The Closest Hollywood Got To A South Asian Leading Man

On Friday afternoon I was listening to the Steve Wright show on BBC Radio 2 like all thirty-year olds do when the newsreader suddenly announced breaking news; ‘Oh no! This can’t be good’ I thought. I was right; Omar Sharif, the star of two of the biggest movies of all time Dr Zhivago (1965; AFI 1998 #39) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962; 1998 #5, 2007 #7) which are both featured on the American Film Institute’s greatest films of all-time list had passed away from a heart attack aged eighty-three.

And like the social media sheep I am I immediately checked Twitter to see if he was trending and what other people had to say about the tragic news. Most tweeters were complementary of the legendary actor, but what struck me was a Tweet from a news agency – it stated the star who only earlier in the year confessed he had been suffering from dementia had been so far into the illness that he could not remember his career highlights.

Iconic : Peter O Toole and Omar Sharif

The first memory I had of him on screen was when he killed a man in the middle of a desert for drinking out of his well without permission (he was a badass!) in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. How could a man with such presence have been in such a hopeless state fifty years later? That’s probably the most depressing thing about doing the AFI challenge of watching all the movies featured on the list is that most of the stars I’ve come to admire in these classics have either passed on or now a shadow of their former self. What’s worse is most of my colleagues didn’t know who he was or how important he was to the film industry when I expressed my sadness when downing a pint of soda water later in the day.

Sherif Ali makes an unforgettable entrance in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’

Omar Sharif was not only an exceptional and charismatic actor; he was a ground-breaker who broke down racial stereotypes in Hollywood. He was the first and arguably the only non- white or black leading man and a heart-throb. Someone who I could identify with as he was the closest there was to a South Asian making it as the big box office draw in Hollywood – something rare today, but unheard of in the 1960s.

Today most of the South Asian and Middle-Eastern actors in TV and film play support roles and usually likable, but typically dippy and unlucky with the opposite sex. Take Raj from the ‘Big Bang Theory’ (2007 – to date) – on paper he seems like the biggest catch of the lot – smart, sensitive and from a wealthy family – yet for the first few series the writers of the show decided he was too intimidated by the opposite sex that he wouldn’t be able to talk to a woman unless he was drunk and it took him forever to find a girlfriend – even Sheldon found love before him! This man comes from the land of action heroes like Rishi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan who never shied away from a woman, yet these characters are never portrayed in Western movies. Look at Dev Patel – he may have got the girl in the end of ‘Slumdog Millionaire (2009)’ but ladies weren’t exactly getting hot and bothered for a skinny boy who literately came from the gutter. In fact director Danny Boyle deliberately did not want to hire a Bollywood hunk for the movie because he felt neither would fit in the role – he may have a point but, it seems Asian men in Western movies either play a bumbling character with zero sex appeal or a terrorist.

Sharif: Timeless heartthrob – ‘Little Britain’

But David Lean, the director of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘Dr Zhivago’ saw something in Sharif which I wish directors today had the balls to see with other ethnic minority actors – and casted him in pivot roles for two of his most ambitious projects (although frustratingly other Caucasian actors were considered for the role of Arab Sherif Ali before Sharif in Lawrence). In ‘Dr Zhivago’ Sharif plays the title character who finds himself in a love triangle between Julie Christie and Rita Tushingham during Soviet ruling of Russia at the beginning of the Twentieth-Century. Although the movie received mixed reviews at the time of release for being too long and not focusing enough on historical significance of the Russian Revolution, like fine wine the movie has aged well over the years and people have come to appreciate the convincing romantic magnetism between Sharif and Christie. This epic definitely gave Sharif that superstar stud status – he once boasted to receive over twenty-thousand marriage proposals in a month. But more importantly the movie proved that a man of brown skin could carry a Hollywood funded movie and have mass appeal. For this magnetic and intense love story set against a beautiful backdrop I give it 4 out of 5.

Love affair:  Omar Sharif & Julie Christie 

Like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939: AFI 1998 #6, 2007 #8) and ‘Ben Hur’ (1959: AFI 1998 #72, 2007 #100) everyone has at least heard of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and understands its cultural significance. Peter O’Toole was robbed of a Best Actor for his portrayal of flamboyant T.E. Lawrence, a British Army lieutenant sent to Arabia to unite the British forces and Arabs against the Turks during the First World War. Despite being an epic adventure the movie subtlety tackles the moral dilemmas of fighting in combat as well the emotional effect killing has on the main character. Although the movie feels at times too long it wouldn’t been classified as an epic if it didn’t. It is perfectly told, acted and directed- I also give the movie 4 out of 5.

