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Dr Zhivago's romance lives on
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 04 - 03 - 2015

It was half a century ago that a dashing Egyptian actor lit the screen as one of film's greatest iconic lovers. The actor was Omar Sharif, the role was Dr Zhivago, the most popular work of literature of its time. The story behind the novel is as mesmerising, as sensational and as suspenseful as the story itself. Its screen adaptation of 1965 was a smash hit, bringing in $111,721, 910, with a cost of only $11million. Re-issued on DVD in 2000 sales continue to move briskly and is now ranked by the American Film Institute (AFI) as 39th best film in movie history.
Can we ever get enough of romance? This epic historical drama comes alive once more, with music and song on Broadway on its 50th anniversary, to thrill audiences anew, with one of the most mournful love stories ever told.
Can we help but go down memory lane and conjure the splendour and grace of the strange tale of Dr Zhivago.
Written in 1956 by venerable Russian poet Boris Pasternak in 1956, it is set against a backdrop of the final days of Czarist Russia, the chaos of the Russian revolution and the turbulence of WWI.
Born in Moscow in 1890, Boris' genes were laden with artistic gifts. A rich banquet, his genius was spread before us compiled of multiple colours and courses. His father, a painter, his mother, a concert pianist, Boris studied music for six years, then moved to Germany to study philosophy, but poetry was his calling and he published several poetry books that were revered in Russia. Dr Zhivago was his one and only novel.
With publication banned in Russia, the manuscript was smuggled out of Moscow and delivered to Italian publisher Giangiacomo Fertinelli. It was published in 1957 amidst celebration and controversy. The Soviet campaign against the novel only managed to bolster interest making it a sensation throughout the non-communist world. It remained atop the New York Times bestseller list for 26 weeks.
The great lyric poet was awarded the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature, supposedly for his poetry, but it was common knowledge it was mainly for Dr Zhivago, and was interpreted as a gesture hostile to the Soviet Union. Following a fervent campaign labelling him a traitor, Pasternak was compelled to refuse the prize. It became a cause célèbre adding to the sales and popularity of the work.
Italian producer Carlo Ponti acquired the film rights as a vehicle for his wife Sophia Loren. He sought prominent British director David Lean, fresh from the shooting of another desert epic, Lawrence of Arabia were he introduced Peter O'Toole as Lawrence and Omar Sharif, as Sharif Ali. Lean wanted O'Toole for the role of Yuri Zhivago, Russian aristocrat, political idealist, physician and poet, but O'Toole turned it down. Paul Newman , Max Von Sydow and Michael Caine were considered… finally Caine suggested Omar Sharif to play Zhivago. Omar was already cast as ‘Pasha' which went to Brit actor Tom Courtenay. Marlon Brando also turned down the role of Komarovsky, resulting in a memorable acting tour de force by his friend Rod Steiger.
Omar's son Tarek was cast as the young Zhivago.
What about Sophia Loren, for whom the whole project was initiated? Lean could not visualise Loren as Lara and convinced Ponti she was too tall, while confiding to his screen-writer Robert Bolt, that he could not accept her as a virgin in the early part of the film. Yvette Mimieux, Jane Fonda and Sarah Miles were considered but it was British beginner Julie Christie who prevailed. Playing the vulnerable Lara made her a major movie star.
Maurice Jarre's haunting musical score and his unforgettable Lara's Song, still popular 50 years later, deserved 1 of the 5 Oscars won by the film out of 10 nominations.
The Broadway show preserves the romance of Zhivago, tossed by the tides of history, torn between his wife and his passion for the mysterious Lara, who is pursued by the young revolutionary Pasha and the old aristocrat Viktor Komarovsky.
An amazingly sentimental love story with fire and fury is carefully and gently handled by some Broadway musical heavyweights. Composed by Lucy Simon (The Secret Garden), with book by Michael Weller and lyrics by Michael Kone and Amy Powers, it originally premiered in 2006 in California, with glowing reviews. It toured in several major cities in Australia in 2011 and collected several awards… but the place for a musical is Broadway and now Dr Zhivago is Broadway bound. Advance ticket sales are brisk for a March 27 preview and an April 21 opening. Chances are with such a rich background it will make Broadway history.
That journey down memory lane provokes recollections of the golden era of film and the many masterpieces of British director David Lean… among them Bridge on the River Kwai, Brief Encounter, Lawrence of Arabia, Passage to India and his best, Dr Zhivago.
Our special interest in all things Russian is unmistakable. We share their hopeless sentimentality, melancholic spirit and peaceful soul. How brilliant was Sharif's interpretation, how wistful, how mournful.
Romance is a glorious thing. It may last only for a day, but stays with us forever. It is not limited to time or place but its span is infinite. Man will always thirst for the first fruits of romance and the real tears that inevitably follow.
“Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom”
William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)


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