Jaws and Star Wars changed things forever. And because of that, the movie feels a bit like a relic. Outside the world of Disney cartoons, most of the musicals that followed Oliver were either self-conscious twists on the classic formula (Cabaret, Chicago), post-modern pastiches (Moulin Rouge, Rocky Horror) or cheeseball homages (Grease).

The era of the honest, straightforward musical has passed. It’s like we’ve somehow forgotten their language. The idea of crowds bursting into song has been parodied so often, audiences can’t accept it as anything but ridiculous. In a way, it’s a mixed blessing — it means that the next Dr. Strangelove or The Hustler won’t be beaten by My Fair Lady or West Side Story (and that’s not mentioning 2001, which came out the same year as Oliver! and didn’t even get a nomination), but it’s like a whole avenue of cinema has been cut off. I could go off and theorize how it marks the severing of American cinema’s ties to theatre and vaudeville and the emergence of film as its own field, worthy of academic study (since upstarts like Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas were film school grads and wanted to explore the potential of the medium), but the fact is, I’m curious what would have happened if musicals could’ve progressed the same way the rest of the movies did.

There have been recent attempts to bring the genre into the modern world — think Dancer in the Dark, Once and the aforementioned Moulin Rouge, but in some sense it’s like they’re coming into the world with a 30-year handicap. Look at the following scene from Oliver!, where a barmaid creates a distraction by starting a musical number — it’s almost like she’s using the conventions of the genre to help her escape. The foundations were there to start taking the genre in interesting places again, even if no one picked them up.

Coming up:
1969: Midnight Cowboy
1970: Patton
1971: The French Connection

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