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Man of La Mancha
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Man of La Mancha

People who bemoan the fact that musicals these days – Chicago (2002), Moulin Rouge (2001), etc. – are cast with non-musical performers, should recall that the practice stretches back to such films as Guys and Dolls (1955), with the non-singing leads Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons, and the dubbing of principal singing parts in West Side Story (1961). It has also turned up twice in the career of Peter O'Toole. Despite having little or no talent for singing, he was the lead in two of the most expensive musicals of their era, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969) and Man of La Mancha (1972). What he did have going for him in the latter film, however, was his reputation as one of the finest actors of his generation and an uncanny resemblance to Gustave Dore's illustrations of the errant knight for Cervantes's world-famous novel Don Quixote.

What Man of La Mancha had going for it was its provenance. The novel, of course, is one of the great classics in the Western canon and the shining light of Spanish literature. It was adapted to film several times through the years; a U.S. silent had been filmed in 1915, and G.W. Pabst made a version in 1933 with legendary opera star Chaliapin in the lead. Writer Dale Wasserman wrote an adaptation for television in 1959 that framed the story of the novel with an incident depicting Cervantes imprisoned by the Inquisition. Lee J. Cobb took the lead as both author and his creation, Eli Wallach was his servant, and Colleen Dewhurst played the dual role of the lowly Aldonza and Cervantes's idealized Dulcinea. Wasserman, along with composer Mitch Leigh and lyricist Joe Darion, turned the story into a musical that opened at a small Off-Broadway theater in Greenwich Village in late 1965. It became a huge hit and eventually moved to Broadway, running more than five years for a total of 2329 performances, winning five Tony Awards and nominated for two others.

It's no surprise then that United Artists were sure they had a winner on their hands when they secured the movies rights for Man of La Mancha and hired Peter Glenville to direct. (The studio had opted not to use Wasserman and the rest of the original Broadway team). Glenville, a good friend of O'Toole's, had won considerable praise for directing O'Toole and Richard Burton in Becket (1964) and had a sterling reputation as a stage director as well. O'Toole was pleased to be working with his friend and appreciated the way Glenville and writer John Hopkins were going to rework the material based on the novel, quite possibly even jettisoning the songs and turning it into a big-budget historical epic. That didn't sit well with UA; they had paid a lot of money for the musical version and hoped to draw audiences who either missed the stage original or seen it and loved it. As a result, Glenville and Hopkins were fired. The producers decided to stick with Wasserman's original adaptation of his play and brought in Arthur Hiller as director, even though he had never made a musical. Hiller, however, came with tremendous box office credentials after the overwhelming success of his screen version of Erich Segal's best-selling romance Love Story (1970). O'Toole wasn't happy with the change, never got along with Hiller, and persisted on referring to him as "Little Arthur."

One colleague O'Toole did get along with was Sophia Loren, making her musical debut as Aldonza/Dulcinea in her first film in years not produced by husband Carlo Ponti; in fact, it was to be filmed in Rome by rival producer Alberto Grimaldi. Loren respected and enjoyed O'Toole and co-star James Coco, often inviting them to her home near Rome for home-cooked meals and engaging them in spirited card games. She jumped at the chance to do a musical, and when veteran composer-arranger-author Saul Chaplin was brought in as associate producer to attend to the musical aspects of Man of La Mancha, he determined Loren's singing voice to be adequate for her part. So although O'Toole's song performances are dubbed (by British stage performer Simon Gilbert), it is Loren we hear singing on the soundtrack.

Critical reception for Man of La Mancha was poor to mixed, and the box office take was disappointing in light of its $11 million production cost. But the film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Music, Golden Globe nominations for O'Toole and Coco, and a National Board of Review Award for O'Toole as Best Actor for this role and for The Ruling Class (1972). The visual look of Man of La Mancha is also noteworthy, thanks to cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, a longtime collaborator with Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti who had just recently shot Mike Nichols's Carnal Knowledge (1971).

Director: Arthur Hiller
Producer: Alberto Grimaldi, Saul Chaplin
Screenplay: Dale Wasserman, based on his stage musical and teleplay from the novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra (uncredited)
Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Editing: Robert C. Jones
Production Design: Luciano Damiani
Cast: Peter O'Toole (Quixote/Cervantes), Sophia Loren (Aldonza/Dulcinea), James Coco (Sancho Panza/Manservant), Harry Andrews (Governor/Innkeeper), Brian Blessed (Pedro).
C-132m. Letterboxed.

by Rob Nixon