1968's Best Picture Oliver! is commonly disparaged these days as an Oscar blunder and a typical example of the bloat that eventually derailed the musical genre. Musicals were big business back then and like animated family features now or action films roughly a decade ago, the running times got more and more padded. It's a common hubris problem for whatever genre is the reigning box office champion. 1968 featured at least four big ticket musicals -- Funny Girl, Finian's Rainbow, Star! and Oliver! -- and they all clock in well over 2 hours with all but one of them tipping over to be closer to 3 hours in length. Combine this problem with the critical endurance of 2001: A Space Odyssey's legend and add in that six Oscar haul and what do you get? Critical animosity. Oscar enthusiasts are familiar with this phenom and they know that winning the big prize isn't always good for your place in film history.
So Oliver! will have to settle for its place in personal histories and in mine it looms large. (It's weird that as a child I had such a long attention span. As an adult I get antsy once you've past the 110 minute mark but wee Nat couldn't get enough of all 153 minutes of this musicalized Oliver Twist whenever it played on television.) 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).
To this day, I'm confused as to why she didn't get any attention in Oscar's Supporting Actress race!
Oliver! 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?
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 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.
There'll be no turning back for Nancy once she's uttered these last rationalizations. She'll sing her love for this man until it's the death of her. It's quite obvious that it will be
If you are lonely, than you will know... when someone needs you, you love them so.
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 still not available on YouTube though some other Oliver! numbers are so here are two other renditions of the song from the immortal Judy Garland in 1964 (which predates the movie version) through American Idol's Melinda Doolittle in 2007...
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 our modern karaoke culture which prefers vocal pyrotechnics to insight). 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.