Monday, May 21, 2018

Meryl, Kurt and Cher—a Silky Cinema Menage


On its face, it may not seem like Silkwood (1983) would be a highly entertaining film—it’s a grim, ripped-from-the-headlines tale of a nuclear plant worker who blows the whistle on its shady business practices and shines a light on the cancer-causing health effects of working with radioactive materials.

But in the hands of master storytellers, headed by prolific director Mike Nichols (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, Angels in America) and screenwriters Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally) and Alice Arlen, the story of real-life labor union activist Karen Silkwood’s relentless quest for truth and justice becomes an absorbing, compelling and supremely watchable movie, punctuated by dark humor and enlivened by a triumvirate of unforgettable star performances.

Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood

In 1974 in Oklahoma, Kerr McGee plant worker and union member Karen Silkwood (played by Meryl Streep) died in a mysterious car accident, after having been repeatedly contaminated with radiation, seemingly as a punishment for planning to share her story with The New York Times. As Karen digs further, uncovering ethical and safety violations, her coworkers and even her lover Drew Stephens (Kurt Russell) and roommate Dolly Pelliker (Cher), who also work for the plant, turn on her for upsetting the status quo and putting herself in danger.

Kurt Russell as Drew Stephens
Evoking the Deep South of the 1970s, with banjo music prominently featured in the film score and a Confederate flag draped behind the bed that Karen shares with Drew, the milieu of Silkwood is pure country, with most actors sporting convincing southern drawls and Streep memorably warbling an an impressive a cappella rendition of the gospel standard “Amazing Grace.” Director Nichols goes for gritty authenticity all the way.

An effective workplace and kitchen sink drama as well as an anti-nuclear polemic, Silkwood has universal themes—most everyone can relate to the concept of a toxic work environment, for example! But here, of course, the drama is heightened because this crew isn’t “working with puffed wheat,” as Drew says, but with uranium and plutonium. If you make a mistake, you’re “cooked”—not figuratively, but literally. Exposure to radiation causes cancer—but back in the early 70s, most nuclear plant workers were not fully aware of the risks.

Cher as Dolly Pelliker

Despite the subject matter, if you appreciate fine acting, you’ll love Silkwood. The chemistry among the three principals is, pardon the cheap pun, as smooth as silk. Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell and Cher work wonderfully together as the three coworkers sharing a ramshackle house to cut their expenses, enduring the drudgery of their boring, repetitive and dangerous jobs but creating a family unit of their threadbare existence.

This is truly one of Streep’s best roles, and with her stellar resume of iconic performances, that’s saying a lot. As promiscuous, willful, complicated Karen, Streep brings tremendous vulnerability along with fierce determination and ironic humor to the role. Always at odds with her coworkers, her lover, her ex-husband, Streep’s Silkwood is an antiheroine but heartbreakingly human. For her performance in Silkwood, Streep was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award (she’d already won her second Oscar just the year before, for Sophie’s Choice.)

Drew clocks in

The role of Karen’s loving, patient and long-suffering boyfriend Drew Stephens may well be the ultimate Kurt Russell dramatic performance. Here, Russell is soulful, masculine yet vulnerable,  forgiving of Karen’s indiscretions, deeply caring and supportive, trying vainly to calm her obsessions and tame her wildness.

Thelma (Sudie Bond) gets "cooked"—just another day at the office

One of Hollywood’s most underrated actors, Russell is a charismatic and versatile actor who has been able to turn easily from drama to comedy to action adventure in his 50+ year career. A child star who acted with Elvis Presley before portraying him in a TV movie years later; a teenage male ingenue for a handful of 1970s Disney classics; leading man to his longtime lady love Goldie Hawn in memorable comedies like Swing Shift and Overboard; and of course, iconic action hero Snake Plissken (thanks to his long-time partnership with director John Carpenter), the hardworking Russell has played almost every type of role in every film genre imaginable.



Don't worry, there's plenty of Kurt in this one!

Though Russell is far more than just a handsome face and physique, he is undeniably easy on the eyes, especially here in Silkwood. In fact, Kurt, shirtless throughout 75 percent of this film, shows more skin here than in any other film except maybe Captain Ron (in which he nonchalantly strutted through much of the proceedings in a speedo!). Some Kurt Russell fans may want tune in to Silkwood just for the eye candy!

