Dir. William Wyler. Starring Barbra Streisand, Omar Sharif, Kay Medford
I will come clean about this movie: I had not seen it until recently, and worse still, I didn’t know much more about it than what you’d need to get a question right on it at trivia (“barbra streisand oscar fanny brice funny girl my man don’t rain on my parade”). There are two things about it that I’ve come away with since then. First, being a person my age who was not raised on Barbra Streisand records at home, or better yet, someone who thinks people are raised on Streisand records as opposed to Streisand performances, has blinded me to what an incredible screen presence she has. Second, men are the worst, and I know this because they took a movie with Barbra Streisand at the peak of her powers and turned it into a movie about Omar Sharif. They Star Is Born‘d this movie, and not in an interesting way, either. We’d lose some really wonderful cinematography and “My Man” if we cut this movie off with Fanny getting onto a tugboat to chase after the man she loves right before the intermission, but also this would be a much better and vastly more interesting picture.
But first things first. The Way We Were is real drudgery. What’s Up, Doc? is a panic. In the former, Streisand is playing down to a stereotype of the lefty Jew, a rabble-rouser in the streets and already someone’s grandmother in the sheets. In the latter, Streisand is playing up to the daffy dame of those earlier screwball comedies, and is so ludicrous that I kind of didn’t think it was possible for her to have given another role that kind of attractively destructive attention. Yet here it is in Funny Girl, a performance which is every bit as funny as what she would have going in What’s Up, Doc?, and which includes her voice as well. In 2020 I think it’s kind of difficult to imagine slapstick Barbra, but that’s what she is! Fanny Brice, even one adapted for the movies, should be a basically impossible part. It requires the look, sure, but it also needs the voice. When the real Fanny Brice pops up in The Great Ziegfeld, and she sings, I felt like the movie had finally justified its reason for existence. She was so good, the sound so pure, that it felt like they’d pulled her from a different planet, which I suppose they kind of did. Fanny Brice of Funny Girl must have that same quality, and one hardly needs to come to my blog to get the dirt on Babs’ singing. The role needs funny, too. Funny little voices, in dialect and not, squeaky or low. It needs a magician’s facility with props, a sleight of hand that makes the joke pop. It needs a kind of reverse deadpan, in which the person is very clearly telling a joke but is acting like they’re not telling a joke, so we get to chuckle because our expectations have been surprised and because our funny bone has been tickled. Streisand does it all over and over again in this movie, but I’m fond of the one that sets the tone. She walks up to the theater, where the man outside is not sure who she is. She points at the poster, which is not designed particularly well, and reads it as it says it: “I’m one of the eight beautiful girls eight.” He still seems dubious, and Fanny, ever conscious of how her face will stop her from being a traditional beauty, holds up an enormous lunch pail that says MAKEUP and walks inside. Streisand kills the delivery there, just as she’ll kill other deliveries later on (“If I can’t tell if you’re ordering roast beef and potatoes, how will I know when you’re making advances?”)
She’s also a tremendous physical comedian, as in that totally unexpected scene where she cons her way into a roller skating number. She does not roller skate (when she’s challenged on that by the guy who smuggled her into the number, she replies breathlessly that she didn’t know she couldn’t then), and spends most of the time coming this close to maiming the women who do know how to roller skate. All the while she has on the world’s ugliest outfit: giant purple fuzzy hat, dark green and purple striped blouse, grapes(??) attached to her shoulder like she’s a special corsage from Dennis Quaid in The Parent Trap, ginormous bow on her butt. The choreography in this scene, as it usually is when people are designing a scene where everything goes wrong, is really outstanding, and it is just as funny as everyone in the audience seems to think. Later on, when she’s with the Ziegfeld Follies, there will be another version of this with a spoof of Swan Lake, to say nothing of her going onstage with a pillow under her wedding dress for her first night with the show, but it peaks here with this “Roller Skate Rag” from hell.
