Monday, March 22, 2010

Monologue: "As Long As He Needs Me"

It's time for the Monday Monologue.

I don't think we've ever discussed Oliver! (1968) in all the years of The Film Experience. Weird. Today it's often disparaged as a typical example of the bloat of 1960s musicals. It's six Oscar haul (including Best Picture) is to blame for much of the critical animosity it engenders. Oscar enthusiasts know that winning the big prize isn't always good for your place in film history.

When I was a child I couldn't get enough of this musicalized telling of Oliver Twist. And it probably won't surprise you to hear that literally every one of my favorite scenes was focused on Nancy, the prostitute with the heart of gold (Shani Wallis). It may well have been the first movie to unlock my actressexuality. I was obsessed with Nancy's sadness, her maternal instincts, her slightly forced joy, her ginger hair, her heaving bosom. Okay, yeah, and maybe I danced in front of the television and got really into that "I'd Do Anything" number where all those smudge faced orphan boys declare their love for her. What of it?

I haven't seen the movie in years but the number that haunts in the memory and that I'm absolutely sure I didn't understand as a kid is "As Long As He Needs Me". Nancy has just been violently back-handed by her man Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed) because she doesn't want to go along with his criminal plans.

She exits the scene humiliated as her adoring orphans look on stunned. Once outside of this den of thieves she watches her beloved bully of a boyfriend walking away down the street and tears fill her eyes.

Not all ballads double as monologues but this one sure does. Wallis even begins the number talk-singing.
As long as he needs me.
Oh yes he does need me.
In spite of what you see, I'm sure that he needs me.
As her song progresses, the talk-singing gives way to a fuller musical performance but Wallis's vocal style is mostly subdued. She's not pulling out any vocal pyrotechnics to distract you with her pipes. She's playing the emotions more than the notes.
Who else would love him still
When they been used so ill?
He knows I always will as long as he needs me.

I miss him so much when he is gone but when he's near me I don't let on.

The way I feel inside... The love I have to hide... But hell, I got my pride as long as he needs me.
What's fascinating about the structure of the song (and the detailing of Wallis's performance) is that it's both interior monologue and plea for audience understanding. As such it's more in keeping with stage traditions than the cinema where the fourth wall is more sacrosanct. Nancy's monologue keeps swinging back and forth between addressing us (notice all the questions and the "yous" and the "people") and dark retreats into her romantic interior spaces.

At this point in the song/monologue Nancy hesitates for the last time as if she's still unsure if she should keep justifying her love or start carelessly shouting it. Her final excuses begin to emerge, the abused victim apologizing for the abuser. (I didn't understand the adult psychology of this at all as a child). Once she's gotten this out of the way, the belting commences.
He doesn't say the things he should. He acts the way he thinks he should. But all the same, I'll play the game his way.

As long as he needs me, I know where I must be. I'll cling on steadfastly as long as he needs me. As long as life is long. I'll love him... right or wrong. And somehow I'll be strong, as long as he needs me.
After several of these belted phrases the masochistic sadness of the song really sinks in. It's a heartbreaker. And Nancy knows she's broken.
If you are lonely, than you will know... when someone needs you, you love them so.
There'll be no turning back for Nancy once she's uttered this last rationalization. She'll sing her love for this man until it's the death of her. It's quite obvious that it will be.
I won't betray his trust, though people say I must. I've got to stay true just as long as he needs me.
The climactic lines are sung in far away profile and the song ends with Nancy's back to the camera as she walks slowly away. It's an incredibly sad exit, made more powerful by the use of the forgotten movie grammar of the long shot. Not every scene should be in close-up. Sometimes you have to let your actors walk away, diminished.

This film clip is strangely not available on YouTube so here are some other renditions of the song from the immortal Judy Garland through Ruthie Henshall to Melinda Doolittle...