Sharif speaks about his friendship with Peter O’ Toole 

Even if Omar Sharif couldn’t recall the greatness of his two breakout roles in his final days – movie goers will fondly remember his contribution to cinema for years to come.

Sharif wins Golden Globe for his starring role in ‘Doctor Zhivago’

How The Prototype For ‘White Chicks’ Became The Greatest Comedy Of All Time

I shouldn’t really be admitting this but ‘White Chicks’ (2004) is probably my biggest movie guilty pleasure – it’s predictable, crass and pretty offensive to caucasian people, but I can’t help but chuckle when clueless Terry Crews pursues Marlon Wayne’s character. Despite its massive cult following and box office success, the movie, unsurprisingly was a critical disaster and was nominated for five Razzies (the awards for the year’s worst films) which, is a far cry from the legacy ‘Some like it hot’ (1960, AFI 1998 # 14, 2007 #22), the movie it ‘borrowed heavily’ from has garnered over the years.

It was my second time watching the Billy Wilder classic which is featured in The American Film Institute’s 100 movies of all time this Sunday – I was actually geared up to view ‘The Searchers’ (1956 AFI #96, #12) which was the John Wayne western that has been in my Sky Player for the last three months but, I’ve been dreading to watch so I put off selecting the play button for as long as I can. This weekend I had no excuse so got up early before anyone at home was awake and before they had the chance to roll their eyes at me for ‘hogging the TV with ancient movies’. But when I finally got round to starting the film the TV box recorded only the title credits and stopped. Damn you Sky Player! I probably deserved that – nevertheless I was wide awake and didn’t quite fancy watching an ex-member of JLS plugging his new music to the disinterested presenters on ‘Sunday Brunch’ so I thought I’d again familiarise myself with Marilyn Monroe’s most iconic movie.

I was certain I saw ‘Some like it hot’ with my Dad when I was younger, but forgot some of the plot and the small details which made the film so memorable and iconic. The movie which is set during the prohibition era stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon who are musicians that go on the run from the mob after witnessing a murder – they disguise themselves as ladies and join an all-female band who are travelling to Florida. There they both meet and fall head over heels for the beautiful and flirtatious Sugar played by legendary Monroe who has no idea they are actually men.

Despite colour films becoming increasingly popular in the late 50s Wilder shot ‘Some like it hot’ in black and white

The plot is pretty straight forward and pretty tame by today’s standard, but the homosexual undertones throughout the movie along with Monroe’s blunt sex appeal makes it hard to believe it was certified a U in 1959. It was definitely a bold move by Wilder which paid off – I can imagine cinema goers raising their eyebrows during film’s initial screening when Sugar and Joe in drag share a passionate kiss. This is probably Monroe’s best performance (for which she won a Golden Globe, her only major acting accolade) and although she plays the same ditsy blonde – she displays a genuine talent for comedy and has perfect timing.

                 Monroe wins Golden Globe for her portrayal of Sugar in ‘Some like it hot’

Tony Curtis is impressive as Joe and “Josephine”, however he shows his true comedic flair when he plays ‘millionaire’ Shell Oil Junior to woo Sugar – His awkward British accent alone is genius and is much more likeable then Shawn Wayne’s Miami vice, LL Cool J ‘lick your lips’ like stud character he plays in ‘White Chicks’ to court Denise. But the real star for me is Jack Lemmon who I would say is perhaps the greatest comedian film star off all time. His ‘romance’ with Osgood Fielding played Joe E Brown (the equivalent to Terry Crews character in White Chicks) is pure comedy gold. It’s a shame that Lemmon was overlooked for an Oscar for his comedic roles such in this, the magnificent The Apartment (1960, AFI #93, #80)’ and ‘The Odd Couple’ (1968) where he shines rather than serious drama ‘Save the Tiger’ (1973). The two of the movies funniest characters are responsible for perhaps the most memorable ending in a film movie:

‘Some like it hot’ is perhaps one of the rare movies on the AFI’s top 100 movies of all-time list that you can watch over again and again without feeling the need to concentrate, it’s light hearted fun that is done well – I give this 5 out 5. The only thing that left a bad taste after watching it is that it gives a clear reminder how unoriginal and lazy Hollywood has become in recent years and that plots are recycled with gimmicks to make it appear new. My sister, Nicky asked how the movie was when she got up – I tried to tell her my frustration on how similar the Wayne brother’s movie was to the Wilder one, she replied: ‘Oh really that’s really cool they remade it – so what are we eating for breakfast?’