Friday, June 29, 2012

FUNNY GIRL 1968

Pleased to be posting this as part of my participation in the William Wyler Blogathon hosted by The Movie Projector . Click here to read more entries about Wyler and his films.
I've always been a big fan of movie musicals, but enjoying them often requires a kind of dexterous agility when it comes to the suspension of disbelief. I learned long ago that if I really want to surrender myself to films in which ordinary people in natural surroundings spontaneously burst into fully-orchestrated song and dance, well…it’s just best I not hold too tight a tether on reality. 
In the patently false world of movie musicals, believing in impossible things is, as the White Queen explained to Alice in “Through the Looking Glass,” not so very difficult to do. What poses a significantly greater challenge is that hybrid genre of musical fantasy that also purports to be rooted in fact: the musical biopic. For years, movies like The Great Waltz (Johan Strauss), Gypsy (Gypsy Rose Lee), and the 1955 Ruth Etting saga, Love Me or Leave Me (penned by Funny Girl screenwriter Isobel Lennart), have been tunefully blurring the lines between truth and myth, gleefully playing havoc with audience suspension of disbelief...all just part of Hollywood's long history of playing fast and loose with - history.
Funny GirlWilliam Wyler’s big-screen adaptation of the smash 1964 Broadway musical based on the life of Ziegfeld Follies star, Fanny Brice, is one of the more successful stage-to-screen translations of a musical to come out of the 60s. It's colorful, vibrant, funny, with a score of hummable songs marvelously rendered by an engaging, highly photogenic cast. In short, it's a great deal of old-fashioned fun. And yet, in its own way, it's also rather perplexing. As the film is structured - the movie gently shuttles aside the character of Fanny Brice at some point and becomes a Barbra Streisand infomercial - I'm never quite sure what myth I'm supposed to be following. Like a cinematic dissertation on the Wormhole Theory, Funny Girl's fictionalized depiction of the life of Fanny Brice feeds into the real-life Brooklyn-to-Broadway legend of Barbra Streisand the stage star, which in turn funnels into the from-obscurity-to-fame mythologization of Streisand, the movie star. Whew! Streisand's image hews so closely to Funny Girl's representation of Brice, small wonder then that as a kid I used to think Brice's signature song, "Second Hand Rose" (written in 1921) was actually introduced by Streisand.
"Hello, gorgeous!"
I know, I know. It's trite, cliche, and been done to death. But you knew it was going to crop up somewhere. Better now than leaving you in suspense...looking for it...wondering when it was going to spring out at you.
Fanny Brice, née Fania Borach, was one of four children born to New York saloon owners Rose and Charles Borach in 1891. Fanny, who changed her name to Brice in 1908, was a plain-but-talented burlesque comedienne/singer who rose to international stardom as a headliner for Broadway impresario, Florenz Ziegfeld in the early 1900s through the mid-1930s. In 1912, the already once-married Brice found her true love in still-married con man/ex-convict, Jules “Nicky” Arnstein, and after six years of cohabitation (Nicky’s divorce was a tad slow in coming) they wed. Their tumultuous union lasted nine years— at least three of which Arnstein spent behind bars for bond theft— producing two children: a boy and a girl. Along the way, Brice got herself a nose job, unsuccessfully tried her hand at dramatic roles, and made a few modest forays into film. A third marriage and greater career triumphs were to come…but that's venturing into Funny Lady territory. So there you have it, the Fanny Brice story. 
Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice
Omar Sharif as Nick Arnstein
Funny Girl, on the other hand, is about a charismatic, extraordinarily talented, exotically beautiful, ragingly self-confident woman with dragon-lady nails, Cleopatra eye-makeup, and immense, gravity-defying, 60s-type hair. Coincidentally—and only by coincidence—also named Fanny Brice. Set in a picture-postcard, quaintly ethnic New York during a historically imprecise era in America’s recent past (where 1910 showgirls look like moonlighting taxi-dancers from Sweet Charity’s swinging 60s Fandango Ballroom), Funny Girl is the rags-to-riches chronicle of Brice’s rise to fame as star of The Fanny Brice Follies (mis-identified in the film as The Ziegfeld Follies, although it's made abundantly clear it's her show and she calls all the shots) and her ill-fated marriage to the dashing and ethical gambler, Nick “Too-proud-to-be-Mr. Brice” Arnstein. 

Echoing the themes of countless other “There’s a broken heart for every light on Broadway” musical made since movies first found their voice, Funny Girl ends with Brice reaching the pinnacle of success only to discover (to no one’s surprise but her own) it’s lonely at the top. Our final image: Brice onstage— get it? It’s the only place she can find happiness — symbolically bathed in a solo spotlight, looking like a million bucks, resplendent in her noble suffering.
Fame - Gotta Get a Rain Check on Pain
Aphoristically speaking, I think Billy Dee Williams said it, if not best, then certainly cheesiest, when he informed the candle-wax-encrusted Diana Ross in Mahogany: "Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with."