Cher’s performance as sardonic, lonely lesbian Dolly Pelliker in Silkwood was a revelation and paved the way for an acclaimed new career as a serious actor. As the female half of a popular singing duo who made it big in prime time television, Cher had always proven herself an able and enthusiastic performer. Her flair for comedy had already been established in the Carol Burnett-style comedy sketches of her TV variety shows. She triumphed on the Broadway stage in a non-singing role in Robert Altman’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (reprising her role in a low-budget film version that nobody really saw at the time), and then Mike Nichols hired her for Silkwood. Cher would receive her first Oscar nomination (as Best Supporting Actress) for the role of Dolly; in the coming years she would earn a Best Actress nod for Mask and then the Oscar itself for Moonstruck.

Streep, Scarwid and Cher
Silver
Nelson doctors the negatives
Silkwood’s supporting cast is also peppered with brilliance, with brief turns by David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck, Dolores Claiborne), Fred Ward (Big Business, The Player), Craig T. Nelson (Poltergeist, Book Club), and the wonderful character actress Sudie Bond (who appeared with Cher in the star’s very first film, Come Back to the Five and Dime.) Other standouts in the cast are Diana Scarwid (Inside Moves, Mommie Dearest) as the funeral parlor makeup artist and object of Dolly’s affections; and Ron Silver (Reversal of Fortune) as the labor union leader with whom Karen has a brief fling in Washington, D.C.

For Silkwood, both Streep and Cher were nominated for Oscars, as were director Mike Nichols, screenwriters Ephron and Arlen, and film editor Sam O’Steen. Kurt Russell was once again overlooked by the Academy, and even to this day has still not received a single Oscar nomination (maybe because he always makes his job look so easy). But for his portrayal of earthy Drew Stephens, Russell did earn a well-deserved Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture. 

Perhaps because of its downbeat subject matter, Silkwood is rarely shown on classic movie channels, but it deserves a place in history alongside well-made true-life, politically themed films like All the President’s Men and Erin Brokovich (which won Julia Roberts her Best Actress Oscar for playing another colorful antiheroine). And if you are a loyal fan of Streep, Cher or Russell, this one is a must-see.

I'm so excited to participate in the Kurt Russell Blogathon hosted by RealWeegieMidget Reviews and Return to the 80s! What a pleasure, and I look forward to reading all the entries. The amazing Kurt Russell deserves a blogathon AND an Oscar, in my opinion! 




Thursday, April 12, 2018

Doris in Distress (Part 1)




Two decades before Karen Black famously played a stewardess forced to fly and land a plane in Airport ’75, Doris Day played those scenes, too, almost verbatim, in an overwrought but entertaining psychological thriller called Julie (1956).

Julie is one of my favorite Day films because it’s one in which she stepped far away from her musical comedy comfort zone. Admittedly, it’s far from a great film, but it’s an entertaining yarn; Doris carries the picture with her eminently watchable portrayal of the archetypal damsel in distress.

Don't worry, she's got it all under control

When you think of a Doris Day movie, a heavily dramatic psychological thriller is probably not the first thing to enter your mind. More likely, you may think of nostalgic period pieces like On Moonlight Bay or By the Light of the Silvery Moon; backstage showbiz musicals like Lullaby of Broadway and Tea for Two; or the early ’60s bedroom farces that made her the #1 Box Office Champion four years running opposite hunky leading men like Rock Hudson (Pillow Talk), Cary Grant (That Touch of Mink) and James Garner (The Thrill of It All).

A gifted songstress and talented comedienne with a seemingly indelible virginal girl next door image, Day was able to sink her teeth into a choice dramatic role only a very few times in her career. Early on she had played Ginger Rogers’s clueless sister, married to a Ku Klux Klan thug in the heavily dramatic Storm Warning, and Kirk Douglas’s platonic singer friend in Young Man with a Horn, but these supporting roles called upon her to do little but play her plucky, sunny blonde self.

In Love Me or Leave Me, though, Doris showed off both her musical and acting prowess in what many believe to be her finest screen performance opposite James Cagney, and soon after she would give an equally memorable performance working with James Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock in the exciting and entertaining remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

With the handsome Louis Jourdan as Lyle Benton

In Julie, Doris plays a well-to-do young widow and former airline hostess who has just married a swarthily attractive but dark and brooding man named Lyle Benton, played by French heartthrob Louis Jourdan (The Swan, Gigi). Unfortunately, Julie’s possessive new hubby has a jealous streak and a frighteningly explosive temper. At first, Julie puts up with a tremendous heap of toxic abuse from her handsome but controlling new husband, and it’s not until she discovers that Lyle might have been responsible for her first husband’s mysterious death that she tries to escape. How the rest of the film unfolds is told by the lobby card advertisements of the time, which screamed: “Run, Julie, Run!"

