Friday, July 10, 2015

Omar Sharif (1932-2015)

Sharif had the sort of career that may be impossible today. In the 1960s the Egyptian became the all-purpose ethnic type par excellence. His like hadn't been seen since silent movies. From then to his time there had been plenty of all-purpose ethnics, but most of them were character actors. Eli Wallach was a late example of this sort. Sharif was an all-purpose ethnic leading man, as he had been a leading man in Egyptian cinema (as in Man in Our House, above) before David Lean called him to glory. Lean did the obvious thing and cast Sharif as an Arab in Lawrence of Arabia, and then did a more daring thing and made Sharif the lead in Doctor Zhivago. He was a Russian in a film where the other principal Russians were played by English or American actors. From that point he was all over the place. In the same year as Zhivago he played Genghis Khan. During the remainder of the decade he played a German officer (in an American film), a Spaniard (in an Italian film), a Jewish-American, an Austrian prince, a Mexican bandit, an Italian lawyer, and Che Guevara. Any part other than a black man or an outright WASP seemed open to him. At his peak, Sharif was an embodiment of the globalization of cinema, but that may have undermined his credibility over time. He may have seemed deracinated, a kind of artificial person, the more he became an exemplary citizen of cinema. In later life he was reduced to "authentic" Arab roles, for Americans most prominently a decade ago in Hidalgo. Would his sort of chameleonic versatility be permissible today? Most likely not on his scale. We're inconsistent in our desire for authenticity. The more fantastic we get the more permissive and "inclusive" we become. Certain ethnicities probably would have been off-limits to him, either on aesthetic principles or because he would otherwise be depriving a more appropriate actor of a paying job. He might have been allowed to play a Norse god or do Shakespearean roles, but if he did Mackenna's Gold or Che! today he'd probably be picketed. It's disheartening to imagine a young Sharif today typecast as a Muslim terrorist (he was born Christian), yet that most likely would have been his fate without the daring of a Lean who could see him, as most directors see Englishmen, as more than his ethnicity. In his peak years Sharif's versatility and success surely seemed progressive. His passing leaves us wondering whether we've progressed much further since then.

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