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Sure, in many ways Funny Girl is corny, derivative, and certainly not the direction movies were headed in the Bonnie and Clyde late-60s, but given how leaden and flat similar big-budget musicals of the era had turned out (Camelot, Finian's Rainbow), it’s rather amazing that Funny Girl came out so well. Doubly so when you realize that it is the only musical ever made by the veteran and versatile director, William Wyler (65 at the time and hard of hearing, yet). Seriously, Funny Girl’s opulent sets, sparkling cast of character actors, and seamless blending of music and narrative has the look and feel of classic Vincent Minnelli. Perhaps maybe a little too classic.
For all the pleasure I derive from the film, I'm the first to concede that Funny Girl feels altogether too familiar in its telling and is so much the archetypal show- biz biopic that it seems to have been cobbled together from bits and pieces of every backstage Hollywood musical that came before (especially A Star is Born – both versions!). Its plot, an equal parts mélange of ugly-duckling fantasy, rags-to-riches fable, soap opera, hagiography, tearjerker, and paean to noble female martyrdom - unfurls as predictably and without incident as a morning train commute, with nary a surprise or unanticipated curve along the track. It's blessed with a sprightly score of songs by Jules Stein and Bob Merrill, and several, by-now iconic musical setpieces (who today can look at a tugboat and not think of Streisand?...I mean in a good way), but there’s nothing in Funny Girl that I haven’t seen a half dozen times before. Except Barbra Streisand.
Make that the phenomenal Barbra Streisand. A new kind of movie star for new kind of Hollywood, Streisand’s thoroughly one-of-a-kind, 900 megawatt star quality has the effect of single-handedly wresting Funny Girl from its wholly traditional moorings. Just a decade or so earlier, Streisand's unconventional beauty would have relegated her to a career of Nancy Walker-type supporting roles in MGM musicals. But in 1968 her look was the new glamour, her voice the new sound, and her talent the singular spoonful of sugar that made this at-times antiquated musical medicine go down.

PERFORMANCES:
Personally, I don’t think most musicals benefit from naturalistic acting (i.e., One from the Heart and NewYork, New York). Musicals operate in a kind of theatrical hyper-reality that require the actors, when emoting in non-musical scenes, to adopt this thing called “performative excess” - a superficially broad style of acting pitched to a level so as not to render the incidental introduction of fantasy sequences of song and dance ridiculous or incongruous. It's a style most recognizably associated with farces, screwball comedies, and a good many of those those grating TV Land sitcoms.
Rumors surrounding Anne Francis (she'll always be Honey West to me) and her displeasure at finding her co-starring role (as Follies showgirl Georgia James) whittled down to nothing, are as plentiful as they are contradictory.
Bullying but delightfully erudite movie critic John Simon once wrote of  Liza Minnelli’s acting: “ [It's]...a desperate display of synthetics forlornly straining for the real thing.” Take away the malice from that statement and you have exactly what I think is most effective about Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. The vitality of Streisand as a performer...an energy that feels at times as if it might jump right off the screen into your lap... is born of her studied artificiality. She's "on" every single minute! Self-aware and controlling every aspect of her performance down to the bat of an eyelash, with nary a move or gesture left to chance or spontaneity. Streisand is a skilled physical comedian with marvelous delivery, but in Funny Girl I think she is rather more an entertainer than actress. Hers is a synthetic method of acting that actually succeeds in conveying the real thing. The result? A stylized performance that feels sublimely attuned to the rhythms required of an intentionally old-fashioned vehicle like Funny Girl .
In a kind of meta reenactment of all those tabloid rumors that had movie first-timer Barbra Streisand squaring off against veteran director William Wyler, Follies neophyte Fanny Brice goes toe-to-toe with boss Florenz Ziegfeld (Walter Pidgeon)
Streisand is one of those stars whose movie career has been built on essentially playing herself in film after film. It may sound like a put-down to say so, but I believe it to be something of a gift to be able to project one's personality dynamically on film. Not everybody can do it...just ask Madonna. 
Streisand can be a wonderful actress and comedienne (personal faves: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and What's Up, Doc?) but I don't believe anyone goes to a Barbra Streisand movie hoping she’ll so immerse herself in a character that they'll forget it’s her. No, when you’re paying for Streisand, you’re pretty much counting on getting Streisand...and plenty of it. (One exception: In 1981's All Night Long Streisand amusingly played against type in a supporting role as a soft-spoken suburban housewife who dreams of being a country & western star…only she can’t sing. Audiences stayed away in droves.)
12-minutes into Funny Girl, Streisand sings "I'm the Greatest Star" a tongue-in-cheek showstopper that is nevertheless (to borrow a line from the musical, Chicago), "A song of unrelenting determination and unmitigated ego."