I include the American Idol clip because, though Doolittle's voice amazes, it's sung without any emotional understanding of the song's content (the frequent bane of that particular pop culture behemoth). Like "Cabaret" after it, "As Long as He Needs Me" is a frequently misunderstood standard. The song is a defiant declaration of purpose, yes, but its mostly a terrible and desperate rationalization. If you don't sell both, you're just singing notes.


Jess K. said...

what an amazing post, this is one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite musicals. I didn't eve know about these other versions! thanks for this :)

notanotherblog said...

Doolittle's is the first version I've heard. There's the rule that the first version of the song you hear is the one you like the most. I'll check out Judy's later.

Andrew K. said...

I only got into this song when I heard Judy sing it. I'm one of those who didn't like Oliver. Although you make me want to revisit it, but I don't even like the score very much.

Kim said...

I played Nancy in high school, and I look back thinking I had NO business singing that song at 18. What I wouldn't give to get to play it again now that I have had some life experience. Great post, Nathaniel :-)

James T said...

Ruthie Henshall is just great!

OtherRobert said...

Oliver! is one of my all time favorite films. It's close to flawless for a stage to screen adaptation. The hatred drives me insane because it usually comes from people who just don't like musicals. But look at what it was up against: another musical (more of an acting showcase), a beautiful Shakespeare adaptation (another favorite), one of the best period dramas of all time, and Rachel, Rachel (who, who?). A tough year to pick a winner, but it's one of my favorite Best Picture wins.

Kevin P Durkin said...

I am so so so glad you included this. It's one of my ver yfavorite torch songs. I still love the way Patti LuPone does it the best though!

Marsha Mason said...

"sung without any emotional understanding of the song's content"

Thank you for your succinct and accurate appraisal of ten years of American Idol, and perhaps ten years of America in general.

par3182 said...

ahh, the anthem of messed-up relationships everywhere

with this song and the artful dodger being so much more entertaining than the terribly bland oliver it's as if the show is a testament to lovin' the bad boys

whitney said...

I had a big crush on the Artful Dodger when we watched this movie in fifth grade.

Flosh said...

well done! i have a real soft spot for this film, and nancy. when i first saw it - i was maybe ten - i remember being absolutely stunned when (SPOILER!) nancy is bludgeoned to death. i mean, it completely wrecked me, and i didn't quite believe that it had happened. i kept waiting for her to show up at the end. as a result, i've sort of hated oliver reed ever since.

Bryan said...

"I didn't understand the adult psychology of this at all as a child."

Haha. Isn't it funny how there are some moments, like this one, where you're watching something as a kid, and you KNOW that something is going over your head? When you're not quite sure why things are happening the way they are, but you sort of acknowledge that it's one of those complicated, slippery, adult things?

The scene you mention reminds me of the West Side Story scene in which Anita is tossed around by the Jets (read: sexually assaulted). Even then, I was acutely aware that something was happening that was going WAY over my head.

Tim said...

It's not the best thing ever, but I do have a soft spot for this musical, and I too remain perpetually aggravated at the number of people who seem to flat-out hate it.

I think it's a combination of two prongs of snobbery: on the one hand, fans of the book have an all-time definitive adaptation to point to (David Lean's from 1948), while any of that year's BP nominees would have suffered the ire of three generations of cinephiles for "beating" 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Oh, and your explication of a great song is amazing, but people have already beat me to saying that.

Guy Lodge said...

As someone who has never been all that keen on the film, this was a fascinating read. It's certainly about as adult a song as you'll find in a family-oriented musical.

Interesting that you bring up Melinda Doolittle's interpretation, since she wasn't the first to sing it on American Idol. A couple of years before her, Nadia Turner did (I think) a rather better job with it -- less technically proficient, but more "acted," in a way.


@ EVERYONE -- isn't it a bit weird given Oscar's love of the musical and of the hooker with the heart o' gold that Shani Wallis wans't Oscar nominated for this?

I've never understood that.

