Friday, July 10, 2015
RIP: Omar Sharif
(That's from Night of the Generals, the second-best movie with Omar Sharif and Peter O'Toole in it)
I can recite all the dialog from Lawrence of Arabia from memory, of course, like all cultivated persons can do. I was too young to see it in the first go-round, but my father took me to see it when it was re-released. My father liked movies a great deal. As the lights came down in the theater, and the Overture started, I remember he told me that Lawrence of Arabia was the greatest movie ever made, and that ever would be made.
He was correct, of course. I have seen that movie countless times, and I still can't slip a playing card in any visible crack in it. It's not like any other movie I could name. Nothing is wrong with it. Nobody is miscast in it. No special effect looks cheesy in it. It looks like The Searchers and sounds like A Man for All Seasons. The music by Maurice Jarre is perfect. You can watch the movie with the sound off. You can listen to it with the picture off. You can read Robert Bolt's script and not get bored. You can pause the movie and see Robert Bolt smoking his pipe in the movie if you like. He's in the crowd in the officer's mess.
I realize that I've written about Lawrence of Arabia quite a bit. I Googled Lawrence of Arabia + Sippican Cottage and got 8760 results. Since I rarely get any results from anything I set my mind to, I figure that's a lot of results. I realized when I saw the list I even put Lawrence of Arabia in my book of short stories, The Devil's in the Cows. I guess I like it.
Years back, I started poking around and discovered how insanely bad Lawrence of Arabia almost was. It was then that I realized that movie-making is a total crapshoot. You can't believe everything you read, of course, but the producer, Sam Spiegel, wanted Cary Grant to play General Allenby. Think of that.
Now think of this: The producer wanted Omar Sharif to play the part of the Arab guide that Omar Sharif shoots at the well. A bit part. The part of Sherif Ali was supposed to be played by Horst Buchholtz of all people, or Alain Delon, for crissakes. This would have never happened:
If Alain Delon would have agreed to wear brown contact lenses, he would have shot Omar Sharif at the well, started talking to Marlon Brando, who would have been wearing a sweaty wife-beater T-shirt, I guess, when he went to mumble to Cary Grant about his existential woes.
You heard that right. The part of Major Lawrence was offered to, get this: Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Anthony Perkins. Those are insanely bad choices. Albert Finney was Lean's first choice, and could have done it without making a hash of it, I guess, but he turned it down flat because he thought Lawrence of Arabia was going to be a flop. He made Night Must Fall instead, playing a guy that cuts off people's heads with an ax and then talks to said heads in his room. Actors sure are perceptive people.
Brando made another wonderful and underrated movie, Mutiny on the Bounty, instead of Lawrence. It's amusing to see him forget to have a British accent about halfway through, but he's about perfect for any sort of character that's doing a slow burn, and Fletcher Christian is that, surely. That movie lost all sorts of money, but was nominated for seven Academy Awards. It didn't win any, because Lawrence of Arabia came out the same year and stomped it flat.
But we're not finished. Not by a long shot. The reporter, Jackson Bentley? He was played by Arthur Kennedy, but only because Edmund O'Brien had a heart attack during filming. Since Arthur Kennedy and Edmund O'Brien are interchangeable humans, we'll give the casting director a pass, but you might reconsider if you know that neither one was supposed to play Bentley. It was supposed to be Kirk Douglas. Kirk Douglas! Kirk Douglas turned it down because they wouldn't give him top billing over everyone except whoever played Lawrence, and he wanted more money than everyone else, too. The producer said no thanks, and then promptly paid more money than everyone else to Jose Ferrer, who coughs eleven times in the movie to earn his dough. He got more than O'Toole and Sharif combined. Plus a car.
Twenty years later, in an infinite recursion Mobius Loop kinda thing, Robert Bolt, the screenwriter for Lawrence, wrote a script for Mutiny on the Bounty for David Lean to direct. Lean wasn't interested and Bolt had a stroke or something, so they made some kind of Australian version of the movie. It had 400,000 exposed Tahitian breasts and Mad Max in it, which is the sort of entertainment they favor down there, I guess.
To get back to the topic at hand, making movies is a profoundly hit-or-miss proposition. Not only can anything and everything go wrong, everyone involved tries as hard as they can to make it go wrong; but sometimes they fail, and so they succeed by accident. By some sort of cosmic cock-up, they gave Omar Sharif the part of Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia.
I thank God for small favors.