It was a banner year for movies: Rosemary’s Baby, Planet of the Apes, The Lion in Winter, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Faces, Closely Watched Trains, The Odd Couple, Funny Girl, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Night of the Living Dead, Stolen Kisses, Teorema, The Bride Wore Black, Once Upon a Time in the West, Bullit, Yellow Submarine and The Thomas Crown Affair: All movies that have stood the test if time. And the surprising winner? Oliver!, which won not only the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy but the Academy Award as well as best film of the year. The Academy even gave Carol Reed the Oscar for best direction.
Based on the Charles Dickens classic Oliver Twist, the musical was the brainchild of Lionel Bart, who wrote the book, lyrics, and music, a unique feat. It ran for years in London and had an equally successful transfer to the Broadway stage. Ron Moody, who created the role of Fagin, followed the show from the West End to the screen and was rewarded with a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy.
The score featured such hits as “As Long as He Needs Me” and “Where Is Love?” as well as brilliant specialty numbers such as “Reviewing the Situation,” and “You Got to Pick a Pocket or Two.” It remains one of the best scores ever written, but it was a one trick wonder for Bart who in later years when he fell on hard times, sold the rights to actor Max Bygraves for 350 pounds; years later he resold them for 250,000 pounds.
When the film was released, first in England, it got a tepid reception, critics believing musicals were not the director’s forte, but in the U.S. both Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael championed it. Despite their support, it didn’t do well in the U.S. and it hasn’t worn well.
The Oscar recognition was the upset of the year, and Reed’s win, in particular, a shock. He had been nominated for back-to-back Oscars eighteen years earlier (for The Third Man and The Fallen Idol) but never won. Funny Girl has stood the test of time and ended up making more money than Oliver! did; Columbia didn’t mind since it released both movies. Of course, Barbra Streisand was named Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy and later shared the Oscar with Katharine Hepburn in a rare tie. When her cinematographer Harry Stradling collected on his bet that she would win, she paid him only half the winnings. “It’s a half win,” she told him.