Thursday, September 26, 2013

Picking a Pocket or Two

Nancy (Shani Wallis): I thieved for you when I was half his age and it's your dirty work I've been doing ever since.

Bill (Oliver Reed): Well if you have it's a living ain't it?

Fagin (Ron Moody): Yes, a living is a living.

Nancy: Some living, Lord help me, some living!

Some movies are so linked in my memory to particular places or people or times in my life that it is impossible for me to separate them.

"Oliver!" is like that for me — several times over.

As was so often the case in my family in those days, we made frequent trips to Dallas to visit my grandparents — and we always seemed to go to movies a lot during those visits. There was a movie theater just a few blocks up the street from my grandmother's house, and it always seemed to be showing the latest hit movies.

And I have a clear memory in my mind of seeing "Oliver!" at that theater — more than once.

(Sometimes a movie stayed at that theater indefinitely. In the days before the multiplexes and home video, theaters like the one up the street from my grandmother's home only had one screen so the successful ones booked the popular movies and kept them there indefinitely. "Oliver!" was like that. I don't know how many times I saw it, but it was more than once, and each time was at that same theater.)

"Oliver!" premiered on this date in 1968. Most likely, my family wasn't in Dallas at this time of the year — the school where my father taught was on a trimester system in those days, and the fall term typically began in late September. His presence on campus — for teachers' meetings, freshman orientation activities and all that other stuff — would have been required.

It was probably Thanksgiving — or perhaps Christmas — when we came to Dallas and saw "Oliver!"

When I see it now, I enjoy the musical adaptation of a familiar story by Charles Dickens, but, at the time, I don't think I knew that. I'm sure the original story was beyond my years.

(Later on, I did read "Oliver Twist" — probably when I was in high school or college — and I liked it, but, in my mind's eye, I saw Oliver Reed, Ron Moody and Shani Wallis when I read about Bill Sikes or Fagin or Nancy.)

I remember that I found the music very appealing, which made it all the more remarkable that "Oliver!" did so well at the Oscars — well, remarkable in the context of the years that followed. Movies that are perceived to be musicals have rarely even been nominated for the major Oscars in the last 45 years.

But "Oliver!" got 11 nominations and won five — as well as a special Oscar for choreography.

I didn't really recognize anyone in the movie when I saw it on the big screen, but the movie's success at the box office and the Oscars catapulted many of the movie's stars to a new level.

The movie won Best Picture, and Carol Reed won an Oscar for Best Director; Reed had been making movies for more than 30 years and was already well known for movies he made following World War II so winning wasn't crucial for him.

Simply being nominated was enough to give a career boost to folks like Jack Wild (the Artful Dodger), who went on to host a reasonably popular children's Saturday morning TV show — and even folks who weren't nominated benefited from just being associated with the movie. It was a plus for Oliver Reed (Bill Sikes), who was voted one of the five most popular stars in Great Britain a couple of years later.

Wallis, who played Nancy, the whore with a heart of gold, enjoyed a higher professional profile because of her affiliation with the project. She made some more movies and appeared on some TV shows in the years after "Oliver!" but I suppose it could be said that it represented the high–water mark for her career.

(As a child, I remember watching "Oliver!" and being mesmerized by Wallis. Whenever she was on the screen, even if she wasn't an important player in the scene, she had my undivided attention. I don't think I knew her character was a prostitute — I probably didn't know what prostitute meant — but, looking back, I think there was a sexual angle to it for me. She excited my budding sexuality in ways I couldn't explain then — and still can't explain today.)

It may also have been the high–water mark for Mark Lester, who played the title role and went on to appear in some movies and TV shows but received no Oscar nomination for his work. I thought he sang as well as any of the other boys his age in the movie, and that was really most of what his role demanded from him.

"Oliver!" appears to have been the pinnacle for Lester, but he is appearing in a movie (now in pre–production) that will be his first in more than 25 years. Who can say at this point how it will be received by the public or the critics?

I must confess that I don't really know what kind of an impact his part in the movie had on Moody's career, but I have my suspicions.

Moody was nominated for Best Actor for his performance as Fagin. He had been making movies for nearly 10 years, and he made maybe a dozen more in the years after "Oliver!" He did some TV, too. By most accounts, I suppose, he had a successful career.

He was even offered the lead in TV's Doctor Who the year after he was in "Oliver!" but turned it down.

Considering the long–term success of that series, that may have been the pivotal moment in his career — for better or (most likely) for worse.