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
If I seem to speak of Barbra Streisand to the exclusion of all else in Funny Girl, it’s just that without her, I suspect I would be rather on the fence about the film as a whole. Funny Girl is professional and competent in that way you’d expect from a big-budget studio feature, but I can't help but feel it lacks a certain distinction. The cinematography by Harry Stradling, Sr. (A Streetcar Named Desire, My Fair Lady) can’t be faulted; he turns Streisand into a goddess with each loving (and frequent) close-up. Nor do the musical numbers by Herbert Ross (later Streisand’s director for The Owl and the Pussycat and Funny Lady) come up short, being amiably witty if not particularly dance-filled. The music arrangements, while anachronistically contemporary in sound, show off Ms. Streisand’s million-dollar voice to great effect, and Irene Sharaff’s eye-catching costumes call attention to what a thoroughbred clotheshorse Streisand can be.
The pairing of Sharif and Streisand became an international incident when the Egypt/Israeli War broke out during filming. The married pair (to other partners) consoled one another...if you get my cruder meaning.
Three-time Academy Award-winning director William Wyler, in this his penultimate film in a four-decades-long career, is no stranger to divas (Bette Davis – Jezebel, The Letter, The Little Foxes), camera neophytes (Audrey Hepburn – Roman Holiday), or spectacle (Ben Hur), and as such, acquits himself nicely his first time to bat in this toughest of movie genres. Accounts vary as to whether Wyler molded Streisand’s performance or merely got out of her way, but whatever the circumstances, the result was a critical and popular success that became the second highest-grossing film of 1968, garnering Streisand her first and only Best Actress Oscar win (Wyler was left out of the film's eight nominations).

 Note* Lightning failed to strike twice for "Funny Girl" producer Ray Stark when he enlisted the talents of John Huston—another veteran director not known for musicals—to bring the Broadway hit, "Annie", to the screen in 1982.
Funny Girl's only other nomination in the acting categories was a Best Supporting Actress nod for Kay Medford as Mrs. Brice.   (Folks of my generation will remember her as a regular on "The Dean Martin Show") 

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
Sometimes I think film is called a lively art because the longer I live, the better certain films start to look. Funny Girl was released 44 years ago, and since that time, not only has the quality of musicals drastically declined, but the only criteria for stardom today seems to be a pulse and a personality disorder. As I grow older and nostalgia gently overtakes discernment, Funny Girl’s flaws gradually diminish, born of an awareness of Streisand having, in the ensuing years, more than made good on her promise/threat of being "The Greatest Star" (minus scandals, drug busts, or rehab, I might add). 
A healthy suspension of disbelief might be necessary to reconcile Funny Girl's historical and biographical inaccuracies, anachronisms, and outright fabrications, but as a lasting record of the career genesis of one of the last of my generation’s truly great stars, Funny Girl could practically be classified as a documentary.
William Wyler and Streisand on the studio backlot
Copyright © Ken Anderson

39 comments:

  1. Such a terrific piece of analysis of the movie musical, and also just sheer beautiful writing. I agree in that Streisand IS the film -- Streisand is Funny Girl is Streisand, like a series of self-reflecting mirrors. She drives this movie vehicle in the way the Judy Garland use to drive hers, and in the process redefined the genre (would Liza Minelli in Cabaret have happened without Streisand?). In recollecting Funny Girl (I haven't seen it in a while), nothing else comes to mind but Streisand - that iconic image of her on the Staten Island Ferry, her climaxing high notes held as long as time itself; her ever-more glamorous costumes; her poignant isolation in the spotlight. She defined stardom for Hollywood's new generation, coming out of the collapse of the studio system, and, like Crawford before her, she was the reason for and focus of her films. Great post, as always!

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    1. Hi GOM
      You’re so very kind, and thanks for stopping by! I think most people’s experience of Funny Girl echoes your own…fan and non-fan alike leave the film with only the impression of Streisand. If I didn’t know better I’d think it was result of subliminal images, but there’s nothing subliminal (or subtle) about Streisand. She does rightfully recall the old-time star, and I had never made the connection, as you do, that Funny Girl and the redefining of move glamour paved the way for Minnelli. Thanks for your comment. Always great to hear from you!

