Barbra Streisand: treated fairly as a film-maker?

This is Streisand as ‘Judy Maxwell’ in my favourite film of all time: ‘What’s Up, Doc?’. It’s not for everyone: one family member also says it’s their number one film ever but another family member couldn’t get through it until the end. I’ve watched it any number of times but it recently struck me how I’d seen very few, if any, of Streisand’s other films. I hadn’t been actively avoiding her – and why should I since ‘What’s Up, Doc?’ is my perfect film? – but that’s just the way the cards fell. Perhaps it was due to a misapprehension of her being some specifically partisan gay icon? Or she’s only for female sensibilities? Or just that she was labeled as a purveyor of safe, “nice” music and cinema was her frivolous ‘down time’? I didn’t know. So, I did some reading and decided to delve into her cinematic output and see how it shook me.

Yentl‘. This was evidently a passion project for Streisand in that it was on her radar from the late 1960s; it was her first directional gig; and she expended a lot of effort in trying to get it made. In reply to one more negative review of the finished work, she mentioned ten years of research. I came to it a little wary as, being a huge admirer of The Simpsons, I knew full well the exchange after Homer was sick in bed, having eaten a past-edible sandwich, and Marge takes Homer’s assertion that the idea of watching ‘Yentl’ on video is great as proof that his sickness has regressed into delirium. The film also itself also throws back to The Simpsons as she sings ‘Papa, Can You Hear Me?‘ as it was the same tune sung by Nelson Muntz when he stayed at the Simpsons’ house one night and bemoaned his absent father, who had once gone out for cigarettes, never to return.

It’s obvious that Streisand thinks very deeply about her work. Even on films that she didn’t direct, she was often a hands-on producer, involved in casting, lighting design and the look of the film, so she’s really knows her stuff and ‘Yentl’ feels rich and thoughtful; something that resonates. It offers some good emotional catharsis at points and its songs are perfectly fine. However, the songs, it seemed to me, almost narrated what we could see on the screen with our own eyes. Therefore, juxtaposed with the visuals, the songs grated somewhat, like a bus pulling into a bus stop too sharply and grinding a kerb. Or a director being forced into doing a DVD commentary and merely describing what we can see, only breaking to say what a nice experience it was to make the film.

Also, although Streisand’s music probably gets classed as, and appeals to, the ‘middle of the road’, her voice actually made me think of ear-splitting music like hardcore EDM or My Bloody Valentine or grindcore or 1970s Miles Davis. I don’t mean that as a pejorative but, in full flow, she can really take no prisoners and you feel like you’re being run over by an 18 wheeler, so pile-driving is her lung-power. Quite shocking but in an interesting rather than negative way.

The main thread of the story is people being fooled by Streisand’s passing for a male instead of a female, as only males are allowed to learn and, in this case, to get into rabbinical school or ‘Yeshiva’. Supposedly, during the 15 years or so of its gestation as a movie, Streisand had many second, third and fourth thoughts about whether to act in the film, as the main character was supposed to be 16 years old, and whether she could pass as a boy anyway. A line gets inserted early in the film to connote that her character is more in her mid-20s and I gather that Streisand once fooled her partner of the time that she was some male stranger rather than herself. So, she gave it a shot. You watch the film and you have trouble suspending your disbelief but maybe it’s just because she’s so famous? And, anyway, superheroes like Superman/Clark Kent and Wonder Woman/Diana Prince seem to put on glasses to “hide their appearance” and that gets waved on through with nary a dissenting voice.

Streisand co-wrote ‘Yentl’ with the fantastic British playwright Jack Rosenthal, who himself once wrote a play called ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy‘ a few years earlier, and she directed, produced, acted and sang for a film that got her a Golden Globe for Best Director and gained both critical kudos and box office success. On the other hand, Amy Irving managed to square the circle by getting both an Oscar nomination and a Razzie nomination for the same role. You pays your money, you takes your choice. I’m glad to have seen it but it might only be the once for me.

Amazingly, Streisand’s first film led to her winning the Oscar for Best Actress, in a tie with Katherine Hepburn. See here for the video and nod in respect at the impressive mustache on Elliot Gould as well. Streisand’s move into film seamlessly went from her essaying roles on the stage to playing them on film, indeed her first three or four films were all musicals but that’s still a heck of a beginning to one’s acting career, for sure, to win an Oscar at the first try.

