Friday, August 12, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Funny Girl (1968)

Funny Girl (1968) **
Directed by: William Wyler.
Written by: Isobel Lennart based on her play.
Starring: Barbra Streisand (Fanny Brice), Omar Sharif (Nick Arnstein), Kay Medford (Rose Brice), Anne Francis (Georgia James), Walter Pidgeon (Florenz Ziegfeld), Lee Allen (Eddie Ryan), Mae Questel (Mrs. Strakosh), Gerald Mohr (Tom Branca).

For years, I avoided any movie that had Barbra Streisand in it, because I simply couldn’t stand her. It was a completely irrational hatred I had for Ms. Streisand, because the only film I had ever seen of hers was The Prince of Tides, which while not very good in my mind, wasn’t that bad either, but I should note that her performance was the worst in the film as both Nick Nolte and Kate Nelligan were brilliant. But, still, I admit that I had a bias against her with no real reason to have one – and perhaps I still do. Many people love her 1968 debut film Funny Girl, for which she won an Oscar for best actress (although in one of the quirks Oscar history is littered with, perhaps she shouldn’t have. That year was one of only 2 ties in the acting categories in history when Streisand tied with Katherine Hepburn for her work in The Lion in Winter. For some reason that year, the Academy invited new members, including Streisand, to be a member after the nominating round but BEFORE the winning round, when normally they are not invited until the following year. Since Streisand tied Hepburn for the award that year, assuming she voted for herself, this quirk is the reason she won). But to me, the whole movie was just too overindulgent, overlong and overstuffed. There are some legitimately great moments in the film, but they are outweighed by all of the film excesses.

Streisand stars as Fanny Brice, who got her start in vaudeville and become a huge star on Broadway in the 1930s – mainly working the Ziegfeld Follies, under the eye of Florenz Ziegfeld (who has his own biopic, the 1936 Best Picture winner, The Great Ziegfeld, starring the great William Powell, although it must be said that the film itself is not all that great). Brice was different from the other Ziegfeld girls – she wasn’t classically beautiful, she had skinny legs and a funny face. But, what she lacks in looks, she made up for in talent. Few could sing like Brice, and she was also an extremely gifted comedian.

The film doesn’t dwell too long on Brice’s struggles to become famous. Essentially, she gives a couple performances in a low rent dive before Ziegfeld (Walter Pidgeon) discovers her and puts her in the follies. She doesn’t want to be a part of the finale of that show, where she has to sing about how beautiful she is, but Ziegfeld insists. She decides to make the whole thing into a joke, by putting a pillow under her shirt, and pretending to be pregnant. Ziegfeld is furious, until he realizes the audience loves it. A star is born.

But even before Ziegfeld, Brice catches the eye of Nick Armstein (Omar Sharif), who is all charm. The two have a flirtation that lasts years, as he disappears for months at a time, before they finally realize they cannot live without each other. But Nick is a gambler, constantly in money trouble – and although Brice could support him, he doesn’t want that. He does not want to be a kept man. This causes problems, because he doesn’t seem to be much a gambler.

The film is full of now iconic musical numbers. The best is inarguably “People”, which Streisand sings to Sharif on the streets outside her mother’s apartment in New York. The song is magnificent, if more than a little cheesy, but Streisand pulls it off. Also famous is “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, and while the music is wonderful, and Streisand performs it to the hilt, the actual staging of the number – with Brice on the road to track down Nick – isn’t quite as good. I did quite like the film’s final number “My Man”, sung on stage with a black screen around Streisand’s face as she sings the emotional song. Many of the other musical numbers work quite well as well – they are the highlight of the film to be sure.

But the rest of the film, the dramatic segments, really do not work at all. Part of it is because Sharif, never a favorite actor of mine to begin with, is completely wooden in this performance – lacking in all charm or charisma. His performance bored me to no end. The supporting cast has some wonderful actors in it, but they are all wasted. As for Streisand, she is charming at parts of the movie, and really comes alive during the musical numbers, but overall the performance struck me as incredibly phony. I know Brice is a comedian, but she seems to be “on” all the time, constantly waiting for another chance to crack a one liner or make a funny face. It undercuts the character, and to me, made it impossible to care about her when the film gets dramatically heavy near the end. Perhaps the performance would work on Broadway, but in a movie, it just didn’t feel genuine to me.

Perhaps the bigger problem with the movie however is the fact that it is way overlong and overstuffed. The film is more than two and half hours, and while that isn’t long in itself, for this movie, it is way too long. Buoyed by the success of films like West Side Story, My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music, 1968, movie studios made a few of these huge musical extraganzas a year in the mid to late 1960s, and they required reserved seating and a higher ticket price. In order to justify the extra expense, the movies had to be long, and stuffed to the brim with musical numbers. Funny Girl has a few numbers too many – including a completely pointless Swan Lake sequence – and the movie begins to sag around the half way point, and by the end, it has lost nearly all forward momentum. I started out mildly enjoying the film, but by the end, I was just praying for it to be over. Directed by William Wyler – who still holds the record for most Best Director nominations (13) and is one of only two directors to win 3 or more best director Oscars (he won for Mrs. Miniver in 1942, The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946 and Ben-Hur in 1959), Wyler was certainly familiar with long, epic films – but here he simply overindulged. Cut out half an hour or more, and Funny Girl may have worked. As it stands, to me, it was a chore to sit through.

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