81 Days With Oscar And Me

Every Academy Award-Winning Movie, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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Oliver!

September 29th, 2009 · No Comments · 1968, Adaptation, Color, Columbia Pictures, Hugh Griffith, Musical, Oliver Reed, Oliver!

Oliver! I have an amendment to my earlier proclamation that I hate musicals.

I’ve discovered something far worse:

A musical with, about, and presumably for children.

Charles Dickens, on his best day, could not possibly be considered cheery. So to take a story about orphans, pickpockets, prostitutes, child labor, lying, violence, murder, and the grime of turn-of-the-century London streets and turn it into a musical – a nearly three-hour musical! – requires a willing suspension of disbelief of biblical proportions.

Oliver! is loosely based on Dickens’ novel of the same name. The novel is delicious. The movie is deplorable, as frenetic as a Saturday-morning cartoon. And just about as worth watching.

THE CAST
Ron Moody (1924- )……………………………..Fagin
Shani Wallis (1933- ) …………………………….Nancy
Oliver Reed (1937-1999)……………………….Bill Sikes
Harry Secombe (1921-2001)………………….Mr. Bumble
Mark Lester (1958- )…………………………….Oliver Twist
Jack Wild (1952-2006)………………………….The Artful Dodger
Hugh Griffith (1912-1980)…………………….The Magistrate

Oliver!, the movie, was written by Charles Dickens (1812-1870, “Oliver Twist”), Lionel Bart (1930-1999, book), and Vernon Harris (1905-1999, screenplay). As you might expect, the novel “Oliver Twist” is vastly more interesting than the movie. I recommend reading about it on Wiki.

More interesting than what occurs on screen is what occurs off screen with these actors:

Oliver Reed (Sikes) was an infamous drinker and brawler. According to his bio on IMDB: “He died of a heart attack in a bar after downing three bottles of Captain Morgan’s Jamaica rum, eight bottles of German beer, numerous doubles of Famous Grouse whiskey, and beating five much younger Royal Navy sailors at arm-wrestling. His bar bill for that final lunch time totaled 270 Maltese lira, almost £450.” Reed was close friends with the Who’s drummer Keith Moon, also known for his drinking prowess.

Mark Lester (Oliver) was recently in the news (August, 2009) for claiming to be the father of Michael Jackson’s daughter via sperm donation. Read about it here and here and here. The former child star of Oliver! may very well be the father of Michael Jackson’s daughter, Paris. You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

Incidentally, according to Wiki, Mark Lester’s singing voice in Oliver! (1968) was dubbed by Kathe Green, the daughter of Johnny Green, the musical director on the film. Kathe was brought in when it was found the singing voice of Mark Lester wasn’t quite what was wanted for the song “Where Is Love?”., although this was not made public until 1988 during an interview with Johnny Green on the 20th anniversary of the film (he stated that Mark Lester was “tone deaf and arrhythmic”). He originally had two boys set to dub his singing but during post production it was felt that their voices didn’t match Mark’s look, so they used Johnny’s daughter instead.”

Jack Wild (Artful Dodger) was such a heavy drinker and smoker (from the age of 12) that he died of mouth cancer at the age of 52. Wild starred in the Saturday-morning show H.R. Pufnstuf.

Oliver! was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won five, plus one Honorary Award given to Onna White (1922-2005, for choreography: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Director (Carol Reed, 1906-1976), Best Music, Score of a Musical Picture (Original or Adaptation), Best Picture (John Woolf), and Best Sound.

There are so many songs in Oliver! that it’s hard to follow whatever story the screenwriter intended to be followed. Every five minutes, someone breaks into song.

Surprisingly, Ron Moody (Fagin) didn’t win the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role, even though he was nominated. He was over the top in this film. No doubt about it. But his performance was memorable. In fact, one of my favorite exchanges was this one:

Young urchin: These sausages are moldy!
Fagin: Shut up and drink your gin!

While I’m on a roll with the positive comments, I must comment on the set. According to the behind-the-scenes feature, the entire set is just that – a set. Everything was built, full scale – buildings, the river running through the middle of the city…all of it. It’s one of the best sets I’ve ever seen. Must have cost a fortune. But it’s very realistic.

In short, when it comes to Oliver!, you’ll never hear me say, “Please, Sir. I want some more.”

In fact, Sir, I want less.

About 153 minutes less.

The Real Oscar According to the book The Real Oscar: The Story Behind the Academy Awards by Peter H. Brown, Oliver! is another movie that should not have won Best Picture. Brown writes,

An overblown musical valentine to Dickens and Victorian England, Oliver! was pleasant entertainment, little else. The acting was turgid, cartoonish. The script could have been written in 1920.

Amen.

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