Funny Girl‘ , about the real life comic performer and singer, Fanny Brice, works as a film and looks wonderfully vibrant on its restored Blu-ray. Streisand is terrific. It’s not just her singing and musicality (her ‘I’d Rather Be Blue Thinking Of You‘ on roller skates is a total joy) but her verbal comedy recalls those fast talk 1940s film that she herself greatly admires. To my modern day European ears, her brassy New York/Jewish shtick is what also makes comic/ political commentator/radio host Katie Halper so endearing and such a bundle of fun. The film was made in 1968, when mainstream U.S. cinema was changing into its challenging, transgressive form of today so ‘Funny Girl’ itself reeks of the sensibilities of maybe 10 – 15 years earlier (its overture; its intermission; its family entertainment) but there’s a place for films that turn up on TV on Sunday afternoons. It just has to be good and ‘Funny Girl’ is a good film.

As a sidebar: the Blu-ray comes with a couple of short promotional items that, for a pleasingly dated film itself, seem fresh and interesting compared with the rubbish, each-one-the-same trailers and “he/she was so much fun to work with” soft soap that we can now. One set piece in ‘Funny Girl’ was filmed at an decommissioned train station in New York that was under supervision of one caretaker and this 10 minute promo takes this old guy’s perspective on the strangeness of his domain becoming a Hollywood set. They even filmed a scene with him (although I don’t think that it made the final cut) and I do love the extras when, unlike the beautifully polished final film, they’re all scratched and crackly. The other extra is all around Barbra Streisand herself showing her acting range in the form of a load of photographs. It’s near psychedelic.

Six years later, Streisand was still under contract with the producer of ‘Funny Girl’ for another film. She originally said that the producer, Ray Stark, would have to take legal action against her as she just wouldn’t do it. Edward Norton had a similar situation when he got bum-rushed into having to do the Italian Job re-make, as did Keanu Reeves, when his “friend” forged his signature on the contract for ‘The Watcher‘. In the end, she actually did make ‘Funny Lady‘, and played a fictionalised continuation of Fanny Brice, because she liked the script but the film itself, while worth it for Streisand and James Caan’s shtick, is a bit of a mess. Supposedly the movie was much longer but got cut down and the thing does feel a bit choppy. If you saw it at the cinema and quickly went to the toilet, you really could have come back to wonder just what the heck was going on. Scenes follow scenes but it doesn’t feel organic and flowing.

I do like James Caan but he kind of plays ‘James Caan’. One keeps expecting him to stand in a wife-beater and laugh at the idea of Al Pacino putting one in the domes of Sterling Hayden and Al Lettieri at any second. Streisand goes through the costume and hair changes with aplomb and exchanges the banter proficiently but you find yourself willing for the finishing line to come into view. You just don’t really care about what’s coming next after about 40 minutes or so. But at least I never once giggled, Bevis and Butthead-style, about word ‘Fanny’ (one’s derrière in the U.S.; a lady’s “front bottom” in the U.K.) and ‘Funny Lady’ was a big hit at the box office so it must have gone down well at the time. Streisand was a powerhouse of success in the 1970s being the only female in the top 10 most successful and popular actors. So, during the decade she was at the pinnacle of two art forms: massively successful at music and cinema.

After winning her Oscar for her first film, Streisand again took a musical role, in ‘Hello, Dolly’. A very big budget ($25,000,000 in 1969 equates to just over $170,000,000 today) and it did get three technical Oscars and four more nominations but it was adjudged to be a bit of a flop. As with ‘Funny Girl’ but even more so, Hollywood was mutating rapidly, trying to catch up with the changes in society. At that Oscar ceremony, although ‘Hello, Dolly’ received a nomination for ‘Best Film’, its winner was the X-rated ‘Midnight Cowboy’.

But the film is very successful in what it tries to do. Gene Kelly took the film’s directing reins as a ‘hired gun’ when casting had already begun, perhaps because he’d previously worked for Fox months beforehand on ‘A Guide For the Married Man‘ which also starred Walter Matthau. That was a funny film, Kelly’s other musicals were often very funny and so is ‘Hello, Dolly’. I don’t know how much of the humour survived the translation from stage to screen, and what got added on the way, but Matthau’s comic work as a whole is always a joy: there’s just something about the way he rolls around and spits out those words. Streisand holds her own in comedic scenes with him, again showing her genuine acting and timing chops. Maybe it’s not surprising because of her musical talents too but she’s never ‘off’ in her dialogue delivery. She’s always on it.