Doris’s husband and business manager Martin Melcher set up a production company to produce Day’s films himself and get a piece of the action. Julie was the first film to be produced by Melcher and Day under their Arwin (as in “your loss is our win”?) Productions.

According to Day’s engrossing and frank autobiography Doris Day: Her Own Story, Julie’s theme of jealousy permeated the atmosphere both in front of and behind the cameras during the filming, as Marty Melcher became increasingly suspicious of the on- and off-screen chemistry of the film’s two stars. Though Melcher himself had cast the good-looking French actor opposite his wife in the role of Julie’s psychotic and insanely jealous husband, Melcher ironically became furious with Day and Jourdan at the hours that the two costars would spend together on the set and on location, taking long walks and chatting about life, love, spirituality and every subject under the sun.

Martin Melcher, Doris Day's manager and third husband

Together, Day and Melcher had embraced the Christian Science religion, and on the Julie set he admonished her to spend more time studying her script and her Mary Baker Eddy, and not so much “gabbing with that Frenchman.” During the filming, Doris fell ill with a benign ovarian tumor (according to Day, it was the size of a grapefruit) and underwent a hysterectomy, which destroyed her hopes of having more children. (Day had one son from a previous marriage, Terry, who had been adopted by Melcher.). So most of Doris’s memories of Julie were not happy ones.

With a storyline that foreshadows the Julia Roberts thriller Sleeping with the Enemy, Julie has some tense and suspenseful moments; but much of the film is a bit silly and overheated, almost to the point of camp. Example: In the scene where her husband leaves the house, giving her a chance to escape, Julie starts packing a suitcase, becoming more and more frantic as she searches for clothes, toiletries, etc. Audiences of the day must have shouted, “Just get out of that house, Doris, he’s on his way back!”

It’s a good thing Doris plays hysterical so convincingly, because she is forced to remain in an extreme state of terror throughout the entire film—literally right from the get-go. The opening scene of the film is a hyper-dramatic set piece: Julie and Lyle leave their country club in the middle of an argument and she gets behind the wheel of their convertible to drive, raving about his appalling jealous behavior. Lyle jams his foot onto the gas, forcing poor Julie to maneuver the wheel to keep from careening off a cliff and killing them both. Later, Day’s stewardess-landing-the-plane business maintains the melodramatic momentum in the film’s climactic moments.

Lyle is contrite after trying to kill them both in the car

Jourdan is properly menacing as the husband from hell, but it is the redoubtable Doris Day who carries the film with her energetic performance, ably supported by reliable Barry Sullivan as her dead first husband’s best friend, who helps her escape Jourdan’s insanely jealous clutches.

Perhaps just to make sure she nailed all the nuances of the damsel in distress, four years later Doris would portray another memorable terrified-wife-having-nervous-breakdown, opposite Rex Harrison in Midnight Lace (another of my favorite Day performances that I will save for Part 2, to come at a later date!)

Much of Julie was filmed on location in the coastal California town of Carmel by the Sea, just south of San Francisco. Carmel was the bright spot of the Julie experience for Day, who fell in love with the picturesque coastline and would move there full-time in the early 1970s as her film and television careers came to a close. But she was only one of two very famous Carmel residents. Neighbor Clint Eastwood, who would one day become the mayor of Carmel, used the splendors of the location in his own debut directorial film, Play Misty for Me.

Doris on location in Carmel by the Sea
On April 3, 2018, living legend Doris Day celebrated her 96th birthday in Carmel. And as of this writing, that is where Miss Day still resides with a houseful of furry friends.




Saturday, January 27, 2018

Lady Diana: A Supreme Movie Debut



In November 2017 the American Music Awards bestowed its Lifetime Achievement Award on Miss Diana Ross, and it was a triumphant moment—dazzlingly attired, with a voluminous cape resembling a rare bird’s plumage, Ross commanded the stage for a brief medley of her greatest hits, and it was almost like the old days. We had not seen The Boss sparkle like that for a long time.