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  2. Great post Ken! I know what you mean, sometimes the best kind of film is when you literally cannot separate the performer from the character/spot where they cease and start.
    Good to see you mention Barbra's unconventional beauty too; I always found her attractive in this era and made a point of pledging that allegiance in my own blog earlier this week. However, that said, I did have to laugh at Alice Cooper's summary of a shot he took in a golf game once as 'A Streisand Shot' When asked what that meant he replied 'It's kinda ugly but it works' Haha

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    1. Ha! I had never heard that "Streisand shot" quote!! It's great! So many kids today are STILL inspired by Streisand's confidence in her beauty in spite of not looking like a Vanessa Redgrave or Julie Christie (I threw those in for you). A phrase I read on your blog- "plastic fantastic" describes what goes for beauty today. So much nip and tuck. Poor Nicole Kidman's face never moves today.
      Glad you liked the post, and now I have to scoot over to your site to see what you have about La Streisand! I'm sure it'll be a kick! Thanks, Mark.
      http://randomramblingsthoughtsandfiction.blogspot.com

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    2. "Streisand Shot"? That's a bit rich coming from Alice Freakin' Cooper. There's nothing at all unattractive about La Streisand--"unconventional beauty" is only made unconventional (and by extension, less attractive)due to our society's own horribly narrow scope of what constitutes beauty. It's actually rather silly how in this film, there is all this talk about Babs being an ugly duckling, plain looking--if you want ugly, look at some of those horrendous fur costumes worn by the star!

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    3. “There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.” Sir Francis Bacon

      Oh, Mark, it's only a joke. I know you have a better sense of humor than that! I think it's fair that some people find Streisand ugly. I find her beautiful but I know beauty is subjective and I don't fault anyone for having tastes different than my own. If Streisand is such a proponent of different definitions of beauty, it seems to extend only to women. Her male costars are always ridiculously and conventionally pretty men. I always wanted to see her co-starred with her ex...Elliot Gould. Now THAT'S a good looking man! Most of the well-regarded beauties of the world are not really very good-looking to me. It's just personal taste. Now, as for those ugly fur costumes you refer to...you mean that kick ass ensemble she wears at the start? :-)

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    4. I'd find it funny if it were calld an "Alice Shot!" Now that WOULD make me laugh!

      I do agree to a certain extent with the quote that you have posted above. A measure of strangeness can be a factor in exquisite beauty. I've just never regarded La Streisand as anything near unattractive. Unusual, certainly, but that's part of her appeal.

      Would you regard Omar Sharif as a "conventionally (key word) attractive leading man"? One would not accuse him of being bereft of charm, but he does have a lot of features that one would not find in a Hollywood romantic male lead. For what it's worth, I thought he was rather good opposite Barbra. Good to see Hollywood doing its part for world peace by casting these two together; pity it didn't work!

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    5. Yes, I would regard Omar Sharif as a conventionally handsome leading man. With a profile like a silent screen star and more lines of dialog than I can count in "Funny Girl" as to his being "beautiful", "gorgeous", or "prettier than the bride", he classifies in my book.

      I'm not right, I'm not wrong...it's my personal opinion and taste.

      We're talking the subjective assessment of appearances here, no two people are going to agree. Teenage fan sites and Gaga-ists love to engage in this stuff online. I'm in my 50s. I don't do that. No offense intended, but five posts on this subject is my limit. Thanks

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  3. Terrific. You perfectly capture what I feel about "Funny Girl" but couldn't figure out how to say. You do it effortlessly. This movie is Streisand, and if you hate her, you hate the movie. Love her, and you forgive all the film's flaws. Thank you for your insight!

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    1. Thank you very much for your very kind words! Yes, in a weird way, "Funny Girl", and a great many Streisand films, exist in an almost "fandom" universe. So many of her vehicles are mounted so squarely about her shoulders that any feelings one has about her as an actress or singer can't help but color the reaction to the film. Thank you for visiting the site and commenting!

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  4. I was thoroughly entertained by your article on a movie that leaves me lukewarm.

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    1. Much appreciated! I personally avoided "Funny Girl" until waaaay into adulthood. It seemed so much like a movie my grandparents would enjoy. Now that I've reached my grandparents age...I realize I was right!

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  5. Another astute piece, Ken. I've always been fascinated by Streisand and her choices in movie vehicles since she changed everyone's notion of what a movie star should look and sound like.
    I'm so glad you mentioned the little-seen "All Night Long." Earlier in her career I think "Up the Sandbox" could have pointed the way to an entirely different range of roles and stories if it had been a success.
    In some ways she is more "real" in that strange film than she has ever been on screen - perhaps because Gordon Willis shot the actress so that she blended into the action rather than stood in front of it.
    I can't wait to read William Mann's new book about her this fall - his tome on Katharine Hepburn is one of the smartest movie bios ever.

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    1. Hi Joe
      And thanks a heap for visiting! I rather fell out of fondness with Streisand around her "I"m beautiful, dammit!" phase of "A Star is Born", and could not believe she hadn't yet recovered by "The Mirror Has Two Faces." I agree that in "Up the Sandbox" she seems the most human of the movie Barbra's we've been given, and I'm going to have to look at it again to take note of Willis' shot compositions. You always notice such keen things in films, it amazes me. Also, I didn't know there was another book coming out. I too enjoyed the Katherine Hepburn one. Thanks for commenting!

