Tuesday, July 16, 2002


I've never been wild about Barbra Streisand, but seeing FUNNY GIRL on the big screen, as I did this weekend, gave me a better sense of her performing strengths and helped me understand why she has such a big following. I saw this movie years ago on TV, pan & scanned and with ads, and didn't care for it. In a theater, it's a whole different experience. The action of the film covers the early life of singer and comedienne Fanny Brice (Streisand), and it's really at its best when it sticks with her career on the stage. Walter Pidgeon (looking quite ancient) is Flo Ziegfeld, who helped make her famous. Her scenes with Pidgeon as they engage in battles of will are very good. Various characters comment regularly on Brice's unusual looks, and she herself frets that she can't be presented on stage as a traditional Ziegfeld Girl beauty, but actually Streisand, though indeed not a traditional beauty, isn't quite "ugly" enough to really pull off the "ugly duckling" aspect of the plot. At what are supposed to be her most awkward and geeky moments, she is still the most striking looking woman on screen, despite the presence of Anne Francis and assorted Ziegfeld chorus girls in the background.

Brice meets Nick Arnstein (Omar Sharif), a somewhat shady gambler, and they begin an romance that eventually becomes an affair and a marriage. While they are casually dating (he takes her out for an evening, then leaves the country for six months, then returns, takes her out, and leaves again...), the movie remains fun and interesting. When they get serious, about halfway through the film, the focus shifts to romantic melodrama and I think the movie suffers for it, partly because it turns predictable, and partly because we lose the sense of Brice's career: Did she leave the Follies for a time? Why did she return? Even the time frame for the last half is unclear--it could be taking place over two years or five years, or anywhere in between. But the musical numbers are always good; my favorite ones are "Don't Rain on My Parade" and the "Beautiful Bride" parody.

Streisand is front and center for most of the film--indeed, I can only think of a couple of very short scenes where she isn't present--and she holds the screen like a seasoned pro, even though this was her first movie. The only other performers who have a chance to register at all are Kay Medford, who does a nice job as her mother, and Mae Questel (who did the voices of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl in the 30's and 40's) as a nosy neighbor lady. Lee Allen, who went on to do almost nothing else, is good in a small part as Brice's accompanist. Sharif is OK, but he is always overpowered by Streisand. This was the recently restored version; they spent three years restoring picture and sound and it looks great. The entire Panavision screen is used, which is why the pan & scan version destroys the movie. This may have been the first and last time that Streisand's full range as a performer was exploited to strong effect, though I admit that her STAR IS BORN is something of a guilty pleasure for me.

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