Dissecting 'Doctor Zhivago'

Doctor Zhivago is not a great film. Though I've seen it a dozen times, it may not even make my list of top 20 favorites.

Cupcake, cheesecake.Director David Lean's film before Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, is my favorite movie (don't tell Singin' in the Rain, m'kay?) and watching Zhivago (same composer, a lead, director, screenwriter) always gets me contrasting art that works (Lawrence) to art that falls flat (Zhivago). I'll probably never write my thoughts out about Lawrence, there's not enough internet space for all the slop that would pour out, but it's interesting that Lawrence has no speaking roles for women, and the only time women are heard are ululations of women sending their men off to battle. It IS an army movie in the Middle East and I don't recall T.E. Lawrence mentioning women in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Oh, shit. Right. Zhivago. See? It's easy to get rolling about Lawrence. Staunching that gusher and getting back on topic...

Producer Carlo Ponti wanted Sophia Loren to play Lara. Lean thought her too tall. Julie Christie was hired instead. And I can't make up my mind about Geraldine Chaplin as Zhivago's wife and cousin. In many shots she seems alert and intelligent, others like a ninny. And her appearance changes from gaspingly cute to weird-looking.

Christie was already a notable actor and beauty, Chaplin would become a prominent actor and had already been a teen model. Like any good devotee, I demand consistency from objects of worship. Fluctuating levels of beauty and presence are confusing.

Lean decided to make the character of Yuri Zhivago an observer, to Sharif's initial frustration. He was to take it all in, hardly emoting, but he and the audience would know Zhivago would express himself through poetry. Don't worry, Lean assured Sharif, despite the beautiful spectacles and actors emoting all around him, at the end of the movie they will think most about Sharif as Zhivago.

"[The novel] Doctor Zhivago is a sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic, with stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelieveable girls, romantic robbers and trite coincidences." - Vladmimir Nabokov

Would it shock you to know that Doctor Zhivago is not a documentary? Turns out the scenes in the ice palace home were not done in a ice palace that just happened to be there. The ice effects were done with beeswax coating the set, the drippings flash-hardened by being sprayed with ice water.

Speaking (okay typing, you stickler!) of fake cold, and fake heat. Something about the movie remains unconvincing. The actors don't quite click. I may have started to put my finger on it.

It has to do with too much emphasis on the look of things. How the shot is lit, in focus, holding a pose as if for a movie still. In the throes of passion, or deep feeling, the leads don't comport themselves the way people do. Too many shots of the gorgeous Julie Christie as Lara being lit achingly right:

And, with Sharif's Yuri Zhivago relegated to being an observer, the movie is a parade of sustained white glints of light in his moist eyes. It's not subtle. It's distracting. A simulcra of a highly attuned human and artist shown so deliberately he seems a falsely-moved mannequin. Take this still which is the shot right after the one of Christie above:

Feeling the passion? Neither are they, but they are optimally lit, and Sharif's sleeve is smoothed out just so.Omar Sharif is a great actor. Julie Christie is a great actor. It's a fault of the direction and cinematography. Has David Lean done a convincing love scene? It's a mood killer, and irreparably harms a grand melodrama like Zhivago. Any-hoo, having pinned that down I'm going to sleep knowing the world is a better place having helped us all get more precise about a supreme piece of middling entertainment.