Or, Rain already, rain on her parade! Do it!
Willam Wyler's "Funny Girl" (1968) is the final candidate for my disruptive Hall of the Overrated. Perhaps this is a premature end, considering the many other titles that I would have liked to tackle here. "Independence Day"! "Rain Man"! "The Silence of the Lambs"! The list goes on: Films that other moviegoers (and critics) have enjoyed and even obsessively loved.
"Funny Girl" is also the third title on the list that belongs to my favorite genre - the film musical, particularly the film musical that's an adaptation of a stage play. At the risk of seriously dating myself, I should note that I saw all three shows in their original Broadway productions - "West Side Story" as a kid and, later, "Cabaret" and Funny Girl" as a young adult.
But more about that later.*
During its lifespan, the movie musical was routinely overseen by people with music backgrounds but, every so often, Hollywood would assign one to director not connected with the genre but a solid craftsman nonethless:
- Howard Hawks - "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"
- Fred Zinnemann - "Oklahoma!"
- Henry Koster - "Flower Drum Song"
- Francis Ford Coppola - "Finian's Rainbow" (and, later, "One from the Heart")
- Sir Carol Reed - "Oliver!"
- Sidney Lumet - "The Wiz"
- Milos Foreman - "Hair"
- Sir Richard Attenborough - "A Chorus Line"
- Martin Scorsese - "New York, New York"
- Peter Bogdanovich - "At Long Last Love"
- John Huston - "Annie"
- Michael Ritchie - "The Fantasticks"
Caught in the middle is the movie itself which is at once big and splashy and gaudy - and also lengthy and lethargic. At its best, it's highly disappointing. Not that the original show itself was that great, apart from Streisand's showstopper-after-showstopper performance. She was the only reason to see it. As for the material, it served simply as an opportunity for its composer, Jule Styne, to repeat the same formula (a vaudeville-based musical biography) that worked so successfully for him with "Gypsy" a few years earlier. But there's really no comparison at all.
"Funny Girl," which chronicles both the personal and professional life of Ziegfield star Fanny Brice, remains merely a serviceable musical comedy that, both on stage and on film, has functioned strictly as an over-the-top showcase for its star. This was made apparent when the material was blown up to 70mm proportions for the film. Wyler's camera is ruthless.
Unless you are an avid Streisand fan or have a deep appreciation for the kind of broad performance she delivers, his movie is something of a trial to sit through. And little is more deadly than its first 15 minutes.
Streisand enters an empty theater in full Grande Dame mode, looking pained and full of regret and ready to share the struggles of her journey. Cue to flashback. Now looking younger (in an anacronistic way, circa 1968), she performs what's supposed to be a novelty number, "If a Girl Isn't Pretty," with character actresses Kay Medford (as her mother) and Mae Questel, but the way it's staged here, the song is downright funereal.
So who made the decision to open the film this way? Wyler? Streisand? Producer Ray Stark? Or Isobel Lennart, who wrote the scripts for both the play and the film? Or was it one of those decisions by committee?
Matters don't improve as Streisand is indulged by a beached Wyler - dancing a fractured version of "Swan Lake," trying to balance herself on roller skates, playing a pregnant bride and acting coy with Omar Sharif.
And then there's the faulty lip-syncing - which is actually kind of funny.
In spite of its bloat, "Funny Girl" plays like a watered-down version of Styne's previous hit. Picking Wyler to direct this material was probably a ploy to give the film something of a pedigree and I guess he delivered that. But for all its razz-a-ma-tazz, "Funny Girl" feels stillborn and that's probably because of Wyler. He was the wrong choice. In comparson, Mervyn LeRoy - who directed the 1962 Warner film version of "Gypsy" - had an active background in (and feel for) vaudeville and it shows. And it helps that he made such titles as "Gold Diggers of 1933," also for Warners.
* Note in Passing: "Gypsy" was another show that I saw as a kid, the original production with Merman. I often think about the musical shows I saw growing up. It was a natural part of my youth. So when did it become a gay thing to enjoy musicals? Exactly when did men begin to define their masculinity by the movies they watch? I ask because my wife and I each had fathers who loved musicals, both on stage and on screen No big deal.
Both took their families to tryouts of new musicals in Philadelphia and both loved "Oklahoma!," "South Pacific" and "The Music Man" on screen. A musical was just another type of movie to see. This week, a Western. Next week, a musical. And the week after that, something with Clark Gable or Doris Day. It simply didn't matter. A movie was just a movie.
And some variety made movies even better. But not anymore. Men now think that their sperm count or testosterone level will shrink if they watch a musical. This phobia was driven home by Larry David who wrote an episode of "Seinfeld" - episode 17, season four, to be specific - titled "The Outing," in which George (Jason Alexander) purchases two tickets to a "Guys and Dolls" revival as a birthday present for Jerry (Seinfeld).
One for him, one for Jerry.
Uptight that anyone would think he is gay, Jerry screams in his unique Seinfeldian way, "Isn't that a lavish Broadway musical?"
To which George responds, "It's 'Guys and Dolls,' Jerry, not 'Guys and Guys'!"
"The Outing" first aired February 11, 1993 and matters haven't changed.
Sadly, it's gotten much worse.
* * * * *
~Barbra Streisand and Kay Medford in "Funny Girl"
~photography: Columbia Pictures / Rastar Productions 1968 ©
~Jason Alexander and Jerry Seinfeld in "The Outing"
~photography: Castle Rock Entertainment / NBC 1993 ©