The film plays as more of a three-hander between Streisand, Matthau and Michael Crawford, or even more than that considering the cast of thousands. On one of the days of filming the parade sequence, 12,000 people showed up and large scale participation helped pump up the budget. Gene Kelly’s widow said that he had reservations about taking on the film because he saw it as something on a much smaller scale but the studio was insistent. I don’t get the retrospective ‘shafting’ that the film receives now. From its opening that places us in 1890 New York City and the invention of the opening shot and the human-beings-as-rhythm, you feel like you’re in safe hands. I look forward to watching it again sometime. Streisand was 25/26 at the time of the filming and that’s probably half the age of her character but it doesn’t matter.

‘On A Clear Day You Can See Forever’ followed and this was far more concerned with catching that zeitgeist. The film is bonkers; very strange but always enjoyable. A woman sees a therapist to help her stop chain smoking and we find out that she’s had previous lives. It’s all a bit uneven, with the film being cut down from a planned three hour ‘road show’ version and so Jack Nicholson’s own tune got 86’d but you still get to see him in a mustard yellow sweater and a psychedelic shirt while plonking on a sitar. British viewers get the joy of seeing Roy Kinnear in a small role in Streisand’s character’s past life vision as we also see the great Irene Handl as Streisand’s Mum. Streisand herself essays her usual New York/Jewish rapid fire accent in her present day scenes with French singer Yves Montand but, in regression, she pulls out a working-class London accent and a upper-class Home Counties accent and both are more than decent, especially for a Brooklynite.

One highlight is when Streisand’s character tries to stop Montand hynotising her remotely (I’m not making this up) by singing to herself and dancing around, even giving us some 60s-style go-go dancing for a couple of seconds, which was most pleasing and about 4 minutes 58 seconds too short. Streisand’s a great physical comic actor as well as a verbal one.

Another bright spot is when Montand sings ‘Come Back To Me’ on top of a sky-scraper to Streisand’s ‘Daisy’ (in a helicopter shot that closes in on him as he sings: many of these films have a similar shot of a camera in a helicopter gliding in or going away from a character) and the space between Montand’s ‘Marc’ and Streisand’s ‘Daisy’ is closed by having various characters – who Daisy passes on her travels – lip-sync to Montand’s words. Even a canine gets in on the action.

The late edit of the proposed film down to just over two hours does show its fingerprints in that there are points in the movie when you forget that you’re watching a musical. Someone starts their singing and you think: “Oh yeah. That’s right….” but the work gets by on sheer chutzpah and has got a retrospectively high reputation.

 

‘The Main Event’ looked like the most attractive film since it re-teamed the two stars from my all time favourite film: could it catch lightning in a bottle again? Kind of; yes. The ‘Barwood’ on the poster is Streisand’s own production company and she did much of the casting and hired the director Howard Zieff. One actor, when being interviewed by Streisand about a role, let rip an enormous, rattling cough and Streisand immediately said: “You’re hired.” and it became a script point. Also, the film was made without an ending in place, which sounds amazing, when making a film is such a costly enterprise, but happens a lot more than one might suspect. Streisand says that she likes an open, easy, communicative set and I think she said that it was either the sound guy or the lighting guy who came up with the ending to the film.

David Mamet once said that a good ending has to be both shocking and inevitable and you get a sense of that here; that feeling of enjoying the ending and reflecting that it couldn’t have ended any other way. The film starts with Streisand as a successful business person running a perfume company. She receives some horrible news, that she’s no longer got any money left and about the only asset left over is the contract of a boxer, Ryan O’Neal. Up against it, she goes to see the boxer, finding out that he’s not what she expected, but she’s got no choice; she needs him to win bouts and help her out of her hole.

O’Neal and Streisand had specifically wanted to work together again and their crackle, their chemistry, their badinage is all still intact. O’Neal once was a bit of a boxer in real life and Streisand also brings a physicality to her role: she’s both verbally funny and also hilarious when, say, climbing out of a boxing ring, or putting down O’Neal’s corner stool or applying grease to his face. The film’s a joy. I watched it twice. While laughing, it was also noticeable that Streisand does like to play roles that show strong women. As in many other screwball comedies, it’s the female who’s calling the shots while the idiot male is holding on for dear life, trying to keep his head above water.

