In 1968 an ebullient Ingrid Bergman declared the Best Actress Oscar win “a tie” – with statuettes going to both Katharine Hepburn (for The Lion in Winter) and then newcomer Barbra Streisand for William Wyler’s Funny Girl. In point of fact, Streisand was already a seasoned veteran of both Broadway and television by the time the envelope was opened – a zeitgeist who, like the film’s protagonist – comedienne/singer Fanny Brice – had instantly become “the beautiful reflection of ‘our’ love’s perfection”…arguably, that enduring love being Streisand’s own stardom. Viewing Wyler’s only musical today is like revisiting an elegant final chapter in a stunning history that now seems quite impossible to fathom any other way.
Despite the obvious discrepancies between the real Fanny Brice and her reconstituted alter ego, Streisand knocks Funny Girl out of the park; her voice throbbing with an emotional undercurrent during ‘People’ and ‘My Man’ while lashing out with an indomitable and infectious defiance for the show-stopping ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’. In between the iconic Jule Styne/Bob Merrill score Streisand runs the gamut of emotions from petulant starlet to disillusioned wife, never losing her intuitive sense or equilibrium for the character’s suffrage or triumphs. Her comedic timing is peerless and when she sings the songs become an extension of this tragi-dramady; her facial expressions and body language as individualist as they are compelling.
Funny Girl is, very loosely, the story of Fanny Brice’s rocky relationship with elegant gambler, Nick Arnstein (Omar Sharif). Yet Brice was very much more the comedienne than the singer. Streisand’s reincarnation of her reverses the order of those talents, but never in a way that seems detrimental to the truthfulness in retelling Brice’s story. Nor does Isobel Lennart’s oft’ regurgitated rags-to-riches tale of heartache and success veer into that grey area of soppy, soapy melodrama, though infrequently it skates dangerously close to the edge of some very thin ice. The other characters in this lengthy movie musical are mere window-dressing for Streisand’s towering performance, and it is saying much of Omar Sharif that he manages to hold his own – even generating a modicum of empathy for his disreputable lady’s man in the final reel – in spite of hurricane Streisand. On stage, Streisand had made a gorgeous success of the part. On film she quite simply dominates as few actresses in musicals have been able to and the results are hypnotic and most appealing.
Funny Girl clings together primarily because of ‘the Wyler touch’: the director’s ability to elicit raw human emotion that never once seems strained or artificial. The musical milieu isn’t always as conducive to such heartfelt tears – too much singing and dancing getting in the way. But Funny Girl manages to counterbalance the glam-bam with a wellspring of sadness from Streisand’s intimate approach to the iconography that was Brice’s more daring career-making moments; as when the unconventional looking Brice defied Florenz Ziegfeld’s (Walter Pigeon) edict to appear as the edifying centerpiece in his folly’s, as ‘the beautiful reflection of her love’s affection.’
Instead Brice padded out her virginal white wedding gown with a pillow to suggest pregnancy and played the rather serious and lush lyrics strictly for camp to the hearty cheers of an adoring audience. This sequence, like another much later in the film, wherein Streisand’s Brice lampoons the poetic movements of Swan Lake, are so fraught with the possibility of devolving into rank slapstick that observing Streisand’s command in maintaining a delicate balance between light comedy and deadpan sincerity instills an almost innate admiration for the woman who so obviously is already a great star.
Funny Girl opens with the arrival of a sad-eyed Fanny Brice (Streisand) to the Ziegfeld Theater; much too early for rehearsals. Spectacularly decked out in a black and gold ensemble, the first of many eye-catching costumes designed by Irene Sharaff, Streisand catches an unexpected glimpse of herself in one of the full-length mirrors backstage, suddenly reverting to her own public persona and whispering “Hello gorgeous.” At once we are introduced to two sides of the character – the deviously playful raconteur and the wounded - perhaps even slightly insecure - woman who has just had her heart broken. We regress into Fanny’s thoughts, her mind drifting back to where and when it all began, meeting up with herself as a young girl hoping to break into showbiz but repeatedly told she has about as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville. Theater patrons want a dolly not a talent.
Fanny however is not so easily dissuaded from her dreams. She wants fame – badly – and after some initial consternation manages to land a gig as one of the roller-skating chorines in Mr. Keeney’s (Frank Faylen) burlesque review. Her debut, however, begins disastrously – chiefly because Fanny’s talents lay elsewhere; her gangly frame and awkward feet barely able to maintain her balance on skates. The old-time manager is livid after she disrupts his show. But the audience finds Fanny charming and she is given the opportunity to do what she does best – sing. Bringing down the house, Fanny’s initial fame comes with an added perk; an unlikely introduction to the suave Nick Arnstein (Omar Sharif); a wealthy womanizer who enjoys his occasionally slumming. Nick gives Fanny her first real encouragement, telling her “You’re going to be a great star.”
Sure enough, a short while later a telegram arrives at the Brice household – an invitation from Broadway impresario, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. (Walter Pigeon) to audition for his follies. Terrified at having achieved such notoriety so soon, Fanny nevertheless makes the very most of her audition, but balks at joining the review when Ziegfeld insists she appear as the elegant bride of his lavish finale. After some debate, and a very stern warning, Fanny agrees to do the show. But she circumvents the great man’s ideas of etiquette and good taste by appearing as though pregnant and making a mockery of the song’s lyrics. The audience loves it, but Flo’ is not impressed. Determined to fire her on the spot, Ziegfeld thinks better of his snap decision when various audience members congratulate him on his ‘daring departure’ from his usual glorification of the American girl. Recognizing her talent, Flo places Fanny under an exclusive contract instead.
