This may be the only film biography in which the fledgling lead, Barbra Streisand, eclipses the star she’s portraying. Based on the life of singer and comedienne Fanny Brice, “Funny Girl” is the quintessential star vehicle for its leading lady, the 1968 movie that made Ms. Streisand famous. And while the film itself may not accurately represent the life of Ms. Brice, it makes for great, show-stopping entertainment.
Columbia TriStar’s DVD reproduces a newly restored print of the film, which includes the road-show edition’s overture and intermission music, running a little longer than its previous, videotape release. It may not be the greatest musical ever filmed, but it remains a must for lovers of cinema musicals, nonetheless.
With music and lyrics by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, “Funny Girl” debuted on Broadway in 1964 with Streisand in the lead, and it became an immediate hit. Four years later it would make the big screen, again with Streisand starring and with old movie pro William Wyler (“Wuthering Heights,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Ben-Hur,” “The Big Country”) directing. It became Columbia’s highest-grossing production of the sixties. This is not to say everyone today might like it, however. Times change, and movie musicals are in a downturn. What’s more, one’s appreciation of Ms. Streisand may have changed with the times, too. That is, in 1968 she was a bright, young newcomer, and she is, indeed, brilliant in the title role. But today, she carries a lot of baggage, a lot of people adoring her, others finding in her a haughty, sometimes snobbish “star” attitude that can detract from their enjoyment of her work.
Be that as it may, Streisand is almost perfectly cast as the gifted Ms. Brice, rising up through the ranks of common music hall entertainer to fame and fortune in Florenz Ziegfeld’s Follies. Streisand not only has the chance to show off her celebrated voice but her comedic and dramatic talents as well, both on and off the stage. Actually, I know little about the real Ms. Brice except for some old radio excerpts of her “Baby Snooks” routines recorded between 1938 and 1950, much later in her career than the period this movie covers. If there is anything to criticize about Streisand’s portrayal, it’s more of a compliment. Namely, Streisand appears to be much more attractive than the real Fanny Brice, slightly marring Streisand’s “Ugly Duckling” act. “I’m a bagel on a plate of onion rolls,” her character says. Mostly, though, Streisand carries it off by acting funny and continuously saying how funny-looking she is. It works well enough.
The movie’s story is not all fun and games, I might add. Since it chronicles Brice’s personal life as well as her stage life, it centers on her rocky love affair and subsequent rocky marriage to gambler Nick Arnstein (Omar Sharif), who tries to lure her from the stage to his own rather casual lifestyle. This would be Sharif’s third important role of the sixties, and it may be his best. He is called upon largely to act suave and sophisticated, which he carries off nicely. But even he, described as “gorgeous” by Streisand’s Brice, pales next to Streisand herself.
As a trivia note, producers apparently didn’t trust audiences back then to accept Sharif’s natural good looks and so enhanced them with a false headpiece and caps. In “Zhivago” the makeup department went so far as to draw back his eyes with tape at the sides of his head so they would look less round. I don’t know if that was done here, too, but I wouldn’t put it past them.
The third major star of the show is Walter Pidgeon as Flo Ziegfeld. Since William Powell (“The Great Ziegfeld,” 1936) had retired by 1968, Pidgeon makes a good substitute as the legendary, flamboyant, and bossy impresario. The rest of the cast is almost immaterial, but they support the main duo well as relatives, friends, and show business acquaintances.
Music lovers will appreciate the well-known array of songs the movie boasts. In order, they are “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty,” “Roller Skate Rag,” “I’d Rather Be Blue,” “Second Hand Rose,” His Love Makes Me Beautiful,” “People,” “You Are Woman, I Am Man,” “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” “Sadie, Sadie,” “The Swan,” “Funny Girl,” and “My Man.”
Whew. That’s quite a bundle of hits all coming from the same source, several of them written especially for the movie. It’s no wonder this show was and still is so popular.
As I said earlier, the DVD contains Columbia TriStar’s restored edition of the film, which comes up quite well in its new trimmings. The screen ratio is approximately 2.16:1, measured across a standard TV. The image quality is a little on the soft side but colors are radiant and natural, especially in the more opulent scenes. Definition is merely OK, but considering the thirty-odd-year source, it’s pretty good, even if it’s not so precise as some of today’s better releases. There is no grain to speak of, but there are occasional white age flecks and a few instances of shimmering lines in closely spaced blinds.
The audio comes in a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 track or Dolby Surround. Obviously, if you have the capability, the 5.1 is to be preferred. However, be aware that Columbia continues its practice of making the Dolby Surround the default, so if you can play back 5.1 you have to remember to select it on your own. I usually remember to do so about twenty minutes into a Columbia film and then get annoyed at them and me simultaneously. Anyway, the audio is good in both formats, but it’s crisper and cleaner sounding in 5.1, although a bit on the hard, bright side. Voices, falling in the midrange, are rendered realistically, but some of the musical numbers can appear somewhat forward. There is excellent stereo spread in the front channels, with good voice staging across the stereo field. However, you’ll find little action in the rear channels except a faint musical ambiance.
Insofar as special features are concerned, this disc has only a few, which surprises me, considering the film’s importance. In any case, two featurettes, “This Is Streisand” and “Barbra in Movieland,” are its major claims to fame. They are five and ten minutes each, respectively, and were made at about the time of the film’s production. Neither is in very good condition, frankly, and neither is a real behind-the-scenes affair; but, rather, they are promotional items to publicize the show. The disc also includes a song highlights menu, a few filmographies of the stars, a booklet insert of production notes, and twenty-eight scene selections. There are three bonus trailers included for other Streisand films, “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” “For Pete’s Sake,” and “The Prince of Tides,” but none for “Funny Girl.” English and French are offered as spoken language options, with English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai for subtitles.
Streisand went on to make a sequel, “Funny Lady,” in 1975, covering Ms. Brice’s later years, but it lacked the original’s brilliance, tautness, and bevy of good songs. “Funny Girl” was not only popular in 1968, it was highly praised, too, nominated for eight Academy Awards and winning with Streisand for Best Actress. The other nominations were for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Score for a Musical Picture, Best Song (“Funny Girl”), and Best Sound. Given that movie musicals, like comedies, don’t often get nominated for much of anything, “Funny Girl” did all right.
Of course, if you don’t like musicals, all of this is of no consequence. I know movie musicals aren’t in vogue anymore, but this one is worth a shot. Who knows, besides finding its star and story beguiling, you might even be surprised at how entertaining some of the songs and dances are.