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  6. Ken, a lively and very, very entertaining post that was filled with loads of originality in its approach to this film. I so liked your writing that I found myself double- and triple-reading some parts just to savor your clever turns of phrase. Your post was more filled with one-liners than a whole evening of those TV Land sitcoms you referred to, only a whole lot better written. I especially liked your hilarious capsule synopsis of "Funny Girl" a few paragraphs in.

    Lest you get the wrong idea, let me say I equally appreciated the substance of your analysis and the quality of the opinions you expressed about both the film and Streisand. But you sure did provide more than a spoonful of verbal sugar to help it go down effortlessly. Seriously, I loved your concise meditation on the requirements of movie musical acting. I couldn't help thinking of that greatest of all musical movies "Singin' in the Rain" as I read it!

    Your analysis of Streisand's style, her screen persona, and her domination of this movie were just brilliant. I neither like nor dislike Streisand. I recognize her huge talent and think she's wonderful when not taking herself too seriously. But she's clearly a very insecure woman (unnecessarily so, but it's still pretty obvious) with an obsessive need to control her environment that makes her seem fairly neurotic. I've read that she's trying to put together a new version of "Gypsy" with herself as Mama Rose and hope it comes off, as I think the part would be ideal for her and could cap her remarkable career the way "Funny Girl" initiated it.

    Your comments about the movie aside from Barbra were also most perceptive. When you wrote that it seems "familiar in its telling and is so much the archetypal show- biz biopic that it seems to have been cobbled together from bits and pieces of every backstage Hollywood musical that came before" you succinctly summarized the movie. I couldn't have said it better myself, so I won't try to! I scheduled your post as the last in the blogathon because it was Wyler's last major film, but that aside, you provided a tremendous finale to the blogathon.

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    1. Wow! If words could turn a person's head, I'd be doing a Linda Blair about now! What a thoroughly charming and kind comment, R.D.!
      I must say that I had a ball revisiting "Funny Girl" for this post. It's not one of my favorite films and I hadn't seen it in quite some time. I think I even mentioned to you that it was more than likely I would be writing a negative post in the blogathon. However, on seeing it again, my memories of it had thawed. It wasn't great, but it wasn't so bad, either.
      Thank you very much for such a thoughtful and comprehensive appraisal of my post (can I frame it?). I agree that Streisand's nagging insecurity seems to shine through with all her overwhelming narcissism, marring a great many of her later films when she indeed starts to take herself waaay too seriously. However, I hadn't heard about "Gypsy" (I hope it comes to fruition. I need something to erase the bad taste of the Bette Midler version out of my mouth), so that's an interesting bit.
      Lastly, I have to say more than "Thank You" for this blogathon experience. The education and exposure to so much about William Wyler has been a great deal of fun. Apropos of "Funny Girl"s vaudeville roots, the last on the bill is the primo spot, and for that I feel very grateful and honored. Your blogathon, as Brice would say, was simply "Gorgeous!"

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  7. I love this film. Streisand is the reason for watching this film though. She is so magnificent and it's one of the great performances of the 1960's. She carries the whole film on her shoulders. I do love that "Don't Rain on My Parade" scene. It's a knockout.

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    1. Yes, I think even non-fans have to agree that a 25-year old cinema newbie carrying the entirety of a multi-million dollar film on her shoulders is quite the achievement. And the staging of the "Don't Rain on My Parade" sequence is pretty virtuoso. It must have been very rousing on the big screen back in 1968. Thanks very much for the comment and visiting the blog, Jon!

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  8. Ken, Where do I begin? I'm still reeling from your pithy and panoramic perspective on "Funny Girl." I was in the palm of your hand when I came upon this turn of phrase: "As the film is structured - the movie gently shuttles aside the character of Fanny Brice at some point and becomes a Barbra Streisand infomercial - I'm never quite sure what myth I'm supposed to be following." After that, I would pause after nearly every sentence and think, "Exactly!" (when I wasn't chuckling).

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    1. I'm thrilled that you enjoyed the post! Your very complimentary comment made me smile. "Funny Girl" was great fun revisiting after all these years. After kind of writing Streisand off as not really my cup of tea for so many years, seeing the film again rekindled my fondness for the rather perfect imperfections of this film. Thanks for stopping by and saying hello!

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  9. This was a wonderful review for a film that, well frankly I've been avoiding for years. Late 60s musicals so often hit me like this big grand assault of "Look how BIG we are!" and it can become pretty hard to take. So far my favorite Streisand is What's Up Doc where she takes a potentially obnoxious free spirit and makes her very enjoyable. But you make a very great and honest case for Streisand as the star and yeah, this film is a big part of that. I really need to check it out.