Miss Ross has been a star for more than half a century—first as the incandescent apex of an iconic girl group and later as a spectacular solo act and legendary diva. But it was her startling film debut, playing another celebrated singer of yesteryear, that cemented her position as the enduring superstar she remains to this day.


Not all singers are meant to be movie stars, too. (Just ask Madonna and Mariah.) But Diana is, and basically on the strength of just one very successful film performance. In Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Diana Ross proved herself an actress and a force to be reckoned with. It took drive, guts and real talent to portray the troubled jazz singer Billie Holliday, as Ross did to universal acclaim.

It was Motown Records and a singing trio called the Supremes that launched Detroit native Diana Ross on the road to stardom. Before they were Supremes, they had been called the Primettes. As a Primette, young Diana sang backup with her friend Mary Wilson while big boned, trumpet-voiced Florence Ballard dominated as lead singer.

Of course, as soon as they were signed by Motown and Berry Gordy and renamed the Supremes, it was decided that pretty, waiflike Diana was the one whose star power shone brightest, and she was made lead singer and central focus of the group. Florence Ballard never recovered from that demotion; she eventually left the group and was replaced by Cindy Birdsong; Ballard died at age 32 in 1976.

Florence, Mary, Diana

Mary, Diana, Cindy
The story of the fabled 1960s girl group was dramatized in the fictionalized Broadway musical Dreamgirls, made into a 2006 film starring Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson and Jamie Foxx. (Sometimes fiction and myth can tell a story even more effectively than the facts.)

Diana left the Supremes in 1970 (replaced by Jean Terrell and plunging the remaining group members into relative obscurity) and producer Berry Gordy focused all his promotional—and personal—energies on Diana and her career. Though Gordy and Diana did carry carry on an on-again, off-again affair (Gordy is now acknowledged as the father of Diana’s daughter Rhonda, born in 1971), their prime focus was always on the Diana Ross brand—and their collaboration on their dream film project, the Billie Holliday musical biography.

Diana Ross and Berry Gordy

Helmed by director Sidney J. Furie (The Ipcress File) but closely supervised by Gordy, Lady Sings the Blues is a multilayered and satisfying film on so many levels. It is at once a timeless romance, an epic period musical spanning the age of Tin Pan Alley to the Big Band era, a frank exploration of 20th century racism, and a harrowing look at crippling drug addiction.

As the talented and tragic Lady Day, Diana Ross is mesmerizing. Not only does she sing more than a dozen of Holliday’s iconic hits and classic standards, Ross imbues those songs with deeper meaning, relating them to Holliday’s personal troubles and addictions, appearing to perform under the influence of heroin and alcohol, as Holliday too often did—indeed, that may have been a part of her magic. (Interestingly, throughout her career, Billie Holliday had been criticized for her thin, reedy voice; the same charge had often been leveled at Diana Ross herself.)



Diana Ross as Billie Holliday

Obviously a natural Method actor, Ross is equally raw and real in the dramatic scenes, as she believably portrays the performer from her young teenage years to adulthood and struggles with a growing dependence on heroin and the rigors of life on the road.

The film is absorbing and entertaining, with surprisingly poignant moments that use Holliday’s music to illustrate evocative and disturbing scenes (the “Strange Fruit” montage brings to life the horror of the lynchings in the South), yet leavening its sober subject matter with occasional lightness and humor, as in the comedic bordello sequence with veteran character actor Scatman Crothers as Big Ben.

The film also features a memorable supporting turn by Richard Pryor as the kindhearted and humorous Piano Man, who  befriends and helps Billie get her career started but finds himself as hopelessly addicted to the White Lady as Lady Day herself.

Richard Pryor as Piano Man

Billy Dee Williams as Louis Mackay

As a silver screen couple, Diana Ross met her romantic match in suave, dreamy Billy Dee Williams, playing Holliday’s longtime love Louis Mackay, who drifts in and out of the singer’s life, unable to help her kick the drug habit and settle down to a healthier, happier, normal life. (I always thought of Williams as the black Omar Sharif, because his character reminded me of Nicky Arnstein in a musical biopic set in the same era, Funny Girl).

Ross’s bravura performance earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, putting her in that very small group of African American actors to be so honored. In 1955, Dorothy Dandridge had been the first African American Best Actress Oscar nominee, making Ross and fellow 1972 nominee Cicely Tyson (for Sounder) the second and third, respectively. (Halle Berry would become the first African American Best Actress Oscar winner, three decades later.)

