A Cultural Force Turns 75
In the introduction to his 2016 critical study Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power, film historian Neal Gabler writes: “It may seem peculiar to freight an entertainer with that much psychological and cultural weight, but Streisand isn’t just an entertainer. She has long been a cultural force – the kind of personality who inspires effusions, poems (Wayne Koestenbaum’s Streisand Sings Stravinsky), stage plays (Buyer and Cellar by Jonathan Tolins), art (Four Barbras by Deborah Kass), songs (Barbra Streisand by Duck Sauce, in which her name is the only lyric), even a viciously hostile South Park episode. After 50 years in our eyes and our ears, she is part of the American consciousness as few entertainers have been.” She turns 75 today, and her popular appeal and influence remains undiminished. One aspect of Gabler’s tome reflects a common biographical thread in profiles across the decades: an interlocked fusion of her Jewish identity and its attendant outsider feelings with her immense talent as a singer, actress and, eventually, a writer, director and producer. Two signature movie roles that reflect this most emphatically are showcased on glowing Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays. Her breakthrough star-burnishing role of beloved comedienne Fanny Brice in Funny Girl on Broadway (1964) and on film (1968) was the archetype of an “ethnic” whose talent could not be denied, or, as Gabler notes Streisand’s own reference to herself as “Brooklyn’s ugly duckling and Broadway’s beautiful swan.” Reluctant at first to reprise the role of Fanny in a sequel vehicle, she was coaxed by producer (and Fanny Brice son-in-law) Ray Stark (to whom Streisand contractually owed one more movie) to read a revised script by Jay Presson Allen focusing on Brice’s continuing post-Ziegfeld years and romances, including her forays on the silver screen and on the radio as the beloved Baby Snooks. According to Anne Edwards’ Streisand: A Biography: “‘This is much better than Funny Girl,’ she said, reversing her decision. Unlike the earlier rejected version, Allen’s screenplay depicted an independent woman valiantly struggling in a man’s world, a theme with which she identified.” During production, Funny Lady (1975), the final Stark/Streisand matchup, was not a smooth ride. Edwards reports: “Streisand and Stark fought constantly, mostly over her interpretation of Brice. Stark, still struggling to protect the image of his late mother-in-law, wanted her played more sympathetically. Streisand saw Brice rather a ‘a tough lady who hid her inner softness under a carapace of flinty wisecracks and never aimed to be lovable at the cost of her own personality.’ She added, ‘I’m not playing me anymore. I’m completely relaxed.’” Yet her older/wiser Brice, supported by first-class collaborators and a tightly controlled production apparatus under director Herbert Ross (the choreographer of I Can Get It for You Wholesale on Broadway and Funny Girl on screen), proved a solid box-office success. James Caan as showman/songwriter Billy Rose kept the romantic comedy aspects grounded and charming, a revisit by Omar Sharif as Brice’s one-time husband Nick Arnstein provided a note of wistfulness, and Roddy McDowall and Ben Vereen bring style and savvy to the somewhat fictionalized roles of Brice’s show-biz associates. Songs from the Billy Rose catalog – Great Day, I Found a Million Dollar Baby in a Five-and-Ten-Cent Store, It’s Only a Paper Moon, Me and My Shadow, More Than You Know – were augmented by new tunes by John Kander and Fred Ebb, including Blind Date, Isn’t This Better?, Let’s Hear It for Me, So Long, Honey Lamb and the Oscar®-nominated How Lucky Can You Get? Identity, personal struggle, self-determination, commitment, persistence of vision and emancipation: all these elements of the Streisand character would prove essential to another project with Jewish roots and universal acclamation. Yentl (1983), a richly musical dramatization of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story about a young Eastern European Jewish woman who takes the matter of getting a much-desired religious education – strictly a male domain at its turn-of-the-20th century setting – into her own hands, required 16 years of devotion from Streisand’s first infatuation with the material to its arrival on screen. Though she was firm in her resolve, and built around her a bedrock of talent on screen (co-stars Mandy Patinkin, Amy Irving, Stephen Hill and Nehemiah Persoff) and behind the camera (co-screenwriter Jack Rosenthal, co-producer Rusty Lemorande, cinematographer David Watkin, composer Michel Legrande, lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and an armada of seasoned designers and crew on British and Czechoslovakian locations), “never before had she made a film outside the embracing paternalism of a studio, a controlled environment in which she knew everything would be weighted to her best advantage,” Edwards chronicles. Streisand, taking a deep-dive into her Jewishness and tapping into her emotionally fraught relationship with her own father, countered her insecurities with total immersion, substituting detailed care and focused craft for self-doubt, relinquishing the outlier fears of a novice. She recounted for Edwards: “I trusted my instincts a lot. I had to constantly remember that I was wearing four hats [director, producer, writer and star]. I found the experience very humbling. I was very moved by it. That power is very humbling. And I found myself being very soft-spoken, feeling even more feminine than I have ever felt. More motherly, more nurturing, more loving. I had patience I never dreamed I would have. I never wanted people to feel that I was so powerful….I wanted people to be able to come up to me and give me a suggestion. Because if they can make it better, then I’m gonna use anything they can offer me.” Fanny Brice and Yentl Mendel are two among many indelible touchstones in a multimedia career celebrated today. TT’s dazzling, generously accessorized discs of the glamorous Funny Lady (offered here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/28397/FUNNY-LADY-1975/) and the bewitching Yentl (available here: http://www4.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/28395/YENTL-1983/) are prime examples.