A musical feast for the eyes, ears and heart, featuring a breakthrough role for a new kind of star
The musical “Funny Girl” is arguably the last of the outstanding Hollywood studio-type musicals. Its lavish sets, stunning costumes, vivid colors, exquisite lighting, a first-rate script, and songs that have become standards, are all shown through flawless direction. That alone is more than enough to create a classic, yet this biopic about Fanny Brice is best known for launching the film career of a new star, Barbra Streisand. Her performance is one of those rare magical instances where actor and role merge so completely it seems inconceivable to have anyone else play the part. Hers is perhaps film’s greatest musical comedy performance.
“Funny Girl” takes place in New York in the early 20th century, and loosely follows a period in the life of singer, comedienne, and star, Fanny Brice. It focuses on Brice’s rise to stardom with the “Ziegfeld Follies”, her marriage to Nick Arnstein, and the ups and downs and loneliness of fame. As “Fanny” says to “Nick” at one point, “That’s where I live, on stage”. To which he replies, “Then you miss too much”. “Nick”, a gambler, is also missing much of life, and the film humorously and tragically shows the two caught between fame, pride, and love. There is so much fun in the telling of this story it makes any sadness that much more touching. “Funny Girl” was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including “Best Picture”, winning one for “Best Actress”.
Much of the triumph of “Funny Girl” is from William Wyler’s direction, which has its own joyous personality. I wrote more about Wyler in “The Heiress” post. “Funny Girl” was his first and only musical and his second to last film. His direction in this film is exceedingly playful, containing colorful lighting, clever editing, astounding acting, and “blink and you’ll miss it” details. Take for instance the character of “Sadie”, who we see for a split second dancing with “Nick”. She tells "Nick" she’s married to a dentist, and as she smiles we get a passing glimpse of a mouth full of braces. Or how “Fanny”, during the song "You Are Woman, I Am Man”, unwittingly mimics the statues next to her. Thanks to Wyler, this film is a feast for the eyes, ears, and heart.
Getting “Funny Girl” made was no easy task. Based on a Broadway musical of the same name, both were spearheaded by the film's producer Ray Stark, the real-life son-in-law of Fanny Brice. Both productions went through several directors and rewrites, not to mention the trouble choosing an actress to play the overly Jewish, singing, comical Brice. Stark had previously seen Streisand in her Tony nominated supporting role in the Broadway musical, “I Can Get It For You Wholesale”. Remembering her, he took “Funny Girl’s” songwriter Jules Styne to see her sing in a small nightclub in Greenwich Village, after which she was asked to audition, and immediately got the part, and instantly became a Broadway sensation. Stark insisted she reprise her role in the film version, and thus he is the person who gave Streisand the break that made her a star. The two would make five films together, including “Funny Girl”. Ray Stark was an important independent producer who worked on over 125 films. In addition to working with Streisand, he made eleven films of playwright Neil Simon’s work, and five films with director John Huston. Just some of Stark’s many classics include "The Goodbye Girl", "The Sunshine Boys", "The Way We Were", "California Suite", "The Night Of The Iguana", "West Side Story", "Somewhere in Time", "Steel Magnolias" and many more. Ray Stark died in 2004 at the age of 88.
