There is a shot in “Doctor Zhivago” in which Omar Sharif’s face is almost entirely veiled in shadow, so that all we see are his eyes, focused on the woman who will soon become his lover. For all the visual sweep of David Lean’s magnificently mushy 1965 romance, it contains few images as telling or revealing as this one: Here were eyes for the audience to lose itself in, but also to study closely. The film historian and professor Constantine Santas summed it up in his appreciative 2011 study of Lean’s epics, when he wrote that Sharif’s Zhivago “is frequently described as ‘passive,’ his eyes reflecting the reality he sees in reaction shots; his eyes then become the mirror of reality we ourselves see.”
It’s a conceit that could only work, of course, if your leading man had the eyes to do it justice. And Lean, the director who first introduced this Egyptian-born heartthrob to the world in “Lawrence of Arabia,” surely knew the power of those peepers. Consequently, Sharif’s Dr. Zhivago is a man of keen observation, precise actions and relatively sparse talk. He doesn’t need to say much, in part, because that liquid gaze — not passive but piercing, and alert and alive to the relentless forward march of history — tells us everything we need to know.
Was it Sharif’s eyes that made him such a chameleon? At the very least, they helped make his versatility persuasive. While the actor’s complexion, accent, wardrobe and mustache could shift at will depending on the role, it was those twin pools of emotion that maintained a sense of continuity and kept us tethered to reality, or something like it. In a career that could sometimes seem as much about pageantry as performance, they served as the proverbial windows to his soul — reminders of a serene intelligence beneath that ever-malleable surface.
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Malleable, indeed, may not do the man justice. The improbable 1960s career ascent of Omar Sharif — a rare sex symbol and movie star of Middle Eastern provenance — came about largely through an uncanny convergence of onscreen magnetism, estimable range and irresistible good looks. (As legend tells it, Sharif received more than 3,000 marriage proposals in one week after the release of “Doctor Zhivago.”) But it was also due to his ability to fill a void in the representational cosmos, his fashionably exotic appeal to a film industry that had never been a bastion of racially sensitive casting— especially in the decade that gave us Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and Elizabeth Taylor as “Cleopatra,” for starters.
Sharif may not have a howler of that magnitude on his resume, though he came perilously close when he took on “Genghis Khan” (1965), compounding the indignity already heaped upon the Mongolian warlord’s screen legacy by John Wayne in “The Conqueror” (1956). (Surely no one else has ever been called upon to play both Khan and Che Guevara, and with any luck, no one else ever will.) Admittedly, Sharif’s choices received their fair share of criticism over the years, and sometimes their unfair share as well: His casting as the Jewish gangster Nicky Arnstein in “Funny Girl” (1968) — opposite Barbra Streisand, with whom he became romantically involved — drew plenty of anti-Semitic ire from the Egyptian press. (They arguably should have been more incensed by the woodenness of his performance.)
But in most of his transformations, in roles big and small, Sharif revealed a protean ability to slip into virtually any ethnic guise the studios required of him: He played a Spanish priest in Fred Zinnemann’s “Behold a Pale Horse” (1964), an ancient Armenian king in Anthony Mann’s “The Fall of the Roman Empire” (1964), a 19th-century Austrian prince in Terence Young’s “Mayerling” (1968) and a Cold War-era Soviet attache in Blake Edwards’ “The Tamarind Seed” (1974), among others. And in this context, it can be hard to state definitively whether Sharif was a symptom of a problem or a step toward a solution. He was an undeniable beneficiary of Hollywood’s blinkered, one-color-fits-all attitude toward race, but he also functioned as a sort of corrective to it: Here, after all, was a non-white actor who did his part — indeed, more than his part — to broaden and diversify the depiction of minorities onscreen.
And Hollywood, with typically cruel indifference, returned the favor by slowly but surely losing interest in Sharif. With a rare exception like the French drama “Monsieur Ibrahim” (2003), for which he won a Cesar Award for his charming performance as a Turkish immigrant storekeeper, he became known in the later stretches of his career less for his movies than for his tempestuous offscreen relationships, his occasional violent outbursts, his playboy vices and his skill at the bridge table. To re-examine his acting career in the present day, when the industry continues to betray a profound cluelessness toward issues of diversity and representation, is to feel a twinge of sadness that while Sharif was undoubtedly a pioneer, the trail he blazed may have been primarily for himself. It’s worth noting how few Middle Eastern actors have risen to a position of comparable stature, and it’s hard not to wonder if an Omar Sharif who had emerged a few decades later would have spent most of his time playing 9/11-era thugs and terrorists.
Sharif had the good fortune, of course, to work at a time when Hollywood spent far more time and money cultivating epic dramas set in far-flung corners of the globe, and fostered filmmakers with the patience and audacity to see them through. Watching “Lawrence of Arabia” now, it’s hard not to notice that Lean gave Sharif not just one of the grandest movie entrances of all time, but one of the longest: It was all too fitting that we had to stare at him, a slowly advancing speck on the shimmering horizon, for we had truly never seen anyone like him approach us before. And when he did come fully into view, the first we really saw of him was those eyes — his face cloaked not by shadows, as in “Doctor Zhivago,” but by the headscarf of the Bedouin warrior Sherif Ali.
Throughout the remainder of the film, Lean seems preternaturally aware of those eyes and their almost otherworldly power. A scene around a campfire with Peter O’Toole takes on the intensity of an ocular sparring match, pitting Sharif’s gaze against his co-star’s equally penetrating stare. As an outsider making his big Hollywood debut, Sharif may have had something to prove, but he more than withstood O’Toole’s scrutiny, and the audience’s as well. He still does.