In the meantime, Fanny begins to see quite a lot of Nick – a man whom she considers as stunningly handsome as she is relatively homely. Fanny’s mother, Rose (Kay Medford) is unimpressed. For she can see beyond Nick’s charm, perhaps knowing too well that charm alone is not enough to sustain a relationship between two people as different as Nick and her daughter. Nevertheless, Fanny has a will of her own. Thus when Nick breaks off their relationship to sail to Europe, Fanny walks out on her commitments to Ziegfeld to chase after him. Realizing just how much he loves her, Nick marries Fanny on the sly – the couple painting the town red and moving into fashionable digs bought mostly on Nick’s lucky streak of winnings. Fanny returns to the follies, seemingly unaware that her work has put a strain on their relationship. As time passes Nick increasingly becomes resentful of his wife’s enduring successes; being referred to as ‘Mr. Brice’ by a telegram delivery boy doesn’t help.
This insecurity infects Nick’s confidence and, as a result, he begins to lose at gambling – badly. His losses mount, threatening to drive him and Fanny out of their home. Determined to reestablish himself, Nick is persuaded to partake in a spurious racketeering scam that promises to net him millions but instead quickly sours. Nick is made the scapegoat for the crime and the judge (Freeman Lusk) throws the book at him. With prison staring him in the face Nick informs Fanny that he has decided to end their marriage; believing it the best solution for them both. Tearful but defiant as ever, Fanny resists his decision but must face facts and the press during this very public scandal. In a scene faintly reminiscent from the finale of George Cukor’s 1954 A Star Is Born, when an overzealous reporter asks Fanny, “what are you gonna do now, Miss Brice?” Fanny coldly corrects, “The name’s Arnstein…Mrs. Arnstein.” Later that evening she returns to the theater to perform ‘My Man’ – a song so rife with the character’s own disillusionment over her shattered dreams that quite simply it builds and builds into a heart-breaking climax.
Funny Girl is a superb musical on many levels, though perhaps not quite a perfect movie. The initial set up and scenes depicting Fanny’s meteoric rise are a tour de force for Streisand; ditto for the master craftsman-like way director William Wyler shapes – the reshapes - the burgeoning romance between Fanny and Nick. But once the couple marries the story reaches a curious dramatic impasse that threatens to stall our total enjoyment; the screenplay somehow incapable of revealing more of the inner malignancy befalling these newlyweds. The musical numbers, so carefully placed to augment and propel the narrative forward thus far, now seem arbitrarily inserted as mere filler that intrudes upon the story instead. There’s a general lack of cohesion between these two fantasy worlds – the stage-bound and the artifice of the Hollywood musical incongruously thrust together and infrequently finding common ground.
Still, nothing can stop Barbra Streisand from achieving near perfection as Fanny Brice – a galvanizing central performance that holds everything together, even when the script seems to be falling apart. In Streisand’s Brice there is a kind of stern wonderment – superficially playing to the giddy excitement of the musical’s mélange, while darkly suspicious of the audience’s reception of her. Streisand’s comedienne is a real woman with a soft center, a very hard shell, but a devilishly deceptive patina of good humor masking a deep-seeded insecurity. Is she revealing the character as written or showing us a more meaningful exposé of herself? We’re never quite sure – partly because the movie is Streisand’s skyrocketing debut; that star persona we’ve all since come to know and love butted against the unknown quantity she was to most of us prior to Funny Girl’s premiere.
In the end Funny Girl remains a memorable movie musical not so much as a whole, but because of Streisand’s ability to draw us into that world and never let go. While the last third of the story miserably waffles Streisand’s performance never seems anything less than genuine. We can forgive Wyler his awkward fumble of the plot because his star does not let us down. Whether she playfully warbles ‘I’d rather be blue…thinking of you’ or lyrically declares that ‘people who need people are the luckiest people in the world’ Streisand transcends the rank sentiment of her material; her timing and nuances delivered with such poignancy that she quite simply bypasses our hearts to burrow deep within our collective soul.
This is the hallmark of a truly great actress – something too few toiling in the musical genre have been. Since Funny Girl Barbra Streisand’s reputation – both public and private - has often been maligned and mislabeled as domineering, judgmental and/or difficult to get along with. Perhaps in intervals she has been all of these things – though why any of these attributes should be misconstrued as anything less than perfectionism is beyond me. For the likes of Barbra Streisand – singer/actress/director/star and yes…even woman - have long since proven a very tough act to follow.
I can say the same about Sony’s new Blu-ray. Funny Girl has always looked stellar on DVD but on Blu-ray it radiates a stunning purity of image, thanks to a brand new 4k transfer. The visuals are, in a word – perfect and reference quality – the credit sequence at long last color corrected to its original brilliance. Reds are deep, rich and velvety. Flesh tones are startlingly true to life. Colors pop. The ‘wow’ factor is here; the image bypassing all expectations. Point blank – you are going to love this disc! The new 5.1 DTS audio is a revelation as well with Streisand’s vocals never sounding more pure on home video before. The one disappointment herein is decidedly the extras. Sony has elected to offer us nothing new. We get the same two vintage featurettes on the film and Streisand and a theatrical trailer. As an Amazon exclusive, I would have liked to see Sony take the high road and give us either a making of documentary or at the very least an audio commentary. But there you have it. None forthcoming. Oh well…I really can’t fault this disc. The movie looks and sounds as though it was made yesterday. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)