The One That Mattered: Shani Wallis in Oliver!
Upon hearing of Emma’s excellent theme for her blogathon over at All About My Movies, I imagined that, as a lifelong devotee of films, coming up with the single “Performance That Changed My Life” would be a challenging task. The usual portrayals that have remained seared in my consciousness came to mind: Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando in Streetcar; Leigh in Gone With the Wind and Brando in Last Tango in Paris; Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz; Agnes Moorehead in Magnificent Ambersons; Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity; Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl; Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest; Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels (this is my consciousness, remember, and I love Malone), etc. However, when asking myself what single performance led to my passionate, unending love of film, one portrayal stood out as the most viable choice: Shani Wallis’ work as the heroic, tragic Nancy Sykes in 1968’s Oliver! first opened my young cinema-going mind to the imaginative wonders to be found at the movies. Over thirty years after first viewing director Carol Reed’s excellent adaptation of the Broadway hit musical (based on Dicken’s Oliver Twist), Wallis’ beautiful, touching work remains unforgettable and, for me, her Nancy still defines the joy, drama, surprise, and sheer magic a great performance can offer a filmgoer.
From her introductory scene with the shy Oliver (an endearing Mark Lester), wherein Nancy cements her status as Fagin’s wayward boys’ mother figure while performing the wonderful “I’d Do Anything” number with Jack Wild, Ron Moody, and the boys, Wallis never puts a foot wrong in a superior characterization- watching the film, one wonders why her career didn’t take off subsequent to this Oscar-winning movie. Although Wallis only appeared onscreen a few times prior to this demanding role (her main pre-Oliver credit appears to be as a “Nightclub Vocalist” in Charlie Chaplin’s A King in New York, from 1957), she has an instinctive gift for film acting, and remains remarkably subtle and naturalistic throughout her portrayal, even though the character of Nancy provides an actress with many opportunities for high melodrama or scene-stealing. Not with Wallis in the part, though. In her hands Nancy, gowned in a dingy red tattered dress throughout the movie, remains a warm, down-to-earth, and richly human force, whether battling over Oliver’s welfare with her brutal husband, Bill Sykes (Oliver Reed, oozing depravity in his best work onscreen), or vividly illustrating the ties that bind Nancy’s to her ne'er-do-well lover in the show-stopping “As Long as He Needs Me.” When Bill forces Nancy to help him kidnap Oliver after a rich benefactor, Mr. Brownlow, has taken charge of the orphan’s welfare, Wallis skillfully handles the difficult job of conveying Nancy’s conflicted state as she betrays the boy she’s grown to love in order to appease Bill. Although a viewer is unnerved by Nancy’s actions, Wallis illustrates the character’s tormented feelings so convincingly not all the audience’s compassion is bestowed on the title character. Wallis also handles the show's signature tune in remarkable style, maintaining her cockney accent while using a rich, tremulous vocal delivery resonant with feeling (when Wallis gasps the line, “Oh, yes, he does need me . .” during the song’s opening passages, acting through song has never appeared so poetically believable) as the tune slowly builds to its emotional climax to powerfully convey Nancy’s unshakable attachment to the nefarious Sykes.
The film’s emotional peak is reached late in the film, after Nancy has made the decision to return Oliver to Brownlow without Bill’s knowledge. As a terrified Oliver remains under the ever-watchful eye of Bill, Nancy begins to sing the catchy “Oom-Pah-Pah.” As Nancy attempts to use the song to distract Bill from Oliver long enough to get the boy away from his diabolical captor, while also trying to maintain a cheerful countenance as she good-naturedly gets others to join in the dancing and singing, the tension mounts to unbelievable portions. “Oom-Pah-Pah” and the song’s immediate aftermath remain one of the most exciting sequences I’ve ever seen in a film. The few minutes which transpire between the opening lyrics of the song and Nancy’s untimely end shortly afterward both flabbergasted me and turned me on to the movies for life. It’s impossible to describe the impact Oliver!'s climatic moments had on my impressionable young mind, as Wallis and director Reed flawlessly depict the brave, unselfish sacrifices Nancy makes to save Oliver. I’d never seen anything like it, and I have rarely been as transfixed and transcended by any movie sequence since. The anguished final offscreen moans Wallis provides Nancy prove more shocking and indelible than any graphic depiction of her character’s downfall could (or any thousand chainsaw massacres could, for that matter). How could this caring, beautiful constant in Oliver’s life, so gloriously alive moments ago, be abruptly removed from his life, and from ours? Wallis makes the viewer care so deeply for Nancy that her character’s fatal last encounter with Bill is impossible to shake off, long after Oliver has obtained his happy ending.
Wallis’ career, both prior and subsequent to Oliver!, included many forays into the theater, but this awesomely talented performer never obtained another film role to match her work as Nancy. No matter. Wallis is a phenomenal presence in Oliver!, and her scant filmography means little when viewing what this gifted actress and singer accomplished the single time she was given the chance to shine onscreen in a memorable role. Shani Wallis simply was, and is, the definitive Nancy Sykes.