Friday, July 07, 2017

blasphemy & sacrilege!

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"
Some of these pairings worked (Hawks, Zinnemann), some didn't (Lumet, Attenborough). In the case of "Funny Girl," Columbia brought in the estimable William Wyler (he of "Ben-Hur" fame, as well as "The Best Years of Our Lives" and "The Children's Hour," among many other varied films) and teamed him with the star of the 1963 Broadway show, Barbra Streisand. And, apparently, there was a power struggle over exactly who was the film's auteur - its seasoned director or its driven leading lady.

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 ©


mike schlesinger said...

David Swift told me that they offered him the film, since he'd just down "How to Succeed..." He replied, "Are you crazy? You wanna kill me?" He then added (to me), "Wyler took it, and it killed him!" (Almost true: he only made one more, small film before he retired at the relatively young age of 68.)

Possibly apocryphal is the story that when some of the crew complained to him about her behavior, Wyler replied, "You must be very patient with Miss Streisand. She's never directed a picture before."

joe baltake said...

Ah, yes, "The Liberation of L.B. Jones"! I remember it well, Mike. One of my most memorable interviews was with Lola Falana, ostensibly to promote the film. But we talked about everything but the film, much to the chagrin of Milt Young, who was Columbia's Philly-based P.R. rep at the time. I do remember that Lola adored Wyler though. "L.B. Jones" - another unusual film for Wyler.

Tracy said...

My favorite Streisand moment came when she tripped on her way to accept an Oscar that she didn't deserve.

Bill from Philly said...

Joe- I'm glad you brought up the bad lip-syncing in the movie. Barbra's lip movements never match her voice in the big "Don't Rain on My Parade" number. It's almost like a joke.

Alex said...

A classic episode of "Seinfeld," but I don't think you can blame it for the denigration of the musical. That was already underway; "Seinfeld" simply mirrored the ridiculousness of it.

Natalie said...

I think you can also blame the Tony Awards for continually pushing musicals in particular - and Broadway in general - as the pervue of the gay community.

joe baltake said...

Good point, Natalie. Neil Patrick Harris, whenever he hosted, was always making references to the gayness of musicals and musical numbers. I think, "How gay was that?," was a line he used repeatedly. None of this helps.

Brian Lucas said...

I guess the fractured logic is that, since largely gay men craft musicals both on stage and for film, it's a gay genre. But one can propose the same excuse for French films made by Frenchmen. They aren't just for the French. But there is no logic here.

Chris S. said...

In your list of directors new to musicals, you forgot Robert Wise, who did both "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music."

joe baltake said...

Chris- I didn't forget. -J

Ricky said...

Streisand overrated? Can't be.

mike schlesinger said...

I think it was Howard Stern who called the Tonys "the Oscars for gay people." Which itself was a riff on people who call the Oscars "the Super Bowl for gay people."

joe baltake said...

Great lines.

Laura said...

My father also took us to see musicals on stage and he enjoyed movie musicals a lot. He was a very macho man but had no hang-ups. He never gave the impression that he thought musicals were a feminine thing. Quote the opposite

Jimbo said...

There is one great moment in "Funny Girl" that would the the pride of any director's resume, bad lip syncing be damned–"Don't Rain on My Parade." Nothing else in the film, or in fact most of Barbra's oeuvre matches that moment.
By the way, you failed to mention the cameo appearance of the wonderful Tommy Rall as the only reason to sit through that dreadful Swan Lake number.

joe baltake said...

Jimbo- Yes, Tommy Rall. One of the great dancers on film - "My Sister Eileen" and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," among his credits. Thanks for mentioning him, although I still find that Swan Lake number execrable. As for "Don't Rain on My Parade," as noted here by someone else, that's where Barbra's lip-syncing is way off, almost embarrassing. But I assume that Wyler couldn't get her to get it right.

j.p. said...

OMG, Joe. You reminded me how much I can't stand Barbra Streisand on film! The cry for her to get a Best Director nom, etc, is laughable. Don't get me started!! LOL

Kevin Barry said...

