A late lament for a late breed of film star

I’m admittedly very late to the punch with this post, but it’s on a topic that I feel merits a few comments. To begin, my prevailing conviction about the world is that it tends to spin forward. However, reflecting on the life and career of the legendary Omar Sharif, who has recently died, it would appear that in some fields mankind can sometimes regress. The world can often feel like a fragile place today, but the politics of the 1960s had tensions of their own. Sharif hailed from a country, Egypt, whose Arab nationalist leader was despised and demonised by the West. He also converted to Islam in order to marry Faten Hamama, his co-star in numerous Egyptian films from the 1950s. And yet that did not obstruct his great career.

Sharif played an Arab leader in Lawrence of Arabia, a Russian physician in Dr Zhivago, a German military intelligence officer in The Night of the Generals, an Austrian prince in Mayerling, the Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan, and an American gambler and con artist in Funny Girl. It is a little surprising to note that his back catalogue didn’t contain more good moves. Perhaps the iconic film roles made his overall cinematic presence seem bigger. All of the movies mentioned were made in the 1960s, his work after that period declining as his interests diversified. He became a leading bridge player and was a keen follower of racing. But one of the striking – and satisfying – things now, looking at his entire filmography, is that he was never required to play a terrorist. Alas, is it possible to visualise a modern day actor from the Middle East or North Africa being as readily accepted as Sharif was? Or being offered such a wide selection of roles in big mainstream productions? Being able to cross cultural and national boundaries with the ease that Sharif was able to? There is surely too much prejudice now to enable that to happen.

Sharif’s passing is also a reminder that the mystique of the big star has greatly diminished. Not that the current A-listers are duffers. The nature of screen acting evolves, and today’s stars are generally as good onscreen as their forebears, in some cases even better. Much of what has changed is the relationship between the star and the public, and how it is mediated now compared to before.

However, there is more to it than that. Plenty of stories, some of them unsavoury, have emerged over the course of time about the stars of yesteryear, and it hasn’t dented their aura. This is arguably because Hollywood has become culturally moribund relative to previous eras. While the craft of filmmaking has become more technically advanced, the art of storytelling is much diminished. A lot of the best cinema is created outside the Hollywood system. A lot of the best filmmaking talent in America has migrated to television. Good mainstream films are still made, but it seems to happen in spite of the prevailing ethos of 21st century Hollywood, which largely occupies itself with milking former successes through remakes and reboots, and raiding comic books for already familiar characters and storylines. With pre-recognition built into a production, the job of marketing is essentially done already. The subsequent output is not merely utterly disposable. It’s not even art.

Omar Sharif belonged to a time when studios went out to try and make movies, when directors and producers were more enlightened about casting, and his star shone brighter for it.

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