Return is music to the ears

September 14, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

When producer Ray Stark proposed that Barbra Streisand re-create her role as singer-comedienne Fanny Brice for the 1968 movie version of the Broadway smash Funny Girl, Columbia Pictures executives counter-proposed Shirley MacLaine because they felt Streisand was "too Jewish."

Stark, Brice's real-life son-in-law, stood his ground. Later, when director William Wyler cast Omar Sharif as her husband, Nicky Arnstein, the actor found himself a figure of controversy in his native land, Egypt, for romancing a Jewish star playing a Jewish star so soon after Israel's victory in the Six-Day War.

These ethnic and political sideshows are worth remembering on the occasion of the film's deluxe reissue at the Senator - not because the Middle East has become so searingly topical again, but because this is the kind of conflict big-time American showbiz always, eventually, manages to transcend.

Funny Girl is a paean to popular entertainment's ability to reinvigorate itself with the help of fresh pop personae. And seen today, Streisand is as spectacular and vitalizing in this picture as she was 33 years ago. It's satisfying to know that Streisand became, for a long while, what Fanny Brice in the musical vows she will become: "the greatest star."

It's frustrating to realize that she has never again worked with a director as superb as Wyler, the man behind such classics as Wuthering Heights and The Best Years of Our Lives.

Despite the burden of laboring under a screenplay that's a hash of backstage comedy and off-stage heartbreak, Wyler locates the core of the material and ignites it. And that core is simply the incredible union of Streisand and Brice.

In the film's story, Brice, a Jewish girl from Manhattan's Lower East Side, uses a combination of chutzpah and talent to find a most unlikely place in the Broadway spotlight - in Flo Ziegfeld's spectacles celebrating the beauty of the all-American glamour girl. She also snags a Prince Charming, Arnstein, a gambler in ways that work for and against their marriage. He'll take a chance on a headstrong spouse, but is too dependent on his poker face to keep his confidence when he knows she can see through it.

Brice, of course, sees through everything - whether it's her husband's poker face or the sentimental conventions of theatrical extravaganzas. But she does it in the spirit of a lover, not a debunker. That's what makes her such an irresistible character and also such a perfect fit for Streisand. In the movie, Brice brings out the playfulness and romantic ardor of vaudeville traditions that are already wearing thin.

That's just what Streisand did in the '60s with the vanishing tradition of the song stylist belting out old standards and new show tunes.

From her long walk into the New Amsterdam Theater at the start, capped by her amused "hello, gorgeous" in a mirror, to her bringing down the house with "My Man" - singing it against a dark curtain with only her face and arms and decolletage visible - Funny Girl is a love letter to its star and a testimony to her seductive vitality.

This was Wyler's only musical, but some of his greatest hits (Dead End, The Little Foxes, Detective Story) had been adaptations of stage successes. He must have recognized intuitively that the wide-screen format (the movie was shot in 35mm anamorphic Panavision) mirrored the bright ribbon of the proscenium stage.

The movie is stagey, but it's cannily stagey. Almost every character except for Brice is a theatrical type, from her all-knowing saloon-keeper mom (Kay Medford) and her kibitzing neighborhood friends to the irascible small-time impresario (Frank Faylen), the affectionate accompanist and trainer (Lee Allen), the good-hearted beauties on Ziegfeld's stage (led by Anne Francis) and the coolly elegant, caring Ziegfeld himself (Walter Pidgeon).

Yet there in the middle is the towering, unclassifiable Streisand, imbuing moldy jokes and comic ditties with a stylized spontaneity that makes them seem off the cuff while she brings off the punch lines with killer instinct. And when she sings "People" or "My Man," the depth of her yearning is still startling.

It's glorious to hear her in a new print, testing the limits of digital sound. The visual quality may not be as consistent as the audio, but it's often breathtaking, particularly in the long sequence that starts with the luxuriously decked-out Ziegfeld girls debarking in the Baltimore railroad station (they're like a rainbow stuck in transit), continues with Arnstein's seduction of Brice in a private hotel dining room that resembles a red bordello, and ends in New York Harbor with the terrific pre-intermission number, "Don't Rain on My Parade."

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