Saturday, July 07, 2007

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.


At 7:27 AM, Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

wow. that was beautiful.

i've never understood why this movie gets such a bad rap. i love it and i love wallis in it though the choice to talk about her was surprising.

and truly 'as long as he needs me' is one of the best acted song performances. it's so conflicted and rich with feeling.


At 12:50 PM, Blogger The Siren said...

Oh goody, someone else who picked a musical! A fine tribute. I do wish she had done more films, but the era of the musical was all but over when this was made, so I guess she was left high and dry like Cyd Charisse and Vera-Ellen and some other fine performers were after the MGM musical unit disbanded. I completely agree with both you and Nathaniel, this is a much better movie than its reputation. I saw it at a pretty early age too and had what you might call an unhealthy attraction to Reed as Sykes. But Wallis does hold the movie together, never teetering over into bathos as she could.

At 11:20 PM, Blogger Vertigo's Psycho said...

Thanks for your input and for the great posts you both wrote for this most excellent of blogathons.

I think some of the bum rap Oliver! gets today is based largely on the fact it won Best Picture over what many feel were superior 1968 films, specifically Kubrick's (non-nominated) 2001. I've actually never been able to make it all the way through A Space Odyssey, while Oliver! was one of the most important films of my formative years. To each his own, I guess (Oliver! really is a great movie, though).

At 7:22 AM, Blogger The Siren said...

I prefer Oliver! to 2001 too. But then, I prefer any number of things to 2001, up to and including a poke in the eye with a blunt stick. Just not my cup of Kubrick tea (my favorites for him, in order, would be Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon, The Killing and Lolita).

The Oscar nominations for 1968 were dull in general, and a quick glance shows me Rosemary's Baby and Faces also got stiffed. But you are absolutely right, a lot of movies (and performances too) get dumped on only because they beat something perceived as worthier in the Oscar derby. As though the Oscar were a real seal of artistic worth anyway, instead of a snapshot of what Hollywood was thinking at that moment in time.

At 8:31 PM, Blogger RaiderLegend said...

Your blog about Shani Wallis is right on. I too saw the movie Oliver at a young age and it had a lasting impression. I wanted to be a pickpocket at ten years old but couldn't gather up the nerve, thank God. My favorite characters were Fagin, Artful Dodger and Nancy (Shani Wallis). I suppose it was the songs they sang that hooked in my young cinema mind. I too was glued to the big screen as a kid watching this movie. I simply disappeared into the screen for the duration of the movie. I believe also its why today I enjoy books and movies from that late 1800's Dickens era. Until reading your blog I'd never thought of how much Shani Wallis's character Nancy made the difference in the movie. I agree completely that Shani's performance was simply magical. She represented so much in the movie. You were right in saying that Nancy's tragic end was as climatic as Bill Sykes death and Oliver's newound home. So thank you for reminding me of the treasure from my childhood this movie represents. I think I'll cherish it and Shanie Wallis's performance even more after reading your blog.

At 4:36 PM, Blogger Vertigo's Psycho said...

Thank you for your kind input, Raiderlegend. I'm glad as a child you also found Oliver so captivating, and that you agree Wallis plays a large role in the film's success. Also, Jack Wild's Artful Dodger may be a bad role model for a ten-year-old, but what child wouldn't want to live Dodger's lifestyle, at least temporarily? He looked liked he had a blast with his chosen profession.

At 1:05 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

In the UK right now they are holding rehearsals for a new Nancy for the stage production of Oliver. Oh they sing well and have personalities but here wil never ever be another Nancy like Shani.. she holds that role for herself an no one can ever take it away. I was a young man when the movie came out and I don't know where Shani is now except she appeared in a few of those Young and Restless sopies. But wherever you are Shani you will alway be Nancy for me... God bless you and thank you for being my Nancy! Dave R South Africa.

At 2:58 PM, Blogger Catharine said...

"Oliver" is an excellent film -- production values and direction are outstanding. I totally loved Shani Wallis' performance as Nancy and only wish we had seen more of her on stage and in film and television. I had the good fortune to watch her perform live in San Francisco during the late sixties. It was a truly special event in my life.

At 4:11 PM, Blogger Mathew said...

Great film, great talent - Moody, Reed, Wallis, Dawkins, Lester etc.

Shani was my first crush in a way; i was a kid when i first saw the film.

At 1:26 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

My four year old LOVES the songs and we sing along as we watch it.
But I've been looking everywhere for a dress like Nancy's but I'm not sure what to call it or what to search for. Can anyone help???


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