Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Funny Girl (Second Review)


(Second review, written before I realized I had already reviewed it.) If I believed in God, I would thank him every day for Barbra Streisand. She can sing, she can act, both drama and comedy, at which she is one of the best ever. She can sell a song better than anyone before or since, except maybe Judy Garland. This was her first film, and she won an Oscar for it (tied with Katherine Hepburn, for The Lion in Winter, a film I have always thought was over-rated). She turned her famous nose from a handicap to an asset. Hey, perfect noses are on sale in Hollywood for a few grand. That nose is hers! The very first shot we see of her in this film is in profile, and an amazing number of other shots feature that profile. I found myself wondering if that was the idea of the director, William Wyler, or her own demand. Had she achieved enough diva status already to call the shots in her first motion picture?

I say “diva” with the greatest respect. Some people are so talented they have actually earned the right to be a diva, and she is one. Hard to work with, from what I have heard, with her relentless perfectionism, but look at the results and tell me she was wrong.

But she is a diva. She doesn’t like to share the screen with other singers. Here she is paired with the devastatingly handsome Omar Sharif, who can’t sing a lick, but gamely tries it in the only one of Nicky Arnstein’s numbers preserved from the stage. And in fact, eight numbers were cut from the musical, many of them of Fanny’s mother’s group of yentas, who had a lot more do to, originally. They also cut many of the numbers Fanny performed on the stage of the Ziegfeld Follies, in favor of new songs tailored to her voice.

And look at her film musical career after this one. She went on to Hello, Dolly!, paired in one of the more unusual romantic leads with Walter Matthau who, as I recall, talked his way through one, maybe two, songs. (There was also the fabulous singer Michael Crawford, but he was the comic, “juvenile” lead.) Then there was On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, with another not-so-great singer, Yves Montand. {The Way We Were}} was all-Streisand. In Funny Lady James Caan warbled one song, in voice-over, and looked uncomfortable as hell. Kris Kristofferson, a real singer but hardly in her league, didn’t have much singing to do in A Star is Born. (Did he do any singing? I can’t remember.) But when I really knew she didn’t like to have any competition in the singing department was with Yentl. Her co-star was Mandy Patinkin, a man with a singing voice almost as powerful as hers. So how many numbers did he get to sing? Zero. None. It was all-Streisand again. And again I say, she’s so good she should do just what she wants to do, and who cares if she hogs the stage?

Not a note she sings here can be faulted. Not a comic or dramatic gesture is any less than perfect. As for the story …

Well, the best you can say is that it was inspired by the persona of Fanny Brice. Hardly anything else is true. Nicky Arnstein was her second husband; she was not the virginal innocent we see here. He was also married when they were living together. Though he reformed after his second stretch in stir (he did time in Sing Sing and Leavenworth!) he was a scumbag con artist from a very early age, not just a gentleman gambler. There is much more that is lies …

… but does it really matter? Movies and musicals are very rarely really biographical. They twisted everything around to make it a sweet love story with a tragic ending, and the story works. The movie is overblown in places, and drags in places, and I really wish they had retained more of the numbers she did on stage and eliminated the awkward and un-funny Swan Lake parody, but I had a good time. The sets are great, the costumes are great, it’s all very colorful, and whoever lighted Ms. Streisand deserves a special Oscar, because she has never been lovelier. Even in profile.