Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Funny Girl (1968) - Directed by William Wyler

William Wyler’s late career musical Funny Girl was also Barbra Streisand’s film debut, and what a debut it was for her. She went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress in a tie with Katherine Hepburn for The Lion In Winter (1968). Funny Girl recounts the true-life story of Fanny Brice, who went from hamming around NY burlesque stages in the early 1900’s and ended up getting signed by Florenz Ziegfield to headline the Ziegfield Follies in 1910, which was a popular stage show on Broadway. Funny Girl reprises Streisand’s turn as Brice from the Broadway musical, which ran in 1964 and chronicles Fanny’s early successes onstage, her courtship by the wealthy gambler Nick Arnstein, played by Omar Shariff, and Fanny and Nick’s downward spiraling marriage in the latter third of the film as Nick runs into legal troubles. Overall, I was really impressed with the film: it has great songs, an engaging story, and one of the truly great tour-de-force performances by an actress.

Of course, for a musical to be great, there has to be some great songs and musical sequences in the film. For me, the two best ones are  “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade”. “People” became one of Streisand’s standard numbers throughout her career and it’s easy to see why. It’s a slow-build kind of song with changes in dynamics that seem to suit Streisand’s powerful tones. In the film, it’s an important transitional moment as she projects her vulnerability to Nick and emphasizes that she has a need for connection. Even more astounding is the sequence for “Don’t Rain on My Parade” as Fanny decides to go after Nick on his cruise to Europe but finds herself late to the boat. This sequence goes down for me as one of the truly great musical sequences in all of cinema. Not only is the song perfect for the moment, but the camera work during this scene is quite astounding. In one segment, a camera, presumably attached to a helicopter is eyeing a moving train. As the camera pulls in close, we find Fanny at a window seat singing the song in-sync. I thought to myself, “They can’t top that”. Oh yes they could! At the finale of the song, we see a tugboat leaving NYC and the camera swings alongside the boat, finding Fanny singing the song in-sync again as the boat speeds along. The camera pulls away leaving a breathtaking view over the water and New York City as Streisand hits the final note. It’s a wow moment.

Streisand has a lot of wow moments in this film though. She simply commands your attention every moment that she is onscreen. She totally gets this Fanny character and it can be seen in everything from the way she uses her New York accent to her Jewish heritage to the singing and comedic moments. One can see that all her work from the Broadway stage on this character paid off dividends in the film. Streisand’s timing is impeccable. I point us to the seduction scene between Nick and Fanny where Streisand continually hits the right jokes at the right moment. She’s delicate, funny and sexy when she needs to be and pulls it off with panache. There are times when you see a performance and you know it’s one of the great ones.  She’s just an incredible talent with her voice, her comedic timing and she wears her emotions on her sleeve in the best way possible. She is truly dynamic and all of this was utilized well by Wyler as he knew that she deserved all the screen time feasible. Streisand seems to connect to the viewer without a camera filtering the performance because of her ability to emote directly to the audience through a true, humble honesty. This feels like a vibrant and totally fresh performance even forty-three years later. Bravo to Streisand.

Although the film is set during the early 1900’s, one can feel the pulse of the 1960’s quite clearly in the outlook that is given to the relationship of Fanny and Nick. Fanny is clearly the breadwinner, bringing in the income, while Nick is up-and-down, making paydays on his gambling and then going long stretches without luck. He is riding on Fanny’s coattails. By the end of the film, we realize that Fanny does not need Nick at all from a financial standpoint and can support herself. Nick can’t handle this fact that the woman is the lead money-maker. One can feel the tugs of the women’s liberation movement in these scenes at the end of the film as she doesn’t need her man in the traditional sense and parts ways with him, singing the Fanny Brice standard, "My Man". It’s an interesting blending of the period setting of the film with a more modern outlook on women in the workplace. I appreciated this nuance and it gave the film some added dimension. One must remember though, that this is a musical, and to me, this a great one. Yeah there are a few lapses in continuity and story-flow toward the end, but I forgive it because it contains too many good songs, too many funny moments, and one brilliant performance. I think that’s in the end why it’s so good. Musicals are often wonderful vehicles for some of the greatest entertainers. Funny Girl is an example of that type of masterpiece, capturing the essence and talent of Barbra Streisand.


Sam Juliano said...

The passion can be felt on every word, Jon, and I know you have maintained a high regard for this Wyler film, that showcases Babs in her finest role and film. I also like HELLO DOLLY among Streisand musicals, but this one is more polished and emotionally resonant. Many of the Streisand standards are here and their delivered to perfection by a singer at the peak of her powers. I never forgot that tie with Katherine Hepburn for the Oscar and Streisand's smug response on stage. But this is a class performance in a distinguished musical film.

You've really written a marvelous piece here Jon.

Jon said...

Thanks as always Sam for your kind comments and support. Yeah this one came out of nowhere for me, when I started catching up on the musicals I had missed. I sat down with my wife to watch it and wasn't expecting much. I had no idea it was this good. It's just a really fun picture and a great musical. I never saw Streisand get the Oscar, so can't comment on that moment. Maybe I can find a clip of it somewhere.

Catherine Short said...

Sunday night there was a Barbara concert playing on PBS and we discovered that Jordan hasn't seen any Barbara movies! This one will have to be watched soon.

Jon said...

Yes! This is a great one to start with!