The Best Picture Project – Oliver! (1968)

Directed by Carol Reed

Written by Vernon Harris

Based upon the stage show by Lionel Bart

Taken from the novel by Charles Dickens

Starring Ron Moody, Oliver Reed, Mark Lester, Shani Wallis and Jack Wild 

Oliver! is a movie musical made in the tradition of the great movie musicals of the 1950s, but coming out in 1968, when the world had just about turned its back on them – at least the traditional musicals – it was instantly a curiosity, the last gasp of the studio system trying to stay alive before more independent based producers and stars really upended the system in favor of smaller and more personal films – see TCM’s Moguls and Movie Stars:  A History of Hollywood for more.

Because Oliver! wasn’t made with a mind towards the emerging aesthetic – like Cabaret would be, just a few years later, with its take on homosexuality, ménage a trois, corruption, abortion and the Nazi’s – the film is necessarily saddled with all the burdens one could expect of the old-style  Hollywood musical.  It has a thin story and one-note performances, covered over with gargantuan, tiresome musical numbers – particularly galling is the “Who Will Buy?” sequence that comes out of the intermission and goes on forever.  It nearly put me to sleep.

And yet, despite many of its throwbacks, with the deliriously upbeat-sounding musical numbers, it’s also one of the darkest films to ever win best picture – especially of the musicals.  Consider the film opens with children working in a poorhouse, working and being forced to eat gruel.  Then, after asking for a second helping, Oliver is dragged out and sold into service of another family, before finally being forced to run away because of brutality in that home – and all this before the plot really kicks in.  In all the film is rife with crime of all types.  Theft, burglary with a child, child abuse, rampant poverty, prostitution – it may not be on screen, but Nancy is clearly a working woman – and most of all, murder.  For a body that previously honored such frothy fair as Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Gigi and My Fair Lady, that Oliver! won Best Picture seems revolutionary.  Except, if it is revolutionary, it’s in the most timid way possible.  Real revolution would strike the next year, when the X-rated Midnight Cowboy would be crowned the years best.

 So, in some ways the win for Oliver! can be seen as honoring a bygone era – movie musicals.  In other ways it can be seen as honoring a bygone filmmaker – Carol Reed.  Before Oliver! it had been years since he’d really done anything of note.  Sure, The Agony and The Ecstasy was big and likeable – I like it – but it’s a far cry from his real triumph with The Third Man.  Giving him the award for Oliver! was the Academy’s way of making up for screwing him back in the forties, much in the same way Scorsese scored an Oscar for The Departed which, while enjoyable, was not even in his top-five best films.

But I digress.

Clearly, the Academy was honoring Oliver! for more than its merits, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a lousy film.  Sure, it has one-note performances, but Oliver Reed is spectacular as the brutal Bill, and even if Mark Lester is terrible, Ron Moody is there enough to distract, as is Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger.  And even if the film loses its way a bit in the middle, as the musical numbers try to see just how overblown they can be, the opening scene of “Food, Glorious Food” is pitch-perfect. 

In the end, it’s not great, but it’s not terrible either.  It’s just not the movie that should have been lavished with the attention it received.  After all, 1968 was a banner year in the film industry, in terms of films with long-lasting impact.  It saw the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby, The Producers, Romeo and Juliet, Planet of the Apes, Pretty Poison, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly – all were films better than Oliver! and yet, not one rated in the Best Picture race.

Trivia:

After Oliver! it would be 34 years before another musical won Best Picture – Chicago in 2002.  In between those years only Cabaret had a real shot at Best Picture, winning eight Oscars but losing the big one to The Godfather.  In the 40 years prior to Oliver!, eight musicals won Best Picture.  Hell, of the eleven Best Pictures between 1958 and 1968, five were musicals.

For the other winners and films left to see in this little project, click here.

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