Barbra Streisand, who stars as “Fanny Brice”, is a singer, actress, songwriter, director, producer, trailblazer, trendsetter, icon, legend, and superstar (just to name a few things). If you want to know how she became a superstar, look no further than “Funny Girl”. This was her film debut, and it was the perfect vehicle at the perfect time for the perfect actress. It was a highly anticipated film debut of a known personality. Before this film, she had already graced the covers of “Time” and “Life” magazines due to her music, television, and Broadway appearances. She was already the top female vocalist in the country with a musical artistry like no one else. Her powerfully pure voice can whisper a heartbreak, belt out a declaration, and sustain a stunning high note - and all in one phrase. Her inspiring sounds have even soothed me through many an angst ridden occasion. Streisand’s performance in “Funny Girl” is just as nuanced and moving as one of her unique musical phrases. Her performance can make you laugh and cry at the same time, and her richly dynamic singing, comedic and dramatic skills are nothing short of perfection. Endowed with a New York Jewish sensibility, unconventional looks, and a large nose, Streisand was the ideal person to portray the real life singer and comic Fanny Brice, who had a Jewish sensibility, unconventional looks, and a large nose. “Funny Girl” very much focuses on the ambitious Brice’s atypical looks. There is even a song titled "If a Girl Isn't Pretty”. Like Brice, the headstrong Streisand was aiming towards fame despite her unorthodox looks. Streisand is so natural, and so much like Brice, it becomes hard to distinguish the two. In “Funny Girl”, when Streisand powerfully sings “I’m the Greatest Star”, one can’t help but think it is Streisand singing about Streisand, as well as Streisand singing as Brice. It happens again when Streisand sings the show stopping “Don’t Rain on My Parade”. And when “Fanny” tells the great “Florenz Ziegfeld” she needs to choose her own songs, we feel it is a scene out of Streisand’s own life. To further blur the lines, director Wyler blatantly showcases what was considered Streisand’s weak point, her nose, which reads as Streisand declaring self confidence and defiance. And her self-effacing performance, often reminding us she “isn’t pretty”, only endears us to her. As she makes fun of herself, we laugh and feel for “Fanny” and for “Streisand”. This was an ideal star making vehicle for Streisand, which solidified her persona, much like “The Philadelphia Story” did for Katharine Hepburn (which I talk about in that post).
Streisand won the “Best Actress” Academy Award for this film, tying with Katharine Hepburn (for the “Lion in Winter”) in the Academy’s only point-to-point tie in an acting category. Streisand would again be nominated for a “Best Actress” Oscar for “The Way We Were”. She would be nominated an additional three times: once as producer for, “Prince of Tides”; and twice for “Best Original Song” (nominated for "I've Finally Found Someone" from "The Mirror Has Two Faces", and winning for “Evergreen” from “A Star is Born”) She was among the first to become an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony winner). To date she’s won four Emmys (with nine nominations), ten Grammys (with forty six nominations), two Oscars, and one Tony (with two nominations). She is one of the most awarded people in show business, winning just about every conceivable award given to performers. Bestowed with so many awards, even one of my close friends had one of her awards in their home (which Streisand forfeited by not showing up to receive). Streisand is one of the most successful recording artists of all time. She holds the record for the most top ten albums of any female artist, the most #1 albums of any female artist, and is the only artist to have a #1 album in each of the last six decades.
Barbra Streisand was born in New York to a middle class family, which changed with the death of her father when she was 15 months old. Suddenly struggling for money, her mother found work as a secretary. When she was seven, her mother remarried to a stepfather with whom she didn’t get along. Barbra dreamed of being an actress, while her mother would keep reminding her she was too ugly and not talented, suggesting she become a typist (thus Streisand’s trademark long nails - a form of rebellion against her mother’s wishes). Determined to reach stardom, she soon realized she could make money from singing, and thought of it as a pathway to becoming an actress. It’s no wonder when she sings she’s known for her great emotion, as she is “acting” each song. Other singers sing to impress, while Streisand sings to express. She won a talent contest singing, and soon after was the opening act for comedienne Phyllis Diller in a New York nightclub in 1960. In 1962 she made her Broadway debut in “I Can Get It For You Wholesale”, for which she earned a supporting actress Tony Award nomination. The star of that show was actor Elliott Gould, and the two started dating, marrying in 1963. Also in 1962, she began doing guest spots singing on such TV shows as “The Tonight Show”, "The Ed Sullivan Show”, and many others. Her first album, “The Barbra Streisand Album”, was released in 1963, won three Grammy Awards, and made her the #1 female vocalist in the country. Starting in 1965, she appeared in the first of five television specials, "My Name Is Barbra” which won five Emmy Awards. To date she has appeared in 19 films, the bulk of which were in the 1970s and 80s. Some of her other notable films include “Hello Dolly!”, “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever”, “The Owl and the Pussycat”, “Yentl”, “Meet the Fockers”, and one of my favorites, “What’s Up Doc?”. She was one of the top ten box office stars every year but two between 1969 and 1980.