@GUY -- it wasn't intentional since i'm not that familiar with Idol. It just came up when i did internet searches.

@TIM -- glad to hear i'm not alone on that oscar front.

Samson said...

Nancy's singing that song to Oliver, not her boyfriend. She was complicit in Oliver's capture, and now she's realizing that it's time to make amends no matter the costs. Shani Wallis was spectacular in "As Long as He Needs Me." She should have been the Oscar nominee, not Ron Moody or Jack Wild. This just came on during TCM's 31 Days of Oscar festival in Feb., so that's how I saw it.


Samson... interesting read on the situation. and i love songs that can have dual... no triple meanings then.

*but one note: but isn't this right before they capture Oliver. she has refused to do it. then gets smacked. then she goes along with the plan (sort of)

billybil said...

Oh wow! Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow! I LOVE this movie! I love, love, LOVE the choreography - it is the BEST at capturing the flavor of real life and real work through dance in film. It is gorgeous and delightful and spectacular. And the movie is so well cast! Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger, Ron Moody as Fagin, Shani Wallis as Nancy, Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes!! And it's so full of humor and pathos. And you're right, Nathan - the highpoint of the film is AS LONG AS HE NEEDS ME. She had such a unique voice, and it was powerful all the way from top to bottom - not always true for many singers! And what a song! Remember how different that clean street of wealth was from the rest of the movie? I mean, it was like magic. And that moment when the big number ended and all the people just melted back into their everyday lives. So many people have copied that - I'm thinking the animated BEAUTY AND THE BEAST for one. Oh Nate - thanks for bringing this movie to light again. I do love it so!

billybil said...

Oh yeah - and Bill Syke's dog!!! I thought that dog was great!!

Tom Steele said...

Nathaniel, have you ever heard the original Broadway Nancy, the late Georgia Brown, tear into that ballad? Next time you're over, I'll play it.

My main problem with the movie OLIVER! is Ron Moody. I haven't seen the movie since it was released over 40 years ago, but I also remember Oliver Reed chewing the scenery whenever Ron Moody was off camera, nearly outdoing him. And wouldn't you know that Michael Jackson would have a "thing" for little Mark Lester?

As many, many people have pointed out time and again, Hollywood's adaptations of Broadway stage musicals are usually atrocious. You can count on one hand the great ones. Some of the worst movies I've ever seen have been such adaptations: THE WIZ anyone? FIDDLER ON THE ROOF? EVITA? A CHORUS LINE? I could go on, but I don't want to step on anyone's positive feelings about these movies. But they do make OLIVER! look like CABARET.

Rob from Leeds said...

Oh wow Nat!

Awesome... I grew to love the show and the movie so much last year and I just melt when I hear this song. My local drama group did Oliver! for it's 100th production last November (I was Mr Sowerberry, they cut the song from the movie... boo!) and our Nancy was sensational, with a very growly Sykes... I think cast wise for soundtracks the 2009 and 1994 London productions are my favourites with Rowan Atkinson and Jonathan Price as Fagin respecively

Good times....

Samson said...

That's right. She knows that the plan is wrong but has been strongarmed into complying with it. Then after her big song number, they manage to capture Oliver again, but Nancy tries to get him back to his uncle (giving the song that much more impact).

Volvagia said...

Tim: Or Bleeping Once Upon a Time in the West. Maybe of less artistic accomplishment than 2001, but the idea of boiling down a whole genre is more influential. 2001 only managed to exert influence on Star Wars and (sigh) Solaris. Without Once Upon a Time in the West, would we have Todd Haynes, most of Mel Brooks or even Edgar Wright ready to deliver the risky Scott Pilgrim? 2001 may have had more evidence of technical mastery, but Leone's vision is more acutely influential and worthy of a Best Picture trophy.

Anonymous said...

