Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Doctor Zhivago (dir by David Lean)


Klaus Kinski is the main reason to watch the 1965 film, Doctor Zhivago.

The legendarily difficult and erratic Mr. Kinski shows up about halfway through this 3-and-a-half hour film.  He plays a cynical and unstable prisoner on a train.  The train is full of passengers who are escaping from Moscow and heading for what they hope will be a better and more stable life in the Ural Mountains.  (The film takes place during the Communist revolution and the subsequent purges.)  That Kinski taunts everyone on the train is not a surprise.  Both Werner Herzog and David Schmoeller (who directed Kinski in Crawlspace) have made documentaries in which they both talked about how difficult it was to work with Kinski and how several film crews apparently came close to murdering Klaus Kinski several times throughout his career.

Instead, what’s surprising about Kinski’s performance is that he’s even there to begin with.  Doctor Zhivago is an extremely long and extremely stately film.  It’s one of those films where almost every actor gives a somewhat restrained performance.  It’s a film where almost every shot is tastefully composed and where the action often slows down to a crawl so that we can better appreciate the scenery.  It’s a film that stops for an intermission and which opens with a lengthy musical overture.  In short, this is a film of old school craftsmanship and it’s the last place you would expect to find Klaus Kinski luring about.

When he does show up, you’re happy to see him.  Even though he’s only onscreen for about five minute, Kinski gives the film a jolt of much-needed energy.  After hours of watching indecisive characters talk and talk and talk, Kinski pops up and basically, “Screw this, I hate everything.”  And it’s exciting because it’s one of the few time that Doctor Zhivago feels unpredictable.  It’s one of the few times that it feels like a living work of art instead of just a very pretty but slightly stuffy composition.

Just from reading all that, you may think that I don’t like Doctor Zhivago but that’s actually not the case. It’s a heavily flawed film and you have to be willing to make a joke or two if you’re going to try to watch the whole thing in just one sitting but it’s still an interesting throwback to a very specific time in film history.  Doctor Zhivago was designed to not only be a spectacle but to also convince audiences that 1) TV was worthless and that 2) Hollywood craftsmanship was still preferable to the art films that were coming out of Europe.  At a time when television and independent European cinema was viewed as being a real threat to the future of the film industry, Doctor Zhivago was a film that was meant to say, “You can’t get this on your black-and-white TV!  You can only get this from Hollywood where, dammit, people still appreciate a good establishing shot and treat the production code with respect!”  Even today, some of the spectacle is still impressive.  The beautiful shots of the countryside are still often breath-taking.  The scenes of two lovers living in an ice filled house are still incredibly lovely to look at.  The musical score is still sweepingly romantic and impressive.

It’s the story where the film gets in trouble.  Omar Sharif plays Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and a poet who falls in love with Lara (Julie Christie) while Russia descends into chaos.  The Czar is overthown.  The communists come to power and prove themselves to be just as hypocritical as the Romanovs.  The revolutionary Pasha (Tom Courtenay, bearing a distracting resemblance to Roddy McDowall) is in love with Lara and helps to bring about the revolution but is then declared an enemy of the people during the subsequent purges.  The craven Komarovsky (Rod Steiger) also wants to possess Lara and he’s so corrupt that he manages to thrive under both the Czar and the communists.  Alec Guinness plays Yuri’s half-brother and is the most British Russian imaginable.  Doctor Zhivago is based on a Russian novel so there’s a lot of characters running around and they’re all played by a distinguished cast of international thespians.  However, none of them are as interesting as the scenery.

As for the two main actors, Omar Sharif and Julie Christie convince you that they’re in love but not much else.  Sharif is never convincing as a poet and he feels miscast as a man who spends most of his time thinking.  Reportedly, Lean’s first choice for the role was Peter O’Toole and it’s easy to imagine O’Toole in the part.  But O’Toole had already done Lawrence of Arabia with Lean and didn’t feel like subjecting himself to another year of Lean’s notoriously prickly direction.  So, the role went to O’Toole co-star, Sharif.   Julie Christie turned down Thunderball to do both this film and Darling, for which she would subsequently win an Oscar.

(Speaking of the Oscars, Doctor Zhivago was nominated for Best Picture and, though it won five other Oscars, it lost the big prize to The Sound of Music, of all things.  1965 really wasn’t a great year for the Oscars.  The only 1965 Best Picture nominee that still feels like it really deserved to be nominated is Darling.  Of the other nominees, Ship of Fools is ponderous and A Thousand Clowns is almost unbearably annoying.  And The Sound of Music …. well, I prefer the Carrie Underwood version.)

Doctor Zhivago is a big, long, epic film.  It’s lovely to look at and it has a few nice scenes mixed in with a bunch of scenes that seem to go on forever.  In the conflict between the state and the individual, it comes down firmly on the side of the individual and that’s a good thing.  (The communist government attempts to suppress Yuri’s love poems because they celebrate the individual instead of society.  And though the government might be able to destroy Yuri’s life, they can’t destroy his spirit.  Again, it’s a message that would have worked better with a more thoughtful lead actor but still, it’s a good message.)  It’s a flawed film but watch it for the spectacle.  Watch it for Klaus Kinski.

My Extremely Late Review of The 87th Oscars


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This did not happen at the Oscars last night.

I really don’t know what’s wrong with me.

