Fifty years ago this week, on December 22, 1965, David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago
had its world premiere at the Capitol Theatre in New York. Contrary to current practices, it was reviewed in The New York Times
the following day. (In his first paragraph the redoubtable Bosley Crowther notably refers to it as “Robert Bolt’s dramatization of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago
” rather than Lean’s, though he later mentions the “skillful direction of David Lean.” No auteurist, he.)
The Capitol, which had stood on Broadway just north of Times Square since 1919, was one of New York’s first movie palaces, and was a flagship theater for MGM. It was the theater in which the Wizard of Oz had its first New York run and in 1964 it was converted for the presentation of Cinerama films. (It closed in 1968 not long after the premiere of 2001: A Space Odyssey.) All of which is to say that the release of Doctor Zhivago was something of a big deal, coming three years after Lean’s Oscar-sweeping Lawrence of Arabia.
Character posters have become ubiquitous—and somewhat ridiculous—these days. Everything from Chi-Raq
to The Good Dinosaur
to The Hateful Eight
has a set of character posters. But 50 years ago they were created only for those few major films that merited an above-and-beyond approach to movie marketing. Gone with the Wind
had character posters in 1939, as did Children of Paradise
in France in 1945, but by 1965 they were still quite rare and remained so for decades.
I often wonder if the character posters we see online these days are ever actually printed (maybe I don’t go to enough multiplexes). This beautiful set of character posters for Zhivago most certainly was. (Two sets of them have sold at auction in recent years for over $1500.) They were painted by Maciek Piotrowski who was a Hollywood sketch artist who worked on films from El Cid to Aliens. They are both realist and vaguely modernist, as would have been much in vogue at the time, and each has its own rich color palette. In the year in which we lost Omar Sharif (and in which Tom Courtenay won Best Actor at the Berlin Film Festival for 45 Years) it seems a good time to resurrect these.
Piotrowski’s paintings were also incorporated into an alternative one sheet which introduced all the characters:
The original one sheet for the film was rather uninspired...
But after the film won six Academy Awards the following April, a new poster was released using the now well-known artwork by Howard Terpning which centered more on Omar Sharif and Julie Christie.
I somewhat prefer Gilbert Allard’s more dramatic French adaptation:
To be honest, I’ve never actually seen Doctor Zhivago
—I often offer it up as the most famous film I’ve never seen—but I have always had a soft spot for it because of this sequence
in Nanni Moretti’s 1989 film Palombella rossa