There are some great late 70s signifiers too. The clothes and the hair, of course, but also the music. Streisand originally had a tune worked out for the end of the film which she later replaced with her doing a disco track instead.  We’re in 1979, remember. Under the opening titles, we see her at an aerobics class which was actually the real class that she’d attend. The person next to her in the titles is her real sister and in that real class, when the film wasn’t rolling, was Jane Fonda, prior to Fonda’s successful move into her own ‘work outs’.

‘Up The Sandbox’, though, might be her best of all here. It’s a drama, first and foremost, that has some very funny bits in it. Streisand plays a stressed mother of two who finds that she’s got another kid on the way but also that her husband – struggling with writing his own book – is starting to drift away from her. So, she goes into fantasy to escape the all pervading humdrum, kind of like ‘Billy Liar‘ or ‘Dream On‘ but its beauty, or its impediment (it didn’t do too well at the box office), was that it doesn’t underline the reality and the fantasy. There are links, objects or people that inspire her flights of fancy, but there’s no dissolve or overt shift from one plain to another. I found it pretty easy to decipher but, evidently, according to Streisand, the people at the time did not. Perhaps that evolution in film-making and risk-taking, from the likes of Funny Girl in 1968 to this in 1972 was a bit of a leap for those watching in the late 60s/early 70s?

There is some great stuff here, including a short bit in Kenya, a press conference and meeting with Fidel Castro and, with the World Trade Center behind them, a gang going off to blow up the State of Liberty. The WTC was built around the time that ‘Up The Sandbox’ was made. If you want to see it clearly being erected, check out the fantastic comedy ‘The Hot Rock‘. There’s also an examination of the idea of abortion. Nothing graphic but you get a sense of the run up to the process, something which today might be deemed too contentious in the U.S. as the Republicans keep attacking ‘Roe versus Wade‘ head on or by the back door.

I hesitate to call the film ‘feminist’ because I’m a male but, like ‘The Main Event’, its protagonist is a strong female but here it drills down on the female experience: that of being a mother. It’s supposedly one of Streisand’s own very favourite performances and one can see why.

A nice adjunct to these films is the 1974 ‘For Pete’s Sake’ wherein Streisand tries to raise money for her husband to invest on a ‘sure thing’, and thus help both of them get by, but she gets dragged further and further into a rabbit hole of trouble. It’s a light, screwball comedy, directed by Peter Yates that just flies by in less than 90 minutes. It’s very wacky and funny all the way through. Yates said that Streisand wanted to steer clear of any on-screen singing this time but she still sings the opening song over the cartoon titles sequence. It’s a song about doing everything for your man and so seemingly comes off a little conservative and reactionary but then the film begins its soufflé-light way and you understand the context. Well, it is light but it also comments on the difficulties of living in Nixon’s America.

Streisand’s soon to be boyfriend (and later a movie producer in his own right) Jon Peters started as a hairstylist and some reports say that her ‘haircut’ wasn’t a haircut but a wig designed by Peters. British director Peter Yates that, in this film, he wanted a sexy Streisand, someone who showed off her body shape. Endearingly, Yates mentioned that Streisand hadn’t done that much before in films (although her ‘Judy Maxwell’ in ‘What’s Up, Doc?’ is very sexy, for me) because she really loved her food and so often steered clear of smaller clothes. It reminds me of the scene in ‘The Getaway‘ when Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw go to the cheap hotel after he’s got out of jail and a couple of film historians pointed out his shirtless torso. He looked like a fit man but a normal level of fitness; that, today, we’re all so used to actors who buff themselves for the camera that they don’t look like normal people any longer.

Taking us back to where we started, post-Yentl, Streisand seemingly was much more a singer than a film-maker: starring in twelve films in fifteen years before Yentl and only six movies in thirty-four years afterwards. The impression I’ve gleaned as that she’s supposed to be difficult to work with and a bit of a narcissist: is this fair? Can we extract that impression from watching one of her later films?

The electronic press kit for ‘The Mirror Has Two Faces’ doesn’t augur well in that her co-stars talk effusively about Streisand being the star, director, producer for the film and that they had so much fun while making everything. George Clooney once said that you know that an actor’s made a pile of rubbish because they talk about what fun it all was and how great it was to work with each other rather than the film itself.

