Seeing Cinema in a New Light: Criticism, Essays and Observations about Classic Cinema

1960s Movies, Classic Movies, Film Criticism and Analysis, Historical Drama, Overrated, Rants

The Problem with Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Problem #5: Lara is Not a Character, But A Sex Object for 1960s Male Moviegoers

Never underestimate the power of suggestion. I say this because in reading reactions from female fans of this movie, I come across the same absurd comments about how much they love Lara because of what an independent and soulful person she is.

Why are these comments absurd? 90% of Lara’s story arc is of her being abused by, argued over or passed between three men. To make matters worse, a quarter of her onscreen appearances are literally nothing more than alternating shots of her sitting silently looking pretty and being stared at by Zhivago. There is only one sequence in the entire movie when we see Lara act out of personal agency–when she decides to shoot Komarovsky. Outside of that one sequence, Lara is little more than a sex object and trophy.

The reason why Lara is written this way isn’t accidental; it’s very calculated. To explain why and how, let’s go back to real life, once again to specific cultural trends that were going on in the 1960s.

Ever since the tragic death of Jean Harlow in 1937, Hollywood became obsessed with finding another perfect blonde goddess to titillate male moviegoers with. In the 1940s, when we were at war and film noir was all the rage, the mood was much too somber for a light and frothy blonde It Girl. But then came the 1950s and Playboy. Suddenly, there was an explosion of hot platinum blondes carrying on the legacy of Jean Harlow–Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren and of course, Marilyn Monroe.

Monroe eventually died and Jayne Mansfield went off the skids, so Hollywood went prowling for new blonde hotties to push to the forefront. However, by the 1960s, a new generation of hot-blooded male audience members began to replace the older generation that had loved the blonde sexpots of the 1930s and 1950s. As a result, as the young male demographic changed, so did their taste in women. While the older generation wanted a curvaceous blonde that pandered to their sex fantasies at their most juvenile, the younger men of the Playboy generation and Swinging Sixties wanted blondes that catered to their smug sense of class and sophistication. Because of this, the “Swedish blonde”–as exemplified by Inger Stevens–became all the rage.

Who was the Swedish blonde? Ironically, she didn’t have to be Swedish. She just had to have the look and demeanor of what men at the time imagined her to be. So, first and foremost, she had to have sleek blonde hair, but of a more natural, subdued color and in sophisticated hairstyles. Secondly, she had to be sexy, but in a more sensual, understated way. Third, she had to have a look and a soulful expression that suggested class and intelligence. In a nutshell, the Swedish blonde had to be the total opposite of the trashy, girlish, jiggling bimbos that older generations of men had been into.

Enter Doctor Zhivago. I can’t speak for the original source material, but I can say that for the movie adaptation, Lara is a dumbed down character serving as pure eye candy for 1960s swinging bachelors who were going ga-ga over the Swedish blonde, with Julie Christie as the latest in a long line of straight-haired, sultry, blonde (and in most cases blue-eyed) beauties who would grace the screen:

Julie Christie from Doctor Zhivago

How can we know for sure? Besides the fact that Lara has little to say and do in the movie other than to play damsel in distress or be shown in a bunch of reaction shots, she is nothing more than a sexual prize to be claimed, passed around from man to man and dumped when she becomes inconvenient or bothersome. And–this is especially important--precisely because Lara is supposed to pander to 1960s male audiences, the character is a chameleon that changes depending on which segment of male movie goer she happens to be pandering to at any given moment.

This pandering is why Lara is torn between three very different men–the lecherous middle-aged Komarovsky, the college-aged, political rebel Pasha and the middle class, respectable doctor and romantic poet, Zhivago. For cads of an older generation–the type that used to think nothing of sexually harassing, if not raping sexually vulnerable women for the crime of turning him on–Lara is a shameless, gold-digging vamp perfectly willing to sleep with men for money and creature comforts. To give you a better idea of the demographic Komarovsky represents, think of the old joke about the middle-aged boss chasing his secretary around her desk, or better yet, the Fred MacMurray character from the movie, The Apartment (1960).

