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Oliver! (Best Picture, 1968)

I like Dickens novels. His use of language and storytelling are unparalleled.  However, in the ones I’ve read, I’ve found an interesting trend.  The main character is frequently the least interesting.  Dickens excelled at creating extraordinary supporting characters. The title character of OLIVER! is the kind of innocent, uncomplicated vessel that is typical of Dickensian main characters.  His unsullied purity and naivete catch the attention and hearts of those around him.  In particular he seems to bring Ron Moody’s Fagin up short.  Moody gives a wonderful performance as the crooked miser who leads a gang of pickpocketing boys, providing him with a complexity that makes him far more interesting than the caricature might have been.  Oliver seems to make Fagin feel guilty for what he teaches the boys to do.

The rest of the supporting characters are equally fascinating. Nancy is a disturbingly perceptive portrayal of a battered woman – passionate and loyal to the man who beats her, yet recognizing that he does bad things.  She is the first person in Oliver’s life to show him genuine love and unselfish concern for his well-being.  Nancy tries to protect Oliver from Fagin, Sikes, and the rest, and tries to help him escape the pickpocket life for the comfort of Mr. Brownlow’s home.  And then there’s Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger.  This may be one of the most fun roles for any boy to play.  He gets to do everything, really, from picking pockets to being Fagin’s second-in-command with the boys.

Bill Sikes may be one of Dickens’ most frightening creations.  I remember a while back I saw another filmed version of Oliver Twist (not the musical – might have been shown via “Masterpiece Theatre”) that featured Andy Serkis (yes, the physical counterpart of the CG Gollum in LOTR) as Bill Sikes.  Serkis was mesmerizing and thoroughly terrifying.  He has this way of looking just slightly mad.  Oliver Reed, in the 1968 musical, takes a different route.  Sikes rarely changes expression, he rarely raises his voice, and he moves with a slow smoothness that all work together to make the menace clear.  I don’t know if anyone’s done a psychological profile of Bill Sikes, but it would be interesting.  Is he a sociopath or just hardened and warped by the life circumstance forced upon him?

I saw the stage version of this musical years ago.  I remember little about it except for Nancy’s death.  Unlike the book or most filmed adaptations, when Sikes beats her to death, the musical I saw had her shot, instead.  Maybe it was the first time I saw a musical or a play in which someone died – somehow the way the actress just crumpled made an impression on me.  At home, though, I used to listen to the soundtrack.  The songs are simple and fun. “I’d Do Anything” is utterly charming, while “As Long As He Needs Me” is devastating.  The musical changes some things about the book, but it’s not Disney-fied. OLIVER! keeps the grime and pain and all the other shadows.  Even for the audience that knows the end of the story, Oliver’s peril – that he will end up in a life of crime, the workhouse, or an early grave – feels very real.

Midnight Cowboy (Best Picture, 1969)

MIDNIGHT COWBOY has the dubious distinction of being the only X-rated movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  Yes, it’s a story about a man who comes to New York City with the intention of being a hustler – a gigolo.  But it wasn’t rated X on account of a man trying to sleep with bored, wealthy married women in exchange for money – the film isn’t even all that sexually explicit (by current standards – may very well have been shocking in 1969).  It’s rated X because at one point Joe, the hustler, agrees to a homosexual encounter.  How times have changed, huh?

This film is just miserable.  I mean, it’s an interesting story and the friendship between the naive Texan Joe and the rapidly deteriorating, worldly Rizzo develops convincingly.  It’s everything else that’s miserable.  The grime and squalor of this underside of New York City is depressing, and the portrayal of physical suffering – poverty, hunger, bone-deep cold, and physical infirmity – it’s powerful and heartbreaking. Rizzo and Joe are both broken in different ways.  Rizzo has a gimp leg from a childhood encounter with polio, and he’s got some sort of lung ailment that’s slowly sapping his strength.  It’s never said exactly what it is – could be untreated bronchitis or pneumonia, could be tuberculosis – but over the course of the film he grows weaker and weaker.  Joe, on the other hand, has the traumatic backstory.  Abandoned by his parents, left to grow up with a grandmother who repeatedly left him alone to pursue boyfriends of her own, in love with a promiscuous girl who gave up other attachments to be with him but was then gang-raped by those others in revenge… you get the picture.

One of the interesting things about the film is it feels more stereotypically 1960s than the others in this decade have been.  The film is full of weird sections of flashing images, either to illustrate Joe’s memories or to indicate time passing, Joe’s or Rizzo’s nightmares, or other indications of time passing.  In one famous scene, Joe and Rizzo go to a party that is clearly populated by people enjoying a bit of 1960s counterculture.  Joe accidentally has his first encounter with drugs other than tobacco (pot and an unidentified pill), the party is full of artsy, stoned types enjoying drugs, grinding, and discussing all sorts of things that might seem important when under the influence.

It’s an odd film and I’m not sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, I can see foreshadowing of other creations, like the loneliness-in-a-crowd of Sondheim’s COMPANY, the unlikely male friendship (but without the sex) of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, and the New York rapid-fire speech and obsessiveness of Woody Allen. On the other hand, it’s grimy, sordid, and deeply unhappy, and I tend to prefer entertainment that helps me escape from the world over those which force me to face distressing realities.

Up Next: Patton (Best Picture, 1970) and The French Connection (Best Picture, 1971)