@Tom Steele - I'm with you on A CHORUS LINE, but Michael Douglas's command to that one poor ballet dancer ("DON'T DANCE!!") haunts my nightmares to this very day. You could see that dancer's artistic soul shattering right on the stage - awful.

"If you don't sell both, you're just singing notes."

YES. Thank you. I've seen this show at least a dozen times done everywhere from Broadway (with Debbie Gibson!!) to a little community theater in Alaska, and it's yet to equal the raw desperation of Liza's performance in the film. In that instance, the close-up was done brilliantly - a nice counterpoint to Shani's slow walk off camera, especially since it has the same effect: Aristotelian catharsis, at least for me.

Chris Na Taraja said...

I love Ruthie Henchel, she's my favorite Velma ever to play in CHICAGO, and she is truly awesome, but does anyone even hold a candle to Judy!

I have to confess that i tried to watch OLIVER as a kid many times, and I usually got bored right around he sings "Wher er er er er, is love." Maybe I'll have to try it again.

Winny. said...

that was beautifully written. as long as he needs me is one of my favourite songs from a musical and of all time. i think i have heard pretty much every version of the song going.

Stephen said...

Great post! I enjoy the film (though it kinda falls apart in the last act, doesn't it?), and I think this song is a highlight, both for her performance, the wonderful set, and the way it's shot (I SO agree with you about the long shots).

I don't know much about Lionel Bart, but I always thought this song was written FOR Judy Garland. Not literally, but with the ingredients that she did for decades: torch song, built-in storyline, big finish. The fact that she did it (wonderfully) on her show attests to it, even if it wasn't Bart's intention.

Seeing the depth of the lyrics and the deliberate pacing of the song, it's easy to see how a singer could miss the more intense elements of it. It may explain why it's frequently performed but by no means a popular standard.

Ted Robles said...

thank you for this. Shani was amazing as nancy and this post does her character much justice.P.S. I'm watching Oliver! right now

Dennis Bee said...

A few years ago, I got on an email list of Emanuel Levy's, asking for the ten Best Pictures. I rated Oliver! (The title has the musical "!") number 8. Of the musicals to win Best Picture, it is easily the best. It has been a movie I've loved since I was taken to it by my parents as a birthday present when I turned 15 in 1969.

THEN I slowly learned the awful reputation it has among Oscar cognoscenti. Its bad rep, I've always thought, is because it won BP the year that 2001: A Space Odyssey, the consensus best film of 1968, wasn't even nominated.

But what's not to like about Oliver! itself? Oliver!, to begin with, easily betters the four other nominees for '68, none of which have held up very well. It actually upset Lion in Winter, the odds-on favorite; Carol Reed's Director win over Anthony Harvey became one of the first times that the DGA winner and the Oscar did not match up (or was it THE first time?).

Oliver! is a roadshow musical in which 1.) All the principals can sing--and very well; 2.) The dance production numbers are lavish and beautiful--Start the first few bars of "Who Will Buy?" and I tear up; 3.) There are fabulous performances by the great Ron Moody, Oliver Reed, Shani Wallis, and the children; 4.) The film has never seemed bloated, but perfectly proportioned to its subject; it's Dickens's London, from a child's point of view. It's epic, with a well-deserved Oscar to John Box's art direction. The score by Lionel Bart is quite good with standards--"Consider Yourself," "As Long As He Needs Me"--along with novelty songs. All of Fagin's numbers are delicious. And Bill Sykes's number in the Bart show is, appropriately, cut (Reed makes a flesh-crawlingly creepy Sikes, but I've never regretted not hearing him sing).

For a loving appreciation of the film, read the original New Yorker review of Pauline Kael, who always knew a good musical (as well as a bad one) when she saw one.

And no, it's not exactly Dickens--All hints of antisemitism--or semitism, for that matter--are cleansed from Fagin. It's Dickens by way of music halls, the West End, and Broadway, brought back through moody postwar British cinema by the director of Odd Man Out and The Third Man.