Fred MacMurray in The Apartment (1960)

For the 1960s radicals fresh out of Berkeley and other college campuses where young men were fascinated with politics and revolutions (particularly the Cuban revolution), Lara is both brainy (as seen by the book of math equations at her mother’s shop), but more like an admiring younger sister adoring an older brother than she is a lover. She also remains the dutiful partner who is more than happy to be an extension of him and his interests.

With Yuri, the movie gave us two for the price of one. For self-righteous pillars of the community who feel that they are above sleeping around and acting immorally, she is the perfect damsel in distress in a terrible situation that they can use to rationalize stepping out on their dutiful wives. For bohemians seeking mistresses to fuel their creativity (this was especially the case in the countercultural 1960s), she is the perfect muse.

As you know, Yuri winds up “winning” Lara in the end. Yet what was so appealing about this at the time the movie was made wasn’t so much that the Guy Got the Girl but that Zhivago, the avatar for the 1960s Swinging Bachelor, Got the Swedish Blonde. This appeal is why I think the studios and David Lean had such a hardon for adapting the novel; they saw the potential of the character and story being a major win at the box office with the Playboy set. I think it’s also why Sharif landed the lead role in spite of being older than the original character. Not only was he in the same age bracket as 1960s Playboys, he was able to capture their pretensions of being the more romantic, sophisticated and cultured of either the generation that came before him or were just then coming of age.

In short, contrary to the idea that Lara is this amazing romantic heroine who is feisty and independent, that couldn’t be further from the truth. She is a sex object–nothing more, nothing less–because, like I said, the movie is less about her as a character as using it as the perfect vehicle to titillate 1960s Swinging Bachelors, who couldn’t get enough of the Swedish Blonde.

7 Comments

  1. I had a similar reaction to Zhivago when I saw it as a teenager. I could never have explored it in such lucid detail or examined so many facets of it, but I had the distinct sense that the “love story” was offensive nonsense — selfish, adulterous, and based on virtually nothing. I was unaware of the sexist exploitation that you articulate so well, and I couldn’t contextualize all of it historically, but my raw impression was that the plot was pretentious and preposterous.

  2. George Campbell

    You have purloined to yourself the intention of the producer and director.
    Dr Zhivago (68) still works for millions including me. That was their intention. It seems close to the intention of Louise Pasternak. And even if not, so what? Contrivance is not the opposite of truth. More so when historical drama is being portrayed. Whether in revolutions or wars or at an Elvis concert love is malleable. Think not that you know the best course it should have taken. I have 5 Academy Awards in my suit. What do you hold? Stop intellectualizing yourself out of enjoyment.

    • Comment by post author

      I didn’t think you read a word of this essay.

      When you tell me to “stop intellectualizing,” what you’re telling me is to leave my brain at the door, so I can accept the movie’s subtext without question.

      The Academy Awards have been meaningless for a very long time, so I’m not sure what bragging about having won five is supposed to mean. Assuming you’re an “insider,” you know very well that the entire thing has always been driven by politics, quid pro quo, campaigning and pandering. You have five under your suit, but Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock received none for their work.

      • Christine

        I saw Zhivago for the 1st time a few months back. I thought what a cheater and a selfless fool. Slow moving and pretty but no real depth there.

  3. George Campbell

    Yes! I did read as far as the relevant trope. It threw me to the point that I even renamed Boris🤣. However, I certainly respect disagreement. But before I do go back and read the full article answer my perplexity. Will it invalidate my comment?

  4. RM

    thank goodness!!! i thought i was losing my mind!!! i just watched this for the 1st time a week ago expecting a ‘Gone With The Wind’ epic romantic movie and was sorely disappointed. so….i agree 100%!!! 🙂

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