    On a side note, Omar Sharif as Nicky Arnstein is pretty bizarre casting. Can't think of a single reason for it except that he was big at the time.

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    1. Hi Rachel
      I feel your pain. So many of those 60s musicals were preoccupied with providing entertainment that would drag people away from their TV sets. Why they settled on elephantine and overlong is possibly reflected in that whole "epic" thinking that eventually brought Hollywood to it's knees. I sometimes have difficulty recommending "Funny Girl" to non-Streisand fans because she is so front and center throughout it all, I can't imagine what pleasure it holds otherwise. Small-scale Streisand of "What's Up, Doc?" is indeed very good.
      As for Sharif, I agree with you. In researching for this post, I uncovered these potential Nicky Arnstein's: Marlon Brando, David Janssen, Robert Culp, Frank Sinatra, Vince Edwards and Sean Connery.
      I've read that Streisand wanted Sinatra, but seriously, I can't imagine any major male star saddling themselves with such a thankless role. As you say, Sharif was hot at the time and he probably didn't balk at being in Streisand's shadow (oh,and he lost a song along the way). What I can't believe is that the studios wanted Shirley MacLaine(!) to play Brice in the film before Ray Stark insisted on Streisand or nothing. Thanks very much for visiting this site and commenting! You afforded me an opportunity to include info that didn't make it to the final cut!

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  10. Must admit I'm not a big fan of this film because it just seems so long and overblown - I really like the early part and I do love Streisand's singing (Sadie, Sadie, Married Lady is one I remember fondly), but by the end it all seems like too much of a good thing. Really enjoyed your posting, though, Ken, and you might just tempt me to take another look at this one! Speaking as a a hopeless romantic, my favourite Streisand film is probably 'The Way We Were'.

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    1. Hi Judy
      Your aversion to those butt-busting roadshow musicals of the 60s (overlong and overblown as you point out) is pretty common. I think those huge musicals turned a lot of people away from a genre that has a lot of charm when kept to scale (Someone should just make a "best of" DVD of Funny Girl which only include the musical numbers). I'd hate to think I might be responsible for inspiring you to potentially lose three hours of your life in re-viewing this film, though. I think you're on the right track with "The Way We Were"...romantic, and Streisand shares the screen nicely with others. Very much appreciate your stopping by and thanks for commenting!

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  11. Ken,

    I can only echo what others have said about your piece here, descriptive, emotional and loving. I enjoyed very much reading it. This is my first visit here but I will be back. That said, I am no fan of this film. I found it overblown and way too much Streisand and not enough Fanny Brice. If fact, Brice get lost somewhere around reel three. I always like Streisand but more as a comedic actress than in any other type film. Streisand fan foams a the mouth over this film and they are right it's a Babs filmfest however, the film is not suppose to be about Babs, it should be about Fanny Brice. The casting of Sharif as Nicky Arnstein must have been some studio heads idea of slick casting. They basically had no chemistry together. I also found Wyler direction pretty much by the book. It was it he had little input. You mention he may have just gotten out of Striesand's way. I somehow think he did not have fun control on this film. The music is good and I could definitely enjoy listening to the soundtrack but as a movie I have to give it bad marks.

    On a different note, I see you recently wrote about the 1975 THE STEPFORD WIVES which I have been thinking about writing something myself, so I am going to avoid reading it for now.

    All my bad mouthing about the film aside, you did an outstanding job here. Truly excellent post.

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    1. Hi John
      I'm very glad you enjoyed the post, and so appreciative of your comments. Unlike a lot of film fans, I truly get a kick out of hearing the differing opinion of a film I enjoy. It's often very enlightening and a terrific reminder of how different people respond to the film experience. I agree that "Funny Girl" offers the most to fans of Streisand, and I've been longing to know if there is ANYONE out there who doesn't like Streisand but likes the film. I don't know if that's possible since the film is like a Streisand cable network: all Streisand, all the time.
      I enjoyed visiting your site and see you have posted about one of my all time youthful fave movies, "Last Summer." i may have to put off reading your post until I write about it myself, but I look forward to exploring your site very much. Thanks for contributing your thoughtful comments (your "foams at the mouth" Streisand fans remark made me laugh)and saying hello!

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  12. Excellent piece, Ken, on a picture for which I confess I have little enthusiasm. Still, your post made me want to see it again, and perhaps I will -- once every 44 years won't kill me, I suppose.

    As you suggest in your post, and as a friend of mine said back in '68, Funny Girl is Barbra Streisand in concert; every song from the show that was sung by anyone else was cut from the movie, with one exception -- "You Are Woman, I Am Man" by Nicky/Omar -- and even that (if memory serves) showcased Streisand rather than Sharif. Every frame of Funny Girl was designed and executed with the express purpose of helping Barbra Streisand make herself a movie star and by golly, the experiment succeeded.

