The Yentl Syndrome
While it is often said that a filmmaker’s heart is in a movie, it is indeed rare that a movie becomes symbolic to medical matters of the heart – and pitches a stake in the sand to improve women’s health care. At the center of a project that took 15 years to go from initial spark to finished project, co-screenwriter, co-producer, first-time director and star Barbra Streisand plays a woman who wants an education to equal that of a man. Opening 32 years ago today, the magnificent, moving Yentl (1983), adapted from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy, touches the heart in so many ways. Its story of a shtetl-raised Jewish girl who embarks on a daring masquerade as a man to enter the patriarchal world of religious study speaks to the yearning for knowledge in everyone. The Academy Award®-winning Best Original Song Score by composer Michel Legrand and lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman stirs the emotions with soaring melodies and warm humor. The performances of Streisand, Mandy Patinkin, Oscar® nominee Amy Irving and Nehemiah Persoff glow with dignity and affection. David Watkin’s cinematography, Roy Walker’s production design and Leslie Tompkins’ art direction burnish the turn-of-the-century ambience with a wondrous delicacy and charm. But an unexpected legacy of the film also links directly back to Streisand’s own passionate championing of health issues, particularly in the area of women’s heart disease. As symptoms of heart distress in women tend to differ dramatically from those of men, treatment in the medical community had lagged behind. The “Yentl Syndrome” was first coined in 1991 in the New England Journal of Medicine by Dr. Bernadine Healy, a cardiologist and director of the National Institutes of Health, who observed the gender bias in coronary disease management and alerted the medical community to this prevalent problem of under-diagnosis, urging exploration of alternate causes for women’s heart ills separate from those in men – that a woman needn’t present just the symptoms of a man to get effective treatment. Where is it written that a valuable by-product of a long-gestating musical movie labor of love could be as a signpost to an upgraded medical outlook for women? Yentl, an affair of the heart that sings in more ways than one might have suspected when it was first released, is available on an extras-packed Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.