When Omar Sharif – in character as Sherif Ali – first emerged on horseback from a distant mirage in Lawrence of Arabia, in a lingering shot that would become rightfully iconic in film history, audiences knew they were looking at a generational actor. What they mightn’t have known then is that they were looking at a generational style hero, too.
Fifty one years ago this month, Sharif graced the cover of GQ, the magazine hailing “The Return of the Romantic Hero”. There he was, coiffed and moustachioed, wearing his ’fit with the kind of cheek and swagger that could still command envy and best-of lists, the world round.
As the years have gone on, he remains evergreen proof of the power of a thick head of hair and a precision moustache. This was a man who made a suit look so good that it makes us feel slightly abashed to be sitting here in oversized (but to be fair, still chic) trackpants.
In eveningwear, Sharif was the person that we all want to be: rakish, loose, confident. The tuxedos were less about a dress code and more about an attitude – the body language as important as the perfect knot, tuck or loafer.
And the turtlenecks – oh OUR GOODNESS, the turtlenecks. They had the side effect of magnifying his grooming greatness. Whether worn under single- or double-breasted suits, blazers, whatever, wherever, this was an unimpeachable power move, an old reliable that he calmly retrieved from the arsenal, for any occasion.
Sharif’s style flowed from silver screen to Sunset Boulevard, without breaking the act. (And you know full well that pulling this off is a skill – here’s looking at you, Ryan Gosling’s pre-stylist, tuxedo-t-shirt era.) Yes, he was often a guy of expensive taste – he earned a posthumous Hall of Fame spot in the annals of Huntsman, the Savile Row tailors who have been crafting suits for 170 years or so.
But Sharif was no dandy. This wasn’t “look at me” style, it was a quiet, sleek confidence that could induce swooning, jealousy, admiration and intimidation – all in the same room. (Exhibit A: a crazed fan once attempted to seduce Sharif at gunpoint in a hotel in Dallas. Exhibit B: Blockheads frontman Ian Dury once made the mistake of telling him that every film he’d made after Lawrence was, “s**t” – landing him on the receiving end of several well-placed punches to the face.)
Sharif entered a rarefied territory in personal style: where style and man are inseparable from one another; the realm where each feeds the other, ad infinitum. That was the performance to his personal style – one that toed the line of identity and art. On warm nights in far-flung, sartorial dreamlands from Monaco to Hollywood, Sharif, the Egyptian who cracked Tinseltown, dialled up the playboy aesthetics to ‘12’, combining masterful grooming with centimetre-perfect tailoring that, five decades later, really hasn’t aged.
Perhaps most importantly, he introduced Hollywood to a new brand of handsomeness. He entered the industry worldly, unfamiliar, intriguing: a new rogue in a world that had been dominated by a factory line of WASP types. This was a silk-clad, through-the-cigar-haze version of handsome, who came from the Arab world, a boy born in Alexandria. In an era where male grooming seems determined to converge into a single, westernised Instagram-friendly vision named “crop the sides and leave the top long”, Sharif is a reminder to lean-in to your genetics: every curl, every twist, every whisker unmistakably his own.
To hold his own opposite Sophia Loren was proof enough of the magnitude of his charisma. (“What is a motion picture as beautiful as Loren, as exciting as Sharif, and as romantic as the two of them together? It’s...More than a Miracle,” read the film’s poster.) Whether his Casanova reputation was more show than reality is up for debate, but it’s not as though he actively discouraged it. (If 2019 was his heyday, you get the feeling that there would be a loud, worthy chorus, calling for his casting as 007.)
Fifty years after Sharif covered GQ, another Egyptian actor found his way into the spotlight, and another GQ’s cover – this one. Rami Malek won a Golden Globe for Bohemian Rhapsody 56 years after Sharif won his first. Staring at photos of each on their big night, there’s plenty of familiarity.
Unconventional. Charismatic. Granite-sharp jaw. Perfectly cut tux.
It’s proof positive that, when you’re ready to trailblaze, there are no better mentors than those who blazed before you.