The film itself was based on a 1958 French drama called ‘Le miroir a deux faces’. This, though, is a romantic comedy and a finely judged, very funny one too. A “dowdy” woman tries to find love. This was in 1996 so it’s two years before Jeff Bridges blessed the world with ‘The Dude’ in The Big Lebowski but, here, he’s a buttoned-up mathematics professor, complete with bow-tie to underline the point, although I’ve always thought that bow-ties were quite spiffy, myself. When Jon Stewart famously went on the U.S. network TV show ‘Crossfire‘ to roast both of the opposing presenters, his weakest, lamest point was when he chided Tucker Carlson for his bow-tie.

I had seen some criticism about Streisand’s suitability for playing the character but the numbers fit, just about: she was 18 years younger than her Mum, Lauren Bacall; 14 years older than her sister, Mimi Rogers and 8 years senior to Jeff Bridges. Later in the film, when her character of Rose blossoms into this beautiful woman, what else would a director do but make her look as beautiful as possible? Yet there was an assumption from some that, because the star and the director were the same person, that she was being self-indulgent. Disagree. She was just serving the film, being true to the movie.

Streisand herself does get a lot of rat-a-tat dialogue and delivers it with her usual perfect timing but her co-stars all shine too. Like in the best U.S. TV situation comedies, the whole show is stronger if everyone gets great lines and Mimi Rogers, Jeff Bridges and Lauren Bacall all get to chew on a great script from Richard LaGravenese. Bacall herself lost out to Juliette Binoche in the Oscars but she got a Golden Globe for her trouble. I’d expected some two dimensional archetype, cracking ‘wise’, but Bacall plays someone who comes across like an actual human. Far from a inner-looking, self-involved movie, this seemed effervescent and so well orchestrated, allowing everyone a solo.

Finally. ‘The Guilt Trip’ was something which was offered to Streisand, as one would offer parts to any working actor, and she took it and an executive producer job as well. It’s a road movie, a mother going across the USA with her son. After watching this, I looked up some of my favourite reviewers and they all seemed to give this film a caning but it’s actually good fun. From what I can gather, Seth Rogen seems like a great guy in real life but I’ve never been able to like his films. For once, I was totally with him and greatly appreciated his seemingly effortless shtick with Streisand. Streisand herself gets two or three of the kind of scenes which would normally get clipped for the Oscars to play as the nominations are read out but they’re good scenes and they played well. The right emotional notes get hit and the film’s a pleasant hour and a half.

So that’s ten films, stretching from 1968 – 2012 with only ‘Funny Lady’ threatening to be a dud. Streisand’s an extremely accomplished comedy performer but she also plays dramatic moments with great elan. Why isn’t she more thought of as a great actor and film-maker? Maybe it’s because she’s female and women notoriously have a harder job in Hollywood getting taken seriously but Streisand was in the top 10 most successful at the box office for the whole of the 1970s, the only women in there. As someone said about racism, they only care about one colour in Hollywood: green.

Maybe it’s once that Streisand progressed from being a hand-on producer, with other producers to check-and-balance her, to facilitating her passion project of ‘Yentl’ – being a first-time director and with no one knowing the material better than her – there was a desire to bring this singer down a peg or two? In mainland Europe, like in France with Anna Karina, Jane Birkin, Catherine Deneuve, Charlotte Gainsbourg or Italy, with Asia Argento, women can move between acting, directing, modeling and singing with great ease; with it all being seen as one, whereas in the USA and in the UK, artists often get labelled as one thing – as a singer, or a actress, or a director – and, if they try to move out of that pigeonhole, their previous work gets held against them. It’s seen as negating the legitimacy of their new work.

Or maybe it’s that those who excel at many different areas suffer from not being appreciated because they make everything look too easy. If Prince had only been an outstanding song-writer or only an amazing guitarist or only an astonishing singer or only a ground-breaking producer, similar with guitarist, song-writing genius Richard Thompson, then the credit and respect might have flowed more readily and showed them to be real treasures. Streisand’s success in music sometimes gets spoken of as being just behind the sales volume of Elvis Presley and The Beatles but, additionally, she’s an extremely talented and versatile actor and film-maker too. Her original aim was to go into acting but she made her mark in music firstly and hence perhaps always got thought of as a singer who acts, rather than an actor who acts. I’ll definitely watch the rest of her films when I can.

 

 

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