Directed By: William Wyler
Written By: Isobel Lennart (based on the musical by Isobel Lenart, Jule Styn and Bob Merrill)
Starring: Barbra Streisand, Omar Sharif, Kay Medford
I presume it was law in the 60’s that all musicals couldn’t go for under two and half hours. With The Sound of Music, Oliver and Doctor Dolittle all pushing, or eclipsing, the 150 minute mark, William Wyler’s Funny Girl follows suit. It feels oftentimes like a trek, its lengthy runtime threatening to trigger the film into laboriousness, however an enchanting central performance from Barbra Streisand is always there to bolster it, picking the film’s limping feet off the ground and carrying it to the finish line with both tears in her eyes and radiance in her smile.
Streisand plays Fanny Brice in a story loosely inspired by the real life singer and comedienne of the same name, and the film is based on the Funny Girl stage show by Jule Styne, Bob Merrill and Isobel Lennart (who would ink the film’s screenplay), but there is no question that this is wholeheartedly Mrs. Streisand’s movie.
Funny Girl charts the meteoric rise of Brice in World War I era New York, becoming the star attraction of Florenz Ziegfeld’s popular productions. A true rags to riches tale of a hopeful Jewish girl done good, who must now adjust herself to the world of success as quickly as her career can flourish.
As Brice, Barbra Streisand is exactly as the title suggests. She is very funny, endearingly rushing her words out of her mouth, her thick Jewish accent always delineating her as something other than those she’s surrounded by, she’s a “bagel on a plate of onion rolls” as she puts it, and she flails her arms like an eccentric composer conducting her own musical numbers with a unique bubbly flair. And she’s a girl, not a woman. There’s a definite school-girlishness about her, she’s confident, bossy, yet uncomplicated in her actions. At first you might think there is a trace of Eve Harrington in her drunken desire to make it big on the stage, but you quickly realise she is far too spontaneous, far too innocent to have that kind of malevolent cunning.
For Fanny it’s never in doubt she’ll be a star. She’s bold, she gambles with her career, she knows what works for her and makes it work to great effect for her audience.
After landing a dream job as one of the Ziegfeld Follies she looks up to the upper deck of the theatre, telling Mr. Ziegfeld, whose voice bellows with omnipotence from behind blinding lights, she can’t partake in the finale, the words she would have to sing about her beauty are too embarrassing. Mr. Ziegfeld assures her she will, and she does, however she renders the words ironic in her performance. She stuffs a pillow up her dress, playing the part as a bloated mother-to-be, and the audience laps it up. Her defiant comedy allows her to charm her way into celebrity, quickly realising her dream and along the way finding love.
Nick Arnstein (Omar Sharif) is the love interest, and much like Fanny, he is a gambler, however he keeps his gambling to the poker tables. The first time we meet Nick he negotiates a pay rise for Fanny, bluffing her employer into believing there is competition looking to poach her and swiftly doubles her salary. This is indicative of the man. Sharif is intriguing as Nick, an enigmatic blend of 007 and Clark Gable. He is somewhat of a question mark, unreadable, and quickly steals the affections of Fanny. It is here where the film, misguidedly, devotes itself.
Beneath the theatrics Funny Girl is a study of the career/relationship dichotomy. The careers of Fanny and Nick are on opposing trajectories and unfortunately it is at the expense of the charming musical numbers, which Streisand so winningly performs with a Sinatra-esque gusto, that it treads this weary ground of love conflicted.
The dramatic turn is predicated on unwarranted judgments the film makes of its central figure, her career supposedly becoming too much of a fixation (perhaps the character is too charming to have any judgments of her stick), as the story fails to resist becoming a by-the-numbers romantic drama, falling into a holding pattern for no reason other than to make it reach its long and seemingly required run time. The sheen is stripped from its vibrant personality.
The players are still worth your attention, there is enough honesty and charm in the couple, particularly Streisand, to hold the film’s head above the water, but Wyler is no doubt treading, struggling to stretch the film’s dramatic interest the distance. Vigour persists in Wyler’s work (undeniable in the film’s final musical number) however the piece ultimately crawls to its destination rather than skipping there with the energy it initially promises.
Barbra Streisand would share the Best Actress Oscar with Katherine Hepburn in 1969, and it is difficult to imagine where the film would be without her. It is a great character, well crafted and obviously well performed. She carries the film gallantly on her back, but even Mrs. Streisand has to eventually slow her stride in the wake of the film’s shortcomings.