Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.
Here is a touch of honesty: Years ago when I made it my business to see all of the Best Picture winners (that’d been somewhere in the early 90s) I arrived at Carol Reed’s adaptation of Oliver! with a measure of baleful indifference. I didn’t want to see this film outside of a dual purpose: one, it was a Best Picture winner, and two, I was dying to see the film that that Academy voters chose over Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
That second purpose was in the forefront of my intentions. Nineteen Sixty-Eight was a fascinating year for movies as old Hollywood standards were elbowing for space in the wake of a new generation of filmmakers and a new tidal wave of explicit content as the production code was beginning to crumble. This was the year of studio product like Funny Girl, The Odd Couple, Yours Mine and Ours, The Lion in Winter, The Boston Strangler, Hello, Dolly! and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. But is was also the year of ‘out of the box’ classics like Rosemary’s Baby, The Producers, Night of the Living Dead, Planet of the Apes, Bullitt, Pretty Poison, Belle du Jour, Isadora, The Conqueror Worm and again, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
What was not-so-surprising was that a traditional old musical adventure like Oliver! won the Academy Award for Best Picture despite the scope of new and original films available all through the year. What WAS surprising is how much I actually enjoyed this movie. Yes, it’s a traditional old musical but it is bright and lively and quite a bit of fun, taking the difficult subject of a poor orphan in the standard Dickensian doldrums and turning it into a bouncy musical.
This could not have been an easy task. The world of Charles Dickens doesn’t naturally lend itself to musical numbers. His was a world of dreadful 19th century social conditions lorded over by comically repulsive characters, so an adaptation couldn’t have been much fun. Primary to the problem is that Oliver Twist, in the book, isn’t a very interesting character. He’s sort of a pawn to stand by while a fascinating circus of characters moves in and out of his life making changes in his destiny. The great alteration to Oliver here from the book, the stage musical and 1948 film adaptation (all of which I’ve experienced) is that he’s been given a bright personality, a measure of the breath of life that makes him more than just a bystander in his own story.
Still, the primary fulcrum of the story are the supporting characters: Fagin, Bill Sikes and The Artful Dodger. If Oliver hadn’t been such an interesting presence here, they might have taken over the story as they do in the book (although they do, admittedly, take over the film’s third act).
The movie is an interesting balancing act, first in juggling the characters and second in juggling the tone of the times. Reed never forgets that this film takes place in the Dickensian world. He never forgets that London underground with its cobblestone roads, its filthy alleyways or its shadowy underbelly. That’s something that might have been lost in transitioning this material to music.
Oliver! is a wonderful musical but it is also kind of a melancholy one at that. This was the last musical to win the Oscar for Best Picture until Chicago 34 years later, but more importantly it signaled the death of a genre of filmmaking that had existed since the induction of sound. In the age of personal filmmaking, when old standards were retooled or retired, the movie musical would become a sad casualty. Oh, they existed after this film but they never again reached the same heights that they had before 1968. Even today, musicals are sparse and most are relegated to animated features. Maybe I’m being overly melodramatic but Oliver! seems like a swan song to a great American tradition.