2 Hrs., 35 Mins.
Funny Girl February 24, 2015
“Show me an actress who isn’t a personality and you’ll show me a woman who isn’t a star,” declared Katharine Hepburn when asked about her smashing screen persona. Humble, no. Correct, yes. Take any legendary performer — Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe — and you will not only find a terrific actor but also a presence who could interrupt the breathing patterns of an entire room just by walking through a door. And if you don’t inspire that same breathless room to immediately bow down in a we’re-not-worthy Wayne’s World dramatization, then you probably aren’t a star.
Fortunately for us, fortunately for Funny Girl, but unfortunately for the self-proclaimed icon herself, Katharine Hepburn, Barbra Streisand happens to be a star — a star who, incidentally, matched Hepburn’s explosive performance in The Lion in Winter so well that the two ended up tying for the Oscar win. Now that Funny Girl and The Lion in Winter are nearly a half-century old, it’s probably safe to say that Hepburn and Streisand are unofficial gods of the entertainment industry; but Funny Girl is the more important film, introducing the world to a new voice, a new actress, and yes, a new personality.
In the years since Funny Girl, Streisand hasn’t lost her bewitching zeal, but only a few of her following films have captured the same sort of youthful gusto of her debut. The early days of Babs, with roles in What’s Up, Doc? and The Owl and the Pussycat, bring lasting joy. Like many actresses who appeal to the Broadway inclined crowd, she is more fun to watch in quickly-paced adventures in comedy than sappy behemoths like The Mirror Has Two Faces. Funny Girl is a snapshot of everything we’ve come to admire about Streisand — that immediate likability, that one-million-miles-an-hour comedic timing, those dramatic chops, and that voice. You can bet that the film itself is given the standard Hollywood musical treatment — but what isn’t standard is the girl from New Yawk with charisma the size of Alaska and Texas put together.
Funny Girl is technically a true story. Its leading character, Fanny Brice was, in fact, a famed Ziegfeld girl, and she was, in fact, married to Nicky Arnstein. But Streisand is such a ball-of-fire that we aren’t paying much attention to Brice’s accomplished (and melodramatic) life. Streisand demolishes every confine a characterization can bring. She’s not so much playing Fanny Brice as she much as she is Fanny Brice. She doesn’t act out a scene; she is the scene.
I suppose for the sake of a plot summary I should cover the basics so you know what you’re getting into. The film travels across the life of Brice from the early 1900s to the beginnings of the 1920s, detailing her whirlwind (and lasting) relationship with show business and stormy marriage to gambler Nicky Arnstein (Omar Sharif). There’s comedy and music and tear-jerking and romance and overtures and more hoohas that come along with the big-budgeted movie musical genre; Funny Girl has all the makings to become an epic production of the Sound of Music class.
But Streisand keeps the film from getting whisked away into unremarkable giganticness. The film is about her, not its supporting characters, photography, or set design. Roger Ebert noted that everything other than Streisand is mostly flat. While this is partially true, I think that, on the other hand, if Streisand weren't the star, suddenly the supporting characters, photography, and set design would seem bigger-than-life, extraordinary even. But she’s like a blinding light from outer space running around a soundstage; you can only wonder why the items surrounding her don’t spontaneously combust.
I’m not part of the devoted fan base who refers to Streisand exclusively as “Babs” and lists “Evergreen” as their theme song. But I am a part of the base which recognizes her as one of cinema’s most unique and versatile actresses. Funny Girl is a loud and proud musical, and Streisand is the microphone that helps take it to the high heavens. Without her, it'd still be at ground level, unsure where to go. A-