The best shot of the movie is during the movie’s best song. Fanny, who has decided that she cannot throw away a chance at love even if that means throwing away her job with the biggest vaudeville show in the world, decides to chase after the man she loves. “Don’t Rain on My Parade” takes place over several modes of conveyance, ending on a tugboat. The tugboat passes the Statue of Liberty, which is a bright, crusty, minty green compared to the deep forest green of the tug. The water is still a deep blue, and even the sky does not seem to get much about a light gray. It’s a wide shot, and so we can’t see Streisand’s expression, but we can certainly see her. She’s wearing a solid orange coat which makes her stand out instantly on the deck, a splash of brightness in an otherwise dim world. She holds onto that last syllable of “parade,” a syllable which last many seconds and many notes, and as she flattens herself against the tug like an unexpected splotch of paint, I couldn’t help but grin. It’s pure glory.
In Sunset Boulevard, there’s that scene where Joe is working on Norma’s screenplay, and she sees him cross something out, and immediately she goes over to him and asks what’s up. Joe explains that he’s getting rid of an extraneous part, and she’s aghast. Cutting away from me? she says. Norma, they don’t want you in every scene, he replies, and her response is great. “What else would they have come for?” she asks. It’s meant to be funny because she’s nuts, but also this is why people see movies. They come for something. For Funny Girl, I showed up because of Barbra Streisand. For A Star Is Born, I showed up because of Judy Garland. Watching this movie, you can just imagine the discussion:
Someone says, Let’s make the second half of the movie about the marriage.
Another replies, Sure, but I think we should basically cast Fanny aside so they can see how far Nicky has fallen.
And then someone who has seen Sunset Boulevard says, “Cut away from Barbra? What else would they have come for?”
Then the first person replies, To see how a good woman sacrifices everything because she loves her husband.
And then they all say, “Oh, sure,” and then they do it and they ruin the picture.
I don’t love using this word, because it’s a sign that I’m on Twitter too often, but watching the second half of this movie really feels like an exercise in manufacturing consent. Maybe the lesson we’re supposed to learn here is not to marry a gambler no matter how neat his mustache is, but it’s really about never letting yourself be in a relationship with a woman who’s got more money than you have. While Nick is at his lowest, without funds and with a wife who does not seem to recognize that all the support she’s giving him is chipping away at his pride, an old gambler friend of his, Branca (Gerald Mohr) pops by at the house. He has a business proposition for Nick: run the second club we’re setting up, and we’ll let you in on the profits without even making you put up a share of the investment. A gambler knows better than anyone when something is too good to be true, and it takes him about ten seconds to pin the idea on Fanny, who has of course masterminded this whole thing to get her husband back to his old confident self. It’s not a good scene—you don’t have to know the difference between a straight flush and a toilet flush to know that business doesn’t work this way—and it’s a microcosm of what the movie gets wrong. Fanny’s rise to success, so meteoric that she’s worried she hasn’t suffered enough, has eclipsed her husband, who began to fail in his gambling almost as soon as he got engaged. What the movie hopes is that this trouble in their marriage will be at least as engaging and moving as watching Fanny torment Ziegfeld (Walter Pidgeon, who is a delight as a much more conservative and crusty version of this character than William Powell played), or watching Fanny realize that someone might be able to love her even if she has a schnozz and not a nose, or watching Fanny sing another song. It’s just not, in much the same way that the most interesting part of the Star Is Born movies is never the part with the guy, no matter how good he is. I love James Mason, but come on, I didn’t show up to watch him mope. I showed up because Judy Garland is incandescent. I really enjoy Omar Sharif, but he’s a little out of his depth here, and the camera simply does not love him the way it loves Streisand. His story is simply not why we came, and although I cannot cozy up to this idea that “My wife makes more than I do and now I’m a eunuch,” I’ll grant that someone must have felt that way in 1968. It just doesn’t make it effective.
Nicky is a reason for the songs, but when the movie tries to replace the songs with him, the movie withers. Just as Fanny belted out “Don’t Rain on My Parade” to catch up with him, she croons “My Man,” the movie’s best song (I know what I said earlier), as a way to mourn for the marital happiness she couldn’t hang onto. It’s a tremendous moment, but it has nothing to do with how we might feel about Nicky, or his failure. It is a testament to Streisand’s talent and not to Fanny’s sadness.