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    1. Hi Jim,
      Yes, it seems that the consensus opinion is that "Funny Girl" either sinks or swims (depending on fondness) due to its overabundance of all things Barbra. In writing this I struggled to think of a similar phenomenon where a vehicle is so tailored to showcase a star that the entirety of the undertaking is fundamentally changed.
      I'm not sure if you really wantto subject yourself to it again, but I have to say, the passing years have been kind to it (except the third act which is just too slow).
      By the way, I got a wealth of information about William Wyler from your terrifically informative posts. Thanks for the kind words!

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  13. A wonderful post! I know all the carping about this film, but it gives us Streisand in her signature stage performance. Enough said. I am sure Babs ran Wyler ragged, but the end product is as precious as any film that preserves a great stage artist's performance for ever and all time.

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    1. Why, thank you very much! And indeed, for all it's flaws "Funny Girl" can't be faulted for capturing an iconic performer the prime of her career. In all the research I did for the post, everyone involved in the film seemed to hedge their comments regarding Streisand being "difficult" while filming. I sense you are right...she had a commodity to protect and a lot of insecurities to navigate. I can't believe she easily let someone else handle the reins. As you say, like it or not, it's great to have her signature performance captured for all time. Thanks for saying hello, FlickChick, I love your site!

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  14. Argyle here. I saw this when it came out under kind of odd circumstances that I’m sure colored my reaction. My grandfather decided he needed to rescue my mother from her three oldest kids (two older sisters and me, aged 10) so he bought our tickets for a matinee. This was a sort of road-show engagement (title printed on the tickets, not just generic) at the new, fancy Astro II. This was probably my first “grown up” movie, only Disney before, although we had also seen “Oliver!” recently at the Astro I (very unusual for us to see two such big movies so close together.) And I had loved and obsessed over “Oliver!” so who knows what I was expecting from this “Funny Girl.” Had no clue about Streisand or Broadway or anything. It was just like: we need you out of the way for a little while and here’s adulthood. All I can really remember is that I loved it and really had to struggle to hang on and understand it. And it was a bond to my sisters that I’m not sure they were aware of and that I was kind of simultaneously pleased and uncomfortable with. Anyway, it was big and mysterious and I wasn’t sure why I was there.

    So whenever it’s on TV, I invariably end up watching long stretches. Agree with all your points and analysis. But I guess I have a major sentimental attachment and fortunately it’s to a film with a performance that pretty much can’t be argued with. And I love Kay Medford’s performance, too. “From three faces that could cause ya to have temporary nausea...” The way she delivers that lyric is engraved in my head.

    Props to Isobel Lennart; I’m always struck with how easily and confidently she handles a complicated story.

    When I re-watch, beyond Streisand, the scenes that come forward for me and I think suggest Wyler’s skill, and it’s been a little while since I last saw it, so bear with me:

    The Baltimore(?) lobster eating scene. Strangely beautiful and weird location shooting with a sunrise or a sunset.

    The opening buildup to “Hello, gorgeous.” And the immediate shift to a down mood. Very intriguing and a marvelously strange opening for a musical. And of course, she is completely mesmerizing.

    The reprise, maybe, of “a husband, a home and a beautiful reflection...” ending in the nursery with the guy painting the mural. The detail of that and the way the music crosses several locations and actions. That always seems very skillful to me. I don’t think Barbra had anything to do with how that is conceived.

    The staging of the “... and how much did you put in, Fanny?” scene where they’re on a couch together and there’s an undercurrent of tension and Nick goes from flattered and pleased to suspicious to figuring it all out to disappointed and angry. I think Omar Sharif is perfect.

    The sequence where she sings “Funny Girl” (I think) and it’s sung over several different locations including an empty theater and the point of view shifts to high up in the balcony and the sound changes to echo-y and distant. A realistic handling of sound within the setting, not just someone singing a number. Very melancholy. That song kind of sums it up for me, so sad.
    It eventually occurred to me that the song “Funny Girl” is a sort of re-meditation of “People.” I’m not a musician, but the way she sings “fun-ny” with a break in it is similar to the way she sings “pe-pul” and both words sort of announce the song and make you stop and pay attention.

    So, all in all, for me, I love this movie because in spite of its overwhelming performance it manages (via Wyler’s and Lennart's skills) to be pretty emotionally complicated and at times subtle. And I think framing it as a memory, alone in a theater is a great, poignant touch. I have no idea if this is how it was done on stage.

    Thanks, Ken, for encouraging me to (over?)share!

