His eyes look through the camera, directly into our souls.
Of the many things we remember about Omar Sharif, who died last week at age 83, the eyes win. Few actors use their eyes to define their characters as Sharif did in more than 100 movies. And few manage to play a range of roles with such natural ease.
Here are a few magic moments from Omar Sharif.
Lawrence of Arabia: A speck of dust in the desert (1962)
At first we don’t know that’s a man in the distance. We see a spec of dust in the ultra-wide landscape. When director David Lean cast the pivotal role of Sherif Ali in his epic narrative of the Middle East, he purposely reached for an actor unknown to audiences outside his native country. For the Egyptian-born Sharif, the role of the lifetime brought immediate international fame and an Oscar nomination. In the long history of the times the Academy got it wrong, looking back, it’s hard to believe the voters did not reward Sharif’s subtle, piercing and unforgettable performance. His complex character, in fact, can be considered the most essential of the film because he brings the relationship between people and land to center screen.
Doctor Zhivago: A lonely man on the streets of Moscow (1965)
At first we can’t believe how the man has aged. Throughout David Lean’s romantic epic about a Russian doctor, the women he loves and the country he tries to understand, Sharif is at his dashing best, using those eyes to communicate a range of feelings for the women who fill his life. Even when his character is trapped in the bitter cold, and his moustache is filled with ice, the eyes reach. As effective as Sharif’s performance throughout this film — a portrayal, surprisingly, snubbed by the Academy — his final minutes reveal the power the actor can bring to a character role. As the aged doctor travels the streets of Moscow in a streetcar, we see, in his eyes, the tragedy that disconnection can bring. Few movie scenes are as heartbreaking as when Sharif — from that streetcar — believes he sees the love of his life walking down the street.
Funny Girl: A surprisingly adept musical man (1968)
At first we can’t imagine Omar Sharif in a musical. Is he trying to be Gene Kelly? Fred Astaire? No, he’s simply himself, an actor who more than holds his own on screen opposite Barbra Streisand in her energetic film debut. On stage, the role of Nicky Arnstein was a cardboard cut-out who gave Streisand a chance to breathe in the wings. On film, however, Sharif makes us believe in this man who, despite his love for a most engaging woman, struggles with how she bruises his ego. Sharif helps us see that, despite the sincerity of love, the reality of relationship can overwhelm. While that’s a lot of layers for a musical comedy, Sharif juggles with challenge with ease. And he can even sing as he proves in the delightful duet titled You Are Woman.
Che: A reluctant hero in a turbulent land (1969)
At first we are thrown by how committed the actor is to a rebellious character. Is this the same Sharif who wooed Julie Christie and Barbra Streisand? Look how dirty he looks, how driven his eyes can be, how restricted his gestures. In what may be the actor’s most insightful character role, Sharif abandons his smooth screen persona to bring the spirit, ambition and anger of Che Gueverra’s revolutionary mission to life. Rather than follow conventional bio-pic rhythms, Richard Fleischer’s film focuses on what makes the man think, hope and fight, as he pursues a dream that few initially support. He brings a man largely forgotten by history to center screen.
Even though Sharif has been a minor figure in movies in recent years, the impact of thsse early performances confirms his enduring power on screen. Take a look at one of these classics for a fresh look at the actor. And his amazing eyes.