Worst Best Picture: Is Oliver! Better or Worse Than Crash?

oliver

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1968 winner Oliver! Is it better than Crash?

This is the next-to-last musical on my list. I put it off because I figured, yeah, yeah, “Food, Glorious Food,” got it, thanks. I saw Oliver! once on a date, and I believe it’s the only musical I’ve ever seen in person. I’m not sure why I picked Oliver!, but I liked it, and I expected this would feel mostly like filler.

That’s not terribly far off. Oliver! is an adaptation of Oliver Twist, of course, and the story is well-known. Oliver lives in squalor and when he asks for more food (you know, “please sir, I want some more”) he’s met with anger. He’s sold into service and lives a terrible life until he escapes and joins up with the Artful Dodger and a bunch of other child criminals. You know, a normal, everyday group of child criminals.

The child acting is better than you’d expect, especially from the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild, who earned an Oscar nomination for the role and had a… let’s go with “troubled” life afterwards). The adults mostly shine as well. Fagin (Ron Moody), the leader of the intrepid children, is especially delightful as a not-so-bad bad guy in comparison with the dark Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed) and his sad girl Nancy (Shani Wallis).

Oliver and Dodger get themselves into a dicey situation and Oliver gets nabbed. He’s adopted by a well-to-do family that the film thankfully doesn’t spend much time on. The second act focuses on the conflict of Fagin and Bill being worried that Oliver will reveal their crime ring and Nancy worried that Bill will kill the boy (or her) to keep him quiet.

It’s dark, especially for what amounts to a children’s movie. Bill’s really terrifying, and Oliver Reed deserves a lot of credit for playing him menacing but very quiet. It’s all grimaces and explosions of rage, and it would be easy to do that like a cartoon villain rather than the specific character that Bill Sikes is. Nancy and Fagin even play into the terror of Bill Sikes, since both of them seem content in the end to let Oliver live out his life in adopted splendor rather than trying to apprehend him. It’s a tough life for everyone involved, and Bill won’t let anyone leave.

The poverty of Oliver! is meant to be the star, really, and it is. No matter how much you steal, you have to steal more, and the thefts themselves erode your character in a way you can’t return from. Nancy is Bill’s girl (see: “As Long as He Needs Me,” the saddest “love” song) and Fagin is a career criminal (“Reviewing the Situation,” which is genuinely funny rather than musical-funny) and neither of them have any place to go, even if Bill would let them leave. The cycle contributes to the cycle. Even though songs like Nancy’s “It’s a Fine Life” contribute to a sense that everyone involved knows they’re stuck in this life, no one says they have to be happy about it.

The Best Part: Tough call, but I’d say it’s Fagin’s song with the kids, “Pick a Pocket or Two.” He explains how to steal and why it’s necessary to Oliver through a fun little ditty that Oliver doesn’t seem to understand, because Oliver is a dumb kid. Honorable mention goes to Nancy’s song “Oom-Pah-Pah” which was stuck in my head for a week after I saw this and I don’t care who knows. Get at me.

The Worst Part: I struggled to come up with a worst part because I think Oliver! is pretty cohesive. There’s no one part that’s any worse than any other, really. My answer here tends to be “it’s too long, waaah” too often, but 153 minutes is a bit of a slog for a kid’s movie/musical, even though the journey is worth it.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? They’re both about worlds that desperately need change to break a cycle. Crash suggests that the world cannot overcome bigotry and Oliver! suggests that some people can’t escape their baser urges. Oliver! is pretty light on morals beyond that, and it’s mostly just a vehicle for some fun (and real, real sad) songs. It isn’t the best musical of all time, but it’s entertaining and has better acting than your standard musical, so that’s a nice treat. The performances elevate a run-of-the-mill movie, whereas Crash has some weird performances in what would just be a bad movie without them.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | Hamlet | Braveheart | Oliver!

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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