On many levels it is mind-boggling for me that the epic movie, directed by David Lean, was released 50 years ago this month. Not only has the film industry gone through staggering levels of change in that time, the very world we live in has become something people my age often don’t recognize. That said, “Dr. Zhivago”, released on December 22, 1965, winner of 5 Academy Awards out of a total of 10 nominations, and solidly anchored into the enduring landscape of classics, is one of those films that once having viewed, invites repeat viewings, at least, for the film student, and the romantic, in all of us. Also, it just happens to have a plethora of totally awesome facts you need to know!
Boris Pasternak’s novel of the same name had won the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature, and was subsequently banned in Russia at the time as being subversive, so the filming actually took place in Spain. Dr. Zhivago the movie would not be seen in the Soviet Union until 1994, when Gorbachev agreed to the film’s showing as part of his Glasnost policy.
Set against the backdrop of World War I and the Russian Revolution, the central character Yuri Zhivago was played by Omar Sharif, and co-starred Julie Christie as Lara. Yuri is married to his childhood friend, Tonya, (Gertrude Chaplin) when, as a medical student, he first meets Lara. His feelings for his wife are sincere yet the central relationship, and the emotional connection that anchors the movie, is the one Yuri has with Lara.
Lara is a compelling character who exudes an innocent spirit, yet who is also part of a messy (not to mention, physically abusive) love triangle before she ever meets Yuri. She is the mistress of the well connected Komarovsky (Rod Steiger) who is also involved with her mother, who then attempts suicide after learning this.
“Messy” might be too mild of a term. There are actually two intersecting triangles. Lara–Mother-Komarovsky and Lara-Komarovsky-Pasha. Pasha is an idealist-reformer who intends to marry Lara. Although he is devastated to learn about Lara and Komarovsky, he marries her anyway.
When Pasha is reported missing in action, Lara enlists as a nurse to go look for him, and in the meantime, Yuri has been drafted and has become a doctor on the battlefield, where the two meet again.
The stirring melody of “Lara’s Theme” is featured in the track “Somewhere My Love” and recurs throughout the movie. An audience favorite, Maurice Jarre’s original score won the Oscar and is thought to have influenced the word-of-mouth factor that fueled a steady increase in ticket sales. As recorded by the Ray Conniff singers, the single charted at 71 in the Billboard Top 100 Songs for 1966:
Another popular version was recorded by Andy Williams in his 1967 Gold album, “Born Free.”
Strength and skill in cinematography has a major influence on the production’s elegant treatment of war and love (not necessarily in that order) of marriages, of oppression and human rights, of births and deaths.
Although this was an epic on in a similar scale as Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia”, it was not shot in Super Panavision or other large film format; MGM had refused director Lean’s request due to the cost. The 70mm prints were blow-ups from the 35mm negative. However, MGM did shell out a million on publicity when the original box office was less than epic.
Cinematographer Freddie Young had also worked with Lean on “Lawrence of Arabia”, just a couple of years prior in 1962, and won the Academy Award for both films. “Lawrence” was also Best Picture that year and Lean took home Best Director.
Lean’s epic visions were captured beautifully in Young’s work. Lean also used the same screenwriter and the same production designer for both films. The best adapted screenplay award also went to “Dr. Zhivago”, for the work of Robert Bolt.
While the film has solidly maintained its place in both history and culture, not all the critics were impressed at the time of initial release. A common complaint was that the major historical events in the movie were trivialized. Audiences were not swayed by this factor and “Dr. Zhivago” inevitably took its place among Lean’s many successes, still reigning today as the 8th highest grossing movie (inflation adjusted) of all time.
Omar Sharif was cast as Yuri after initially auditioning for the part of Pasha, played by Tom Courtenay. Sharif had worked with Lean on the blockbuster “Lawrence of Arabia” which also starred Peter O’Toole. Lean wanted O’Toole to play Yuri but O’Toole wasn’t interested. Sharif, who had doubts about his ability to play the high profile role, had to shave his head and wear a wig, as his naturally curly hair was deemed to look too Middle Eastern for the part of a Russian.
To say that David Lean was one of the most respected filmmakers of the time is an example of understatement. Lean was reportedly very exacting in his demands of the cast. He clashed frequently with Alec Guiness, who played Yuri’s half-brother KGB Lieutenant General, Yevgraf Andreyevich Zhivago, whose backdrop narrative describes the search for the lost daughter of Yuri and Lara).
Lean and Guinness had previously enjoyed a history of arguing and bickering while working together, starting with their collaboration in “Bridge on the River Kwai” in 1957, which swept the Oscars with 8 nominations and 7 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Guinness. This time, the rift between Lean and Guinness lasted for years. They did not work together again until the filming of “A Passage to India” in 1984.
Before Julie Christie was cast as Lara, Sophia Loren was being considered, as was Jane Fonda. Loren was married to producer Carlo Ponti. Ponti had purchased the rights to Pasternak’s novel with his wife in mind. But Lean felt that Loren wasn’t right for the role and in the end, his vision prevailed.
In 1965, “Dr. Zhivago” dominated the Golden Globes, but the Oscar take was split with “The Sound of Music”, which captured the Best Picture and Director awards. Both films had a total of ten nominations with 5 wins. Interestingly, Rod Steiger and Julie Christie were nominated for Best Actor and Actress – for their work in other films! Steiger was nominated for his performance in “The Pawnbroker” (the award went to Lee Marvin for Cat Ballou) and Christie won the award for her role in “Darling.”
The famously striking winter scenes, including the Ice Palace, were filmed in Spain’s warm summer temperatures and Sharif recalled how he and his fellow actors were sweating profusely in their costumes of Russian fur coats and hats. Makeup artists would dab the perspiration from their faces every few minutes.
For the Ice Palace scenes, the snow was made from beeswax and marble dust.
Interior of Ice Palace
Yuri was married to a woman he cared for yet held a lifelong devotion to another.
Against this backdrop of war and oppression, however, being true to your true self transcends being true to social norms. When you don’t know if you will live another day, the polar opposites of your psyche will both triumph in one way or another. And again, the cinematography of this magnificent film brings home both the national and personal perspectives.
When it came to capturing themes (individual vs state, peace vs. war,) the camera was wide.
When it came to capturing the human condition, Young shot closer in.
“Dr.Zhivago” is one of those movies that makes you feel, so acutely, what your place is in the universe, a small and insignificant place, against a vast universe that doesn’t care if you live or die. Against that panorama of magnificent beauty and unfeeling, what is left but your own feeling, your very sense of being? And exactly when did it become wrong to live in such a sentient state of mind? After all, what often determines our fortunes, and misfortunes, but the haphazard fortunes of timing? Through no fault of our own, many of us never get this quite right, and the somewhat exquisite nuances of timing have been enshrined in the art of filmmaking from the beginning. To this day, few films have captured this balancing act in a more poignant way than “Dr. Zhivago”.
Happy holidays everyone, and happy golden anniversary, Dr. Zhivago!