Saturday, September 26, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Oliver!" (1968)

Mark Lester in Oliver!
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Release Date: September 26, 1968
Director:  Carol Reed
Written By: Lionel Bart (book), Vernon Harris (screenplay), Charles Dickens (freely adapted from "Oliver Twist")
Starring: Mark Lester, Ron Moody, Shani Wallis
Genre: Drama, Family, Musical
Running Time: 153 minutes

Oscar Wins: 5
-Best Picture
-Best Director (Carol Reed)
-Best Art Direction-Set Direction 
-Best Sound
-Best Original Score

Oscar Nominations: 6
-Best Actor (Ron Moody)
-Best Supporting Actor (Jack Wild)
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Cinematography
-Best Costume Design
-Best Editing

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Funny Girl
-The Lion in Winter
-Rachel, Rachel
-Romeo and Juliet

And the winner is...

Among the most popular works of literary fiction is the Charles Dickens novel "Oliver Twist." The story of a young orphan and his band of miscreants has won over audiences' hearts for a few centuries now. With the 1968 film directed by Carol Reed, Oliver!, the titular boy came to life through the power of song; running around a sound stage version of London. The film has a lot of things lobbied onto its Oscar history, including its status as the only Rated G film to win the category. If nothing, it's reflective not only of the lasting power of Dickens, but also of what the potential of family entertainment can provide at The Oscars. Is it the best musical? Probably not. But that doesn't stop it from being one of the most charming takes on a classic that not only compliments the story, but in some ways elevates its overall appeal.

While Oliver! may be the first musical adaptation of the story, it owes a lot of credit to other versions as well. The first version of Oliver! premiered at West End in 1960, which became the first Dickens-based musical to become a success after a few failed adaptations of "A Christmas Story" in the 50's. From there, the film deviates from the established story by excising several musical numbers while expanding others such as "Boy For Sale" and "Where is the Love." Characters such as Oliver's half-brother Monks were also removed because Reed felt the character was too similar in plot to thief character Bill Sikes. Beyond this, Oliver! borrows an alteration to the plot from director David Lean's 1948 version in which Sikes uses Oliver as a hostage - which was not present in the book. While this alteration is noticeable, Lean never received credit for the idea in the credits. 

The film was a massive undertaking, as the cast featured 84 boys, all aged between 8 and 15. Even with many making complaints about child labor laws, Reed claimed that the cast was too rambunctious in the summer months that they were more abusing him - even playing pranks during various shooting days. Likewise, Oliver Reed stayed in character as Sikes during the filming in a manner that bothered the young actors. Among the pieces that Oliver! used from the stage version was that of Ron Moody as Fagin; an actor who only got the role after Peter Sellers and Peter O'Toole rejected it. He also didn't know until the first day of filming if he got the part. He would go on to star in almost every adaptation as the character for the remainder of his life. The film was also scheduled (among others) to star Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as Bill and Nancy, who ended up being played by Shani Wallis and Oliver Reed respectively. Even though the film featured predominantly unknown actors, it did feature Oscar winner Hugh Griffith (as The Magistrate), who had won Best Supporting Actor for Ben-Hur.

The film was so well rehearsed that the cast and crew spent six months rehearsing before a single frame was filmed. Oliver! ended up being shot on six sound stages in London, England that were separated from "poor" to "rich" settings. It was because many of the sets were "open air," or lacked roofing. This made things especially difficult considering that many musical numbers were often filmed on various sets. This contributed to why numbers like "Consider Yourself" took a reported three weeks to shoot. This number also took longer because Jack Wild (Artful Dodger) claimed to have dragged Oliver actor Mark Lester through the entire routine because he didn't know what he was doing. Likewise, Lester later admitted in 1988 that his voice was dubbed by Kathe Green (daughter of musical director Johnny Green) because his voice was "tone deaf and arrhythmic." Why female? Because the boys that they had lined up to sing his part were decided to not sound close enough to Lester's physical stature. This was also the first British film to use a primitive video-assist (a camera to monitor technique), created by engineer Joe Dunton.

The film ended up being well received by critics, receiving almost universal perfect ratings. It was the seventh highest grossing movie of 1968 with $77 million. Pauline Kael considered it to be one of the few film versions of a musical that surpassed the stage version. Meanwhile, Roger Ebert called it flawless, even comparing it to Wizard of Oz, and considered it to have entertainment value for almost everyone. He went on to claim that while the film may be a little long, it was inevitably worthwhile to younger audiences, particularly because it didn't insult intelligence. At The Oscars, Carol Reed ran into Charlton Heston, of whom he worked with on The Agony and the Ecstasy. It was reported that Heston gave Reed a copy of "Oliver Twist" with a handwritten note from Dickens. When asked about the occasion, Reed claimed that Heston was a "very considerate man."

Controversy for that year's ceremony happened before it even aired. The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson made a sketch with Buddy Hackett in which they predicted Oliver! winning Best Picture and Jack Albertson (The Subject Was Roses) would win Best Supporting Actor. This sketch was filmed three hours prior to the ceremony and became "The Great Carson Hoax," with many questioning if there was a breach of security. People from Price Waterhouse were fired while in 2004 made a public statement that Carson and Hackett had made a few lucky guesses. The Academy didn't hold a grudge against Carson, as he went on to host the ceremony five times.

Oliver! may have garnered an impressive 11 nominations, but it became more known for several other achievements. For starters, it remains the only Rated G film to win Best Picture since the MPAA was instated; many older films would go on to have this rating years after their win. In a humorous twist, Midnight Cowboy became the only Rated X film to win Best Picture. While it wasn't the last to be nominated, it was the last musical to win Best Picture until 2002's Chicago. Among the lesser known records, the film was also the last British produced film to win Best Picture until the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. The film also received an Honorary Oscar for Onna White for her work on the choreography. 

To many, Oliver! likely symbolizes the last of the movie musical's golden era. It is also prevalent in the 60's featuring four Best Picture musical winners. This is both indicative in its win and in the subsequent years that, while having superb films like Cabaret and All That Jazz, weren't as rewarded as character dramas. It remains one of the most optimistic, family friendly Best Picture winners in history, and its charm continued to flourish in the stage version, often starring Moody as Fagin. While the cast doesn't necessarily have name recognition, it's more impressive to know that the rowdy kids could pull together such a charming film. Even if there have been more memorable Dickens adaptations since, few have captured the enthusiasm and ingenuity of his text quite as effectively as Carol Reed did with this film that continues to dazzle more than 45 years later.

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