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    1. Hi Argyle
      Over share? Not at all. In fact, your post accomplished what I was unable to: extract stylistic elements from the film that you enjoyed that had nothing to do with Streisand and her performance. I especially liked your taking note of the melancholy opening, the Funny Girl song, and that sofa conversation that ignites the Brice/Arnstein argument. Quite keen observations! Since my blog is very much devoted to a personal response to film (rather than academic)I appreciate your providing context for your comments. So important a part in shaping how we feel about films independent of their artistic and technical merits. So once again, I find that your sharing of your feelings about a film have just the right balance of heart and head. Thanks!

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  15. I really enjoyed reading your analysis of one of my favorite musicals. I remember taping the songs off of the TV with my tape recorder when I was a little girl, and performing all the songs in my bedroom. Even though Fannie Brice gets lost in the shuffle, I could still eat this movie with a spoon. Great post!

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    1. Hi Karen
      That is a great memory you have of your early exposure to "Funny Girl" (In those pre-DVD days I did the same thing with musicals I loved). Few stars have the talent and appeal to literally carry an entire film on their shoulders. Those immune to Streisand's charms understandably long for a Brice biography, but for fans of Streisand, "Funny Girl" gives us Streisand literally at the top of her game. With a star like that, why ask for the moon? Thanks for commenting!

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  16. Great post, After reading this now I wish to see these movies specially this funny girl. Thanks so much for this lovely entertainment.

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    1. Thank you very much for visiting my blog! I hope you do check out "Funny Girl" and enjoy it. They don't make musicals like this anymore!

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  17. Hi Ken,

    I'm coming to this one late but I enjoyed your observations about a film I adore. It's very true the film is worthless as biography and priceless as a study of star building. Between you and the others who commented pretty much everything there is to say about the Barbra show has been said.

    The one performer who always stands out for me asides from Babs is Kay Medford. Totally deserving her Oscar nomination she is the one performer who is not swept aside by the Streisand juggernaut. Omar has his moments, particularly in the court chambers when he tells Fanny he wants her to divorce him because no matter how hard he tries he's never going to catch up but he doesn't dominate his scenes. Kay doesn't have much time in the movie but when she shows up she pushes back, perhaps it was the months she spent on stage in the role and had worked out how to modulate her performance and how to pitch it to compete with Barbra's powerful presence. However she did it she is the only one who manages to stay in your memory besides Streisand once the film is over. To really appreciate how strong an impression she makes all you have to do is watch Funny Lady and how Barbra steamrolls over every other single person in that film.

    I have a couple of memories associated with the film. The first is from it's initial release, I was too young to see it but I vividly remember going to my father's cousin's house for a holiday visit, I think it was Christmas, she and her daughter had seen it that day and went on and on about how wonderful it was and how fantastically talented that new Streisand girl was!

    The other is more recent, when the film was remastered and digitized it had a brief run in a few theatres one of which was an art house theatre near me. A friend who had never seen the film, but was a big Barbra fan, and I went to see it and it was fantastic. It was shown in the original roadshow format with a couple of short films before the feature and an intermission. I had seen the picture several times before but with the pristine print and the stereophonic sound it was incredible how much more impressive everything about it was.

    Someone else commented on the staging of the song Funny Girl, I've always loved it too, so haunting with that melancholy echo. But her performance of My Man on that enormous screen was almost overwhelming and it made it very clear seeing it in that format how audiences at the time left the theatre bowled over by her.

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  18. Just one more thing even with its score full of wonderful songs and entertaining story, Streisand's shadow looms over the show so much that it's hardly ever staged in contemporary theatre. I remember a few years there were plans for another production with Lauren Ambrose in the lead but how could she compete?

    Merman's presence hovers over any production of Gypsy but since it is staged regularly and she didn't get the chance to recreate her performance on film the show is able to breath on its own, the inverse has happened with Funny Girl and it seems like a fools errand for anyone to attempt it now.

    Also I would love to see the outtakes of Anne Francis's performance as Georgia James, it was rumored to be good enough to earn awards. I know she made her peace with it being excised in her later years but I've read comments she made at the time that being hot after Honey West ended she waited for a really good part to come along and felt that Georgia was it. It must have been deeply disappointing to see it cut to ribbons, it's nothing more than a glorified, very glamorous bit now.

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    1. Such great points to bring up! I don't think I know of a single show as closely adhered to a particular star and her personal/professional persona as Funny Girl. I can't even hear people doing covers of the songs without hearing Streisand's interpretation.

      I'd also like to see just what Anne Francis' role was supposed to have been. Much like Tony Curtis' criticisms of Marilyn Monroe during Some Like it Hot, Francis' feelings about the whole Funny Girl experience cooled a great deal after she got older. Her part is so small she might have gotten a lot more press by having her name removed from the film and everything being surprised by her "unbilled star cameo"...as it is, her stature and the size of her part is a head-scratcher.

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