Streisand’s rise came at a time when the Beatles were the rage, and the tumultuous 1960s were in full bloom. Her voice and talent were echoes of classic Hollywood, while her looks and off-beat persona were completely different from all actresses before her,. Somewhat in line with the counterculture movement at the time, she was a bridge between two worlds - the old and new, appealing to both. Barbra has been a pioneer in film in many ways. She led the way for a new breed of less godlike, more everyday looking stars. In 1976, with the release of her film “A Star is Born”, she insisted theaters show the film in stereo sound (which didn’t exist in theaters at that point), and with that film theaters changed to stereo sound. With her 1983 film “Yentl”, she became the first woman to write, produce, direct, and star in a major studio film, and would go on to direct two additional films, “Prince of Tides”, and “The Mirror Has Two Faces”. She is known to be a perfectionist to the point where she is often called difficult. Streisand has been outspoken about politics and social issues, including women's and environmental issues, and supporting gay rights. A vocal democrat, she was one of the celebrities on President Richard Nixon's 1971 list of political enemies (along with Paul Newman and Jane Fonda). A major philanthropist, she created The Barbra Streisand Foundation in 1986 which has distributed over $25 million to more than 800 organizations and charities. She gifted $5 million to the Barbra Streisand Women’s Cardiovascular Research and Education Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and recently gifted George Floyd’s daughter with shares of Disney stock. I’m just scratching the surface at this prodigious woman’s accomplishments. She married twice, her second marriage being to actor James Brolin in 1998, to whom she is still married. She has one son from her first marriage, singer and actor Jason Gould. As of the writing of this post, Barbra Streisand is 78 years old.
Omar Sharif is also perfect as the classy, romantic, “Nick Arnstein”. He brings an exact amount of good looks, charm, and class to this version of Prince Charming meets the Ugly Duckling. Sharif has his own sense of humor, which mixes incredibly well with Streisand. Watch them together in the scene eating lobster. He radiates such warmth and sorrow, which she expertly plays against. The two have a delightful on-screen chemistry which apparently extended to off-screen as well (as they reportedly had an affair while shooting). Before the film came out, the Six Day War between Egypt and Israel broke out, and with Sharif being Egyptian and Streisand being Jewish, and a supporter of Israel, there was some controversy over them kissing. The Egyptian press even tried to have Sharif’s citizenship revoked. In the end “Nick Arnstein” became one of his memorable roles. Born Michel Demitri Shalhoub, Omar Sharif first became a star in Egyptian films. In 1962 he attained international stardom with a supporting part in his first English speaking role, in the David Lean classic “Lawrence of Arabia”. For it, he received his only Academy Award nomination, for “Best Supporting Actor”, and it is another of his most memorable performances. He worked again with director David Lean in the classic 1965 film, "Doctor Zhivago”, playing the title role in what would become his most iconic. He appeared in over 100 films and TV shows, including "Genghis Khan", "The Fall of the Roman Empire", "The Yellow Rolls-Royce", "Monsieur Ibrahim", and he would reprise "Nick Arnstein" alongside Streisand in 1975's sequel to "Funny Girl', "Funny Lady”. He spoke many languages and had an ambiguous accent which would often land him the role of foreigners from different lands in American films. He was also a world-class bridge player, writing several books and articles on the subject, and licensing his name to a bridge computer game. He married once, to actress Faten Hamama, and they divorced in 1974. They had one son, Tarek Sharif, who played Omar Sharif as a child in "Doctor Zhivago”. Omar Sharif is also the grandfather of actor, model and gay activist Omar Sharif Jr. Omar Sharif died in 2015 at the age of 83.