Streisand deserved a best director nomination for Yentl, a glorious and unique original. All of the songs were unified, sung by a single character - sometimes in voice-over - and I think Michel Legrand's score is more effectively used than his score for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. She could have played it safe, but Yentl is a daring movie with real emotional power and one of the few screen musicals to give new energy to the liberated concepts that Lubitsch, Mamoulian and Rene Clair were exploring in the thirties.

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Kevin. "Yentl," yes. I reviewed it when I was working in Philadelphia. Frankly, I remember the screening - all the hubbub - but not the movie itself. You've jogged my memory and made me curious about the movie. I can't recall - did Streisand get a nomination for her direction? Again, so little about it has stayed with me.

Kevin Barry said...

No, she won the Golden Globe but was not nominated for an Oscar. Her subsequent films as director were not as good.

joe baltake said...

Actually, Kevin, "The Prince of Tides" and "The Mirror Has Two Faces" are pretty good, especially the latter.

Kevin Barry said...

Both of those films are very enjoyable and Streisand directs in a smooth old-school Hollywood style. There are a lot of Streisand haters out there and I attribute that to the stories of her perfectionism and difficult behavior, which probably wouldn't matter as much if she was a man. However, I can share a funny first hand experience. My father knew the manager of the Winter Garden theatre and, as a birthday surprise, arranged for Streisand to meet me at the stage door after a performance of Funny Girl (I was 12). When we made our way to the stage door we were greeted instead by Kay Medford, who said she would take me backstage as soon as she walked Barbra's dog, Sadie. When I finally met Streisand she was quite cordial but made it obvious that she was doing someone a favor, easing me towards the stage door. As she got into her Bentley, she asked, "Are you going to tell all your little friends at school tomorrow that you met me?" I wasn't sure how to answer, so I said, "Probably." She made a face and said, "I hate name droppers."

joe baltake said...

Kevin- That is an absolutely priceless story. Thanks for sharing. I'm impressed that you are still a fan after that encounter. I had a vaguely similar experience with Shirley MacLaine, someone whom I had admired for decades, and the incident killed it for me. -J

Kevin Barry said...

I met Shirley MacLaine at a tribute to Billy Wilder at Lincoln Center in the eighties and I had the same experience. She was unbelievably sour and cranky and I was terribly disappointed because I have always had a crush on her. But I remain a fan of both Shirley and Barbra because I admire their talent and I enjoy their work. I learned years ago that liking the people we admire is a lost cause. However, Billy Wilder and his lovely wife Audrey were delightful. I have the fond memory of listening to Wilder tell a story about the making of Sunset Boulevard in a small group that consisted of Shirley MacLaine, Ginger Rogers, Joan Fontaine, and John Huston (Eleven Oscars among them!). I was the only one in the group that I never heard of.

joe baltake said...

Kevin- Shirley was neither sour nor cranky when we met at a function honoring Jack Lemmon. However, the encounter was rather unusual, off-putting actually. It took me aback and was a surprising disappointment, given how much I had looked forward to finally meeting her. -J

Paul Gottlieb said...

My wife and I were barely 21 years old and visiting New York when we were able to score two great seats for "Funny Girl" on Broadway. We loved the show. The songs were all serviceable, and a few were terrific. The story was certainly good enough, and the very young Streisand was an awesome force of nature. The movie version was much more polished and "classy." and by then Streisand had become a grand lady of the theater. Lifeless.

joe baltake said...

Paul- Yes, "lifeless" is the word to describe both the movie version of "Funny Girl" and Streisand's performance in it. As big and splashy and colorful that the movie tries to be, it is indeed lifeless. -J

mike schlesinger said...

Isn't it a fact that much of the Streisand hatred is less about her talent and more about the fact that she's a horrid human being? After all, when was the last time you heard something derogatory about Julie Andrews or Angela Lansbury?

joe baltake said...

Like most people, I've no idea who she is or what she is really like. I know only what I read and it's rarely flattering. One consolation is that her threatened remake of "Gypsy" (talk about a bad idea!) seems to be stone-cold dead. There's no reason to remake it. The 1962 Warner version is definitive and I've seen just about every possible stage production of the show. Mervyn LeRoy and Leonard Spielgass improved upon Laurents' flawed (yes, flawed!) stage book. End of (gratuitous) rant.