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When you grow up assuming that 2001: A Space Odyssey is the greatest movie ever made and then you look at the 1969 Oscars ceremony, all you can do is wonder just how out of touch the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences was that year. Stanley Kubrick's 2001 was nominated for just four awards and only won for its special effects. The movie that won the most Oscars for 1968 was Oliver!, a G-rated, family musical. Yes, a British musical based on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist was named the best film to be released during one of the most tumultuous years in American history. As surprising as it may sound though, Oliver! did deserve Best Picture and four other awards.
Oliver! starts off with young Oliver Twist (Mark Lester) already in an orphanage, where the adults enjoy delicious meals and the children have to eat some grey, watery mush. When Oliver has the guts to say “Please sir, I want some more,” the film really gets going. After being punished for his deed and actually sold to a funeral home, he manages to escape. He makes his way to London, where he hopes to find his fortune. Unfortunately, the first person he meets is The Artful Dodger (Jack Wild), which of course gives us the opportunity to see the first glimpse of Onna White's breathtaking choreography for “Consider Yourself.”
Dodger leads him to Fagin (Ron Moody), a move that introduces Oliver to London's underworld. Fagin is working with Bill Sykes (Oliver Reed) and the lovely Nancy (Shani Wallis). After Oliver learns the art of pick-pocketing, Dodger, Oliver and another boy go out to test his new skills. But Oliver gets caught when their first victim doesn't fall for their tricks. He turns out to be a rich man, who shows kindness to Oliver after the charges are dismissed. Sykes and Fagin get nervous that Oliver will talk and plan for a way to get him back. If you know the story of Oliver Twist, you know how this plays out.
Oliver Twist already had one great film adaptation, coming from David Lean in 1948, but aside from using Lionel Bart's musical as the foundation, director Carol Reed brings his style of filmmaking to the table to ensure that it doesn't feel anything like Lean's film. As a contemporary of Lean, Reed is known for his gritty dramas like Odd Man Out (1947) and The Third Man (1949). By the 1960s, he had become a director of expensive roadshow spectacles, so progressing to a big budget musical doesn't seem far-fetched. Reed isn't a figurehead, some famous name producer John Woolf could talk into directing without expecting constructive input. Reed brings a unique perspective to the film, inserting trademark askew shots (check them out in The Third Man) and getting naturalistic performances from the children (he learned this while directing The Fallen Idol ).
Oliver! is not only defined by the amazing performances from child stars Wild, who was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and Lester, but the adults as well. Moody, who starred in the original West End production, embodies Fagin to the point that you can't see anyone else playing the role.
The Oscar-winning art direction also plays a key role in ensuring that Oliver! is nothing like the other gaudy, overblown musicals that were big hits in the 1960s. This is probably the dirtiest, darkest musical you will ever see. Look at where Fagin lives and compare that to any location in The Sound of Music. Or where My Fair Lady aspires to go from dingy to beauty, Oliver! stays in the muck and enjoys it. This is based on Dickens after all, not George Bernard Shaw.
Of course, the final piece of this is the songs, so well integrated by Bart, who not only wrote the book, but the music and lyrics. The Oscar-nominated script by Vernon Wells ensures that none of the songs slow down the movie. There's really only one set-piece that doesn't push forward the story - “Who Will Buy?,” which opens the second half of the film. However, even that feels essential, as Oliver finally gets an introduction to clean society.
Oliver! may certainly feel like a relic, but it is far different than the other musicals that people had grown tired of by 1968. This was not made by Hollywood people looking to craft a stylized, bloated musical. Even compared to Funny Girl, the other musical up for Best Picture of 1968, Oliver! certainly has more charm, heart and wonderful songs. There's no single star stealing scenes, just the unforgettable story of an orphan searching for a better life.