Kay Medford brilliantly portrays “Fanny’s” mother, “Rose Brice”. She has her own brand of witty, deadpan humor, and in her small scattered scenes brings to life a fully formed New York Jewish mother. Notice how real she is when with her female cronies, and how filled with emotional depth when with “Fanny”. Medford originated this role in the Broadway version of “Funny Girl” alongside Streisand. For her role in the film version she received her one and only Academy Award nomination for “Best Supporting Actress”. If you are watching the films on here, you previously saw her in “A Face in the Crowd”, where she played the first “Mrs. Rhodes”. In a career spanning almost 40 years, Medford would appear in over 70 films and TV shows, including "Butterfield 8", "Mrs. Parkington", "Random Harvest", "The Picture of Dorian Gray", "Barney Miller ", and "Love, American Style”. Kay Medford died in 1980 at the age of 60.
Anne Francis plays Ziegfeld Girl “Georgia James”. Evidently her part as “Fanny’s” friend was larger but ended up on the cutting room floor, for which Francis later blamed Streisand. Francis was known for her good looks, blonde hair and blue eyes, as well as the mole on her face. She began as a child model, television and stage actress, and started acting in films in 1947. She appeared in over 150 films and televisions shows up until 2004, most notably in "Bad Day at Black Rock", "Blackboard Jungle ", "Dreamboat", and the 1965 TV Series "Honey West" (for which she received an Emmy Award nomination). Her most remembered role was in the classic 1956 science fiction film, "Forbidden Planet”. She was married and divorced twice. Anne Francis died in 2011 at the age of 80.
Walter Pidgeon is excellent as “Florenz Ziegfeld”, the man behind the most successful theatrical show of its time. Pidgeon brings an almost biting humor, while retaining his authoritativeness, and plays off Streisand incredibly well. Just watch them together in the scene just after the song "His Love Makes Me Beautiful”. Together, they are a joy to watch. Walter Pidgeon was a Hollywood star from the 1930’s through the early 1950s. He began his career on Broadway, mostly in musicals, and started appearing in silent films in 1926, becoming a popular actor shortly after the dawn of sound, with musicals such as "The Bride of the Regiment", and "Viennese Nights”. He would return to Broadway in the mid-1930s, and when he came back to Hollywood, he found himself playing the second lead or smaller parts. His starring role in the 1941 classic film “How Green Was My Valley” would launch the height of his film career, which would last until the mid-1950s. He was often paired with actress Greer Garson, and the two made eight films together including the classics “Mrs. Miniver”, and “Blossoms in the Dust”. For those two films Pidgeon received his only Academy Award nominations, both for “Best Actor”. He would continue to work mostly in films and TV up until his final film, “Sextette” in 1977. Other classics in which he appeared include "The Bad and the Beautiful", "Advise & Consent", "Million Dollar Mermaid", "Saratoga", "Executive Suite", “Madame Curie”, "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea", and "Forbidden Planet" (along with Anne Francis). He was married twice. Walter Pidgeon died in 1984 at the age of 87.
Get ready for a romantic, electrifying, and very funny film, filled with unforgettable songs and spellbinding performances. You are in for an irresistible emotional ride. Enjoy “Funny Girl”!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
Barbra Streisand’s first appearance on screen was a highly anticipated event, and her introduction in “Funny Girl” is one of cinema’s most famous. After following along behind her, we finally see her face as she utters the now famous words, “Hello gorgeous”, into a mirror. That line was rated #81 on the American Film Institute list, AFI's "100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes". When Streisand accepted her Oscar for “Funny Girl”, she arrived to the podium, looked at the Oscar and said to it, “Hello gorgeous”!
The song “People”, which "Fanny" sings to “Nick” in the alleyway, became Streisand’s signature song. She still sings it when she appears in concert.
The song “My Man” in the film’s finale, was Fanny Brice's signature song. Streisand gives an emotionally memorable tour de force interpretation, which has become a classic scene in movie musicals.