By the time he made the justifiably forgotten 1980 telefilm Pleasure Palace, Omar Sharif was known in Hollywood as a gambler with an acting hobby rather than the other way around. How did he get there, and why should we care? As Sharif later recalled in an interview, after Lawrence of Arabia launched his Western film career in the 1960s, he worked with four different prestigious directors on four high-profile but unsuccessful films: Anatole Litvak’s Nazi murder mystery The Night of the Generals, which handles the same material as Valkyrie much better; Fred Zinnemann’s bleak Spanish Civil War drama Behold a Pale Horse, Sidney Lumet’s answer to Belle de Jour; The Appointment; and Anthony Mann’s Gibbon adaptation of The Fall of the Roman Empire, which seems to have inspired Gladiator. Despite his committed performances in a varied set of roles, these flawed films’ commercially unpalatable themes meant Sharif’s career sputtered after Lawrence and Doctor Zhivago.(All but one of the films above were period pieces, so we will not discuss Sharif’s wardrobe in them – though nowadays dressing as if one cares is tantamount to costume, I have no desire to cross into that uncanny valley and urge us to wear costume clothes.)
After 1970, the film industry didn’t seem to know how to use Omar Sharif except as visiting royalty or shadowy gamblers, soldiers of fortune, and other stock characters, often satirically – deliberately underused as a cynical cruise ship captain in Richard Lester’s delightfully subversive disaster movie Juggernaut, damned with faint praise by Pauline Kael for bringing “more spirit” to his tiny role as the Egyptian Assassin in The Pink Panther Strikes Again than to his feature roles, compacted into a walking hunk of metal in Top Secret!. Even in the 1960s, positive reviews of Sharif as an “atavistic” romantic lead reminiscent of Valentino suggested that he was a man out of his time. Yet like greater actors, he had created himself in the image his audience had desired. As he notes in his memoirs, the long out of print The Eternal Male, he grew up Catholic and the child of Syrian-Lebanese parents in Egypt, speaking French before Arabic, and eventually speaking with fluency in many languages, all, however, with a slight, unplaceable accent, which resonates a little with this writer. He changed his name and his religion after starring in his first major film and grew his iconic mustache for the first time at David Lean’s request for his role as Sherif Ali in Lawrence. However, religion played no role in his gambling or romantic pursuits, and Sharif was threatened and vilified in the country of his birth for playing a Jewish gambler and kissing Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl – on and off set. After they broke up, Streisand declared that Sharif talked about nothing but bridge.
A world-class bridge player who gambled away most of his movie earnings, over time Sharif eventually settled into a suite at the Royal Monceau in Paris, which sets up the amusing premise of Pleasure Palace: in this movie, playboy gambler and rootless nomad Omar Sharif plays a playboy gambler and rootless nomad… who comes to the rescue of a saintly casino owner (!) and battles for control of Caesars Palace in a high-stakes card game. By this stage in his career, from the late 1970s through the 1990s, Sharif seemed to turn up at shooting for his mixed bag of films and miniseries in his own clothes. In this respect, he was no empty suit. Magnificent dinner jackets and sports coats, masterfully cut in beautiful materials, still look wonderful when viewed thirty years later, despite coming from the moment between two of the lowest points in modern menswear: the 1970s’ abandon of taste and proportion and the early 1980s’ rejection of fit and notch height. And Sharif looks comfortable and natural in his clothes, pointing to a good collaboration between client and cutter. I say cutter for, if Sharif was wearing his own clothes, they were made by some of the best – tailoring by Huntsman and Cifonelli, who elegantly suited powerfully built men like Sharif and Lino Ventura. And Sharif was loyal for nearly half a century to his shirtmaker, Turnbull & Asser, ever since they made Cossack-style shirts for him to wear for his role in Doctor Zhivago. Contrast his effortlessness with the trussed-up self-consciousness of stars in certain recent films with high-profile designer tie-ins, wearing their clothes as if they were not only brand new but still had cardboard and pins in them.
Other reasons to watch? Not many, apart from the odd, anachronistic bromance between Omar’s character and his BFF José Ferrer, whom he appears to have since forgiven for raping Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. Based on the strangely exhaustive tour of Caesars’ facilities the characters take, I suspect that the production was sponsored by Caesars Palace (Marvel at Caesars’ state-of-1980-art gym and Omar’s frumpy gym clothes! Gaze in wonder at the hidden ranch VIPs can retreat to!). The film does also feature a young Victoria Principal, fresh off her Playboy spread, and the final climactic gambling scene is appropriately tense and somewhat unpredictable: if my memory serves me correctly the game is baccarat, so this terrible film features characters better dressed and gameplay more elegant than Casino Royale (Texas Hold ’em, really?).But if you don’t see this film, many others from Omar Sharif’s 1970s-1990s canon offer similar wardrobe epiphanies, including:
- 1976’s Crime and Passion in which he plays a womanizing Austrian investment advisor turned on by financial risk who is oddly oblivious to the Sony Betamax video cameras a jealous client has placed everywhere (It must have seemed like a great idea at the time - Ivan Passer directing! Score by Vangelis! Karen Black fresh off of The Day of the Locust And instead fails at both black comedy and suspense.)
- 1981’s Green Ice, in which he plays a gem dealer exiled to Colombia who loses his fiancée and jewel stash to Ryan O’Neal in a hot air balloon, and
- 1992’s Sidney Sheldon melodrama Memories of Midnight, in which he plays a murderous Greek shipping magnate out to repress Jane Seymour’s memories.
Now, of course, simply by living long enough to have his failures forgotten and his talent remembered, Sharif has made a comeback of sorts, and reportedly given up gambling and T&A and moved home to Egypt. His disappointing body of work lies in the shadow of his persona. Still, according to legend, upon meeting him Peter O’Toole said, “No one on Earth is named Omar Sharif. I shall call you Fred.” Cairo Fred, this is for you.
‑ Réginald-Jérôme de Mans