As I’ve made it clear many times in the past, I basically build my year around the Oscars.   I always get together with my friends and family and I force them to watch the entire ceremony with me.  Wherever I’ve lived, the Oscars have always been a national holiday.

As with any holiday, there are traditions.  To cite just one example, every year there comes the moment when I suddenly realize that Meryl Streep looks exactly like this stuck-up rich woman from Highland Park who, back in 2oo1, was so rude to my mom that she made her cry and that’s why I’ve never liked Meryl as much as some of my fellow movie bloggers.  And, of course, once I realize that, I have to tell the story to everyone else in the room.  Part of the tradition is to continue telling the story even after everyone says, “We’ve heard this story a million times, Lisa.”

Another part of the tradition is to start out with hope that something unexpected will happen.  “Oh my God,” I’ll say at some point, “maybe such-and-such movie is going to pull an upset!”  Then, an hour later, comes the tradition of realizing that there aren’t going to be any upsets and everything’s going to play out the exact way that everyone said it would.

One of the newer traditions is that, after every Oscar ceremony, I write a review and I post it here on Through the Shattered Lens. But, somehow, this year, I nearly forgot about that tradition.  Perhaps it’s because we got hit by a lot of sleet and ice last night and, as a result, I could neither go to work nor go dancing tonight.  And, don’t get me wrong,  I’ve had a lot of fun hanging around the house and being lazy today.  But it was still a pretty big change from my usual routine.  It threw me off and perhaps that’s why I’m only now getting around to reviewing the Oscar ceremony.

Then again, it could just be that last night’s ceremony was not that interesting.  I thought that Neil Patrick Harris was a good host but, in retrospect, that has more to do with his own natural charisma of a performer than with anything he actually did.  I liked his little bit about getting Octavia Spencer to keep an eye on his predictions but that was mostly because Octavia herself is such a good performer.  (Octavia is also an Oscar winner who has the talent to do a lot more than just playing a supporting role on a TV show.)

I loved Margot Robbie’s dress.  But I have to say that it really bothered me that there weren’t any true fashion disasters to be seen last night.  That’s part of the fun of the Oscars, spotting the celebs that can’t dress themselves.  When everyone looks good, the show’s a lot less interesting.

As far as the acceptance speeches were concerned, some of them were good.  But I have to admit that I always cringe a little when I see a celeb at an awards show give a politically charged speech because, as committed as they may be, they never seem to be quite sincere.  Instead, they come across as if they’re just playing another role.  What I really wish is that, instead of Bustle and Jezebel posting a hundred articles about how much Meryl Streep loved Patricia Arquette’s speech on incoming inequality, those same media outlets would actually give as much attention to the women who actually have to deal with the issue on a daily basis.  My mom had to raise four headstrong daughters on her own.  She knew more about the sad reality of income inequality than Meryl Streep ever will.  But nobody’s ever going to illustrate a story on income inequality with an animated gif of a woman, like my mom, working hard at multiple jobs, getting paid less than her male coworkers, coming home exhausted, and still managing to be there for her daughters.  Instead, we’ll just get a hundred memes of Meryl shouting “Yes,” all used to illustrate stories that insist it was a “perfect” moment.

(Because what better symbol for the fight against wage inequality than a rich white woman at an awards show?)

My question to Hollywood political activists is this: Are you actually going to try to change things or are you just going to pat yourself on the back for giving a speech at an awards show?  Because you people have given a lot of speeches and made a lot of politically-themed movies but the problems are still here.

As far as the awards themselves — I have to admit that I was not as big a fan of Birdman as some people were.  For a few minutes, I was excited because I thought that Whiplash might pull an upset.  But no, in the end, Birdman won.  I liked Alejandro Inarritu’s previous Oscar-nominated film, Babel.  But, beyond respecting it as a technical achievement, Birdman just didn’t do much for me and neither did Inarritu’s acceptance speech.

But you know who really didn’t do anything for me?

Sean Penn.

First off, if you’re going to be presenting best picture, try to take a shower before you go out on stage.  Don’t show up looking like you’re covered in a week’s worth of grime.  Looking at Sean Penn last night, I could only imagine that he probably reeked of stale cigarettes and strong body odor.  Seriously, if the Academy needed someone unwashed to hand out the biggest award of the night, they could have followed the lead of the Golden Globes and called Johnny Depp.

And then, when Penn opened the envelope, he couldn’t just announce that Birdman had won.  Instead, he had to make a joke about Inarritu’s green card.  Inarritu is the first Mexican to direct a best picture winner and Sean Penn, a man who considers himself to be enough of an expert on South America that he actually think he has the right to tell the people of Venezuela how to vote, just had to make that green card joke.  My mom was half-Spanish and had to endure her share of green card jokes (despite being a native-born American citizen).  I know the pain that jokes like that caused her and, when Sean Penn made that joke, it was a slap in the face to Latinos everywhere.  Shame on you, Sean Penn.

As far as pendejos like Sean Penn are concerned — ¡Estoy hasta el coño!

As far as Lady Gaga’s Sound of Music tribute was concerned … well, let’s just be honest.  Lady Gaga was great but The Sound of Music is probably one of the most undeserving best picture winners ever.  The Oscar should have gone to either Darling or Doctor Zhivago.

But, on a happier note, these Oscars also allowed me to make my E! debut!  Check out this screen shot:

B-e7UMLIUAA9a7VSo, the 87th Academy Awards are over with.  Here’s hoping the 88th Academy Awards are a bit more fun!