By Scott Ross
One of the most spectacular debuts in movie history. In a highly romanticized biography of Fanny Brice with a strong Jule Styne score (and some very good lyrics by the highly variable Bob Merrill) Barbra Streisand repeated, and deepened, her star-making Broadway role.
This big, romantic musical biography of Fanny Brice has a curious pedigree. With the active collusion of Brice’s daughter Fran (the wife of the producer Ray Stark), Isobel Lennart wrote a soapy screenplay for a projected 1950s biopic that never sold and was later re-imagined for the stage, coming full-circle, as it were, for the movie adaptation. The show’s director was Garson Kanin, his Fanny a gawky young singer who had previously stopped her Broadway debut I Can Get it for You Wholesale cold with a hilarious rendition of Harold Rome’s comic lament “Miss Marmelstein.”
Stark, on hand to produce, thought Streisand looked like his maid, and she in turn drove Kanin to distraction with her lack of expertise and professionalism. But her voice was a force of nature, and Kanin (among others) molded her into a real actress, much as Moss Hart had performed his own Pygmalion job on Julie Andrews for My Fair Lady. Then he was fired. (For a bittersweet take, see Kanin’s roman a clef account Smash.) Naturally, the show was a hit. While Kanin and company handled the material comedically, with a light touch on the central Brice-Nick Arnstein romance, the movie (also produced by Stark) unfortunately reasserts the soapier aspects.
Brice herself might not have recognized herself amid all the suds; of her marriages to Nick Arnstein and Billy Rose, she famously said, “I didn’t like the man I loved, and I didn’t love the man I liked.” But she would surely have been impressed by Barbra.
Everything Streisand could do was packed into the movie, from the “I’m gonna be a star whether you like it or not!” opening to the stunning finale in which she stands in a spotlight and pours it all into Brice’s signature torch song, “My Man.” As with the great “Don’t Rain on My Parade” sequence, one of the most exhilarating numbers in all of American movie musicals, “My Man” was planned and shot by the film’s choreographer, Herbert Ross, not William Wyler, an otherwise very fine director who filmed most of this movie rather stodgily. It’s said that Streisand convinced her co-star, and ersatz off-screen lover, the badly miscast Omar Sharif, to break up with her a second time, just before the take, which was done “live.” If the story is true, it’s one of the supreme acts of masochism in service to art, but in any case the sight of Barbra-as-Fanny, choking back tears and gradually giving in to the sheer, narcissistic joy of performance, is shocking in its visual simplicity and histrionic intensity.
I’ve always thought that the ideal casting of Arnstein would have been George Segal. The real Nick was far scrappier — and a great deal less elegant — than the rather stuffy conception of him in Funny Girl, but the project belonged to Fanny’s daughter and her husband, and Mrs. Ray Stark was determined to present an idealized version of her Pop. My thesis is proven, in a way, by how well, and sexily, Streisand and Segal played together two years later in The Owl and the Pussycat, directed by Herb Ross.
Streisand’s Fanny is smashing, and she’s pretty much the whole show. Her comic timing is a thing of beauty, and between the stage musical and the movie her singing had deepened and become infinitely richer. Kay Medford is a memorably sly Mama Brice, but poor Anne Francis had most of her performance cut (allegedly at La Streisand’s insistence) and Walter Pidgeon is a bit too Mr. Miniver-ish as Flo Ziegfeld. But the movie, despite its occasional ponderousness, is full of delights. Styne and Merrill added a lovely title ballad, beautifully performed and shot, and there are delicious bits of faux-period items like the big Ziegfeld glorification number Streisand turns into a comic shambles and a very funny Swan Lake parody. (It’s a bit truncated; a Baby Snooks number was similarly shot and deleted.)
Funny Girl is not quite a classic. But it’s got Streisand, and that’s more than enough.
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross