There are plenty of films that win Best Picture but are turned on by the public and retroactively labelled as terrible messes. There are other Best Picture winners that are simply forgotten. They may have been critically and commercially popular but other films have long since buried it in the public conscious.
We’re going to talk about one of the latter films today – Carol Reed’s Oliver!
I’ll get this out of the way – Oliver! is not bad at all. It’s a serviceable adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist and the popular stage show. Ron Moody is great as Fagin and Oliver Reed is appropriately terrifying as Bill Sikes. The film launched the careers of a few child stars and serves as the last memorable film in the legendary Carol Reed’s filmography.
But is it truly the “Best Picture” of 1968?
The film has been absolutely eclipsed by such movies as 2001: A Space Odyssey and even Night of the Living Dead. Reed won an Oscar over Stanley Kubrick and The Battle of Algiers director Gillo Pontecorvo, both of which are directors more likely to be quoted today than anything Carol Reed made after The Third Man.
Additionally, the film has some glaring flaws. It’s far too long and the songs – with two exceptions – aren’t necessary to the narrative. Worse, each song just keeps going as Reed builds it to be bigger and louder no matter how necessary that is. It’s the same technique Monty Python used in their “Every Sperm is Sacred” sketch, but they were doing it as a gag. Reed is being perfectly straight when he keeps adding chorus and more singers than necessary.
But the most glaring thing is, at a time when film was changing swiftly to accommodate “New Hollywood,” Reed’s Oliver! feels like a relic of a bygone era. AMPAS has always – always – gone with the more conservative choice because the voters tend to be older. And yes, Oliver! was a box office success. It was the sixth highest grossing film of the year, beating Planet of the Apes and Rosemary’s Baby. But Apes launched a successful franchise that still has entries in development and Baby spawned a new genre that later filmmakers would build on. Oliver! was part of an old genre that was quickly growing stale and would very soon be out of favor with the public.
So, what are we left with?
Well, as I said, it is a good adaptation of the Dickens novel about a young orphan who is recruited by a group of child thieves run by the aging Fagin – a recruitment that later puts him in extreme danger as he’s captured by the police and is taken in by a wealthier man who may be his great uncle. Fagin and Sikes try to get him back so he doesn’t snitch, but things don’t quite go according to plan. The novel isn’t necessarily the most fondly remembered Dickens novel, but it has still been adapted multiple times. This is probably the best adaptation we’re going to get. Ron Moody is perfect as Fagin, constantly referring to people as “my dear” with his tongue firmly in his cheek and betrays his true cruelty to his wards when they disobey. Additionally, he’s far more sympathetic a character than he is in the novel – the film excises his arrest and execution – and he gets one of the only two relevant songs in the movie.
In musicals, songs are meant to be a substitute for the complex emotions characters are feeling or they’re meant to introduce some aspect of the character we wouldn’t otherwise get. Most of the songs in Oliver! don’t do that. We get songs like “I’d Do Anything,” which doesn’t say anything about the characters. I guess it’s meant as an introduction between Oliver and former Fagin protégé Nancy, who is also Sikes’ devoted lover. But we’d already had that happen a few minutes earlier in the film when Oliver politely bows to Nancy. Maybe it’s meant to be everyone living out some sort of upper class fantasy? The movie never elaborates.
But that’s not the case with Fagin’s song “Reviewing the Situation,” which has him contemplating his life and wondering if his criminal activity is worth continuing. He considers the alternatives and slowly talks his way out of a normal life. The song itself is a little too derivative of Fiddler on the Roof – which seems to address the controversy of Dickens creating Fagin as an antisemitic symbol – but it effectively shares his mental state with the audience. He’s conflicted. He doesn’t necessarily want to train children as pickpockets. He wishes he was in higher society, even if he knows he’ll never achieve that goal. It’s a touching song that reveals a lot about Fagin – and it’s a song that’s missing for a lot of the characters.
Perhaps that’s why musicals fell out of favor with audiences. They became so focused on being epic and big that they forgot to be good. I wanted to know so much more about the characters and how they felt about the world they’re in. Musicals are ripe for cinematic exploration – for a while, it was a genre that movies could effectively translate into their medium. But as time went on, character development and subtlety went out the window.
Take the children in Oliver! We don’t learn their names beyond Dodger’s and they’re treated as props. Even Oliver Twist is sort of an enigma. None of his songs reveal anything about him or how he feels about the increasingly dangerous situation around him. What does he honestly think of Nancy? Does he fear Bill Sikes at all? Fagin? The movie never says. Oliver is mostly treated as a quiet shrew and a plot point than a person.
Nancy gets another great song, “As Long as He Needs Me.” It’s a showstopper as she explores her own feelings to her abusive partner. Why does she stay? Why is she trying to assert herself more? Does she really love Bill Sikes? The answers are complex, even in her mind, and the song perfectly captures what she’s emotionally going through. It’s by far the most effective song in the movie precisely because it’s the only song that does what a song in a musical needs to do.
Still, what the movie does well it does very well. It’s got a great production design – a perfectly sort of reimagined fantasy Victorian London – and there are some great performances in this movie. I can see why it pleased crowds back when it was released and I genuinely like some of the other songs (like the music hall inspired “Oom Pah Pah”).
But I can also see what Oliver! is – a part of a genre that basically no tricks left up its sleeve. In the 1960s, there were four big budget studio musicals that won Best Picture. Since 1968, there’s only been one. Oliver! is not a reflection of where film was going, except a base line to show how quickly movies were changing in New Hollywood. There was simply no room for stuff like this anymore and musicals couldn’t evolve the way other genres quickly were.
Also, I’m going to throw this out there – even if Oliver! is fine, the best musical adaptation of a Dickens work remains The Muppet Christmas Carol. Reed was unable to do what The Muppets could do. That says a lot.