“ART” FOR PLEBS
David Lean’s version of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is a falsely dignified look at the horrors of the Russian Revolution. There was nothing pretty about it, and to receive what is basically a whitewash is a betrayal to history. Still, this clunker works. In spite of the miscasting of Omar Sharif, who not only endured the pain of waxing his hairline and wearing skin-pullers around the eyes to deaccentuate his ethnicity but would also confess to being “terrible,” in spite of Maurice Jarre’s insipidly repetitive score, in spite of Lean’s lumbersome style, we’re attentive to the polite tragedy because the romantic heart of Pasternak’s gruel—Yuri Zhivago’s love of the enigmatic Lara—reflects shared experience: when Yuri suffers his heart attack, we’re feeling our own pain in having irretrievably lost something of value. (To punish Pasternak for his politics and for writing Zhivago, the Russians sentenced his mistress, who’s the basis for Lara, to two terms of labor camp imprisonment.) The in-love crowd in the mid 60s went dreamy over Sharif’s Zhivago and Julie Christie’s Lara, taken in partly by the consequences of their doomed love, though largely by Sharif’s fluid brown eyes and Christie’s mod androgyny. There were even Zhivago fashions to wear like badges for groupies. The movie’s made more watchable by Sir Ralph Richardson’s quiet daffiness, by another entertaining star turn from Alex Guinness, and by Rod Steiger, whose performance as feverish and contemptible opportunist Komarovsky is the real thing. He’s also the movie’s sexual heat. Lean, never much of a sensualist, always had too much of a gentleman’s control of sex—a fear confirmed by Sarah Miles during an A & E “Biography” segment about Robert Mitchum in which she spoke of Lean’s reserve while filming Ryan’s Daughter. That Steiger of all actors is the fox in Lean’s chicken coop is one hell of a surprise, and no one more surprised than Lean. Third choice, after Brando and James Mason, Steiger admits to having fought with Lean on the set, at odds over characterization, but the friction between them proved helpful: the scenes with Christie are antagonistically charged, and in one of the epic’s best moments, Steiger “improved” it by slipping his tongue into her mouth and she unscriptedly slaps him and, startled by the act, he unscriptedly smacks her back—with his gloves. Providence that the camera remained shooting to capture those facials. Less literary than the great unread it’s based on, the movie’s as episodic; though not boring, Robert Bolt’s screenplay, regrettably middle class in palatability, drudges onward, plowing through transitions in perfunctory style. After receiving acclaim for his second unit work on Lawrence of Arabia, Nicholas Roeg started the Zhivago lensing but was quietly fired after disputes with Lean over how to illuminate the picture. Freddie Young took over and walla, it’s Vista Vision. Production designer John Box’s famous “ice palace” was made of altered bees’ wax. The biggest raps from the critics have been that everything’s overly staged for us, that, excepting Steiger and the slaps, there’s not an ounce of spontaneity. But the ordained is Lean’s modus operandi and millions of moviegoers feel secure in the belief that what he lords over becomes “art.” Costume designer Phyllis Dalton frames the epic: one look at Geraldine Chaplin’s beehive and Christie’s blond bangs, she said, “and you know this is a 60s movie.” Filmed in Panavision, with 70mm blowup for roadshows. (Opened 1/27/1966 at the Palace, running 38 weeks.)
Academy Awards for best adapted screenplay, color costumes, color cinematography, color art direction/set decoration, musical score.
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Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.