The film’s screenplay was also honored by the Academy. (And Motown’s Suzanne de Passe was the first African American woman to be nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar for Lady Sings the Blues.)


The night of the Oscars, Liza Minnelli won the gold as the iconic Sally Bowles in the innovative, groundbreaking Bob Fosse musical Cabaret. If Liza had not been nominated, Diana would surely have won that Best Actress Academy Award; polls had the two women neck-in-neck in the Oscar horse race. (Liza has said that she was certain that Diana would win that night.)

Lady Sings the Blues was the peak of the Ross film career, but would an Oscar win have changed its trajectory? Mahogany (costarring Billy Dee again) would prove a critical disaster and The Wiz (with Michael Jackson) a box office bomb. (But then again, Ms. Minnelli endured flop after flop after winning that Oscar as well—A Matter of Time, Lucky Lady and New York, New York were all ignominious failures.)

Over the years, Ross was announced for a number of interesting projects, most notably The Bodyguard opposite Ryan O’Neal (made years later with Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner), but ended up, to date, never making another feature film after The Wiz.

It’s a shame that Miss Ross has appeared in so few films after such an auspicious debut, but the strength of that one performance is undeniable, and the film holds up well more than 45 years later.


Thursday, December 28, 2017

George Bailey, The Everyman's Holiday Hero



Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life is a yearly holiday tradition for me; I faithfully watch it every Christmas Eve. As someone who often suffers from melancholy and sadness during this supposedly joyful time of the year—and I know I am not alone—I look forward to this film as an annual year-end experience of personal catharsis and healing.

The hero’s journey taken by protagonist George Bailey, played with such natural grace by the great James Stewart, has a lot in common with the odyssey each and every one of us takes year after year in real life, with its fears and shadows as well as magical little moments of love and joy.

Life is hard and filled with challenges for everyone, rich and poor alike. How Stewart’s George Bailey handles the slings and arrows is real, imperfect, heartbreaking, but ultimately an enlightening and redemptive experience.



James Stewart as George Bailey

Nominated for five Academy Awards and cited by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made, with beautifully written script by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (Diary of Anne Frank, Father of the Bride) and directed by the great Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town), It’s a Wonderful Life is about as far from a lighthearted holiday romp as you can get. It is a very dark and disturbing tale of suicide and bankruptcy and broken dreams. Indeed, it was a box office failure when it first premiered during the 1946 holiday season.

But at the film’s climax, the darkness and cynicism give way to light and hope—director Capra gives his audiences a heartwarming conclusion that has the power to rekindle even a long burnt-out faith. Often accused of over-the-top sentimentalism, Frank Capra’s steadfast idealism is as relevant and practical today as it was in post-WWII America. Little things like kindness and gentleness don’t just mean a lot, they are everything.  And we need happy endings.

The story is iconic. On Christmas Eve, a discouraged and desperate small town man is at the end of his rope. A miraculous series of events changes his life and attitude forever.  At the apex of the story is the character of George Bailey, played by James Stewart.


Bobby Anderson as Young George

Lionel Barrymore as Potter

Stewart was 38 years old when he made It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946, but believably plays the character of George over a span of nearly 20 years. He had already been a top Hollywood star for more than a decade, having won an Academy Award for his role as the sardonic yet bighearted Macaulay Connor in The Philadelphia Story in 1940.

Beloved by movie audiences as an everyman, (indeed, he had already proven himself the ideal Capra leading man in the title role of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), Stewart was the perfect actor to bring to life the flawed character of small town denizen George Bailey, acting as a stand-in for every audience member who ever felt trapped in his or her own life, cheated of dreams that did not come true despite their best efforts. 

Stewart’s Oscar-worthy performance was recognized by the Academy, and he deservedly received one of his five Best Actor nominations for the role of George Bailey. It was the actor’s most mature and intense work to date, and served as a gateway to more serious mature roles to come, including four Hitchcock classics culminating in Vertigo.

Henry Travers as Clarence Oddbody (AS2)
Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy
Beulah Bondi as Ma Bailey

As the wise director did in all his great films, Capra surrounds his leading man with a brilliant ensemble of skilled character actors who bring the story to vivid life with their unforgettable performances. Lionel Barrymore (Dinner at Eight, Grand Hotel), eldest of the famed acting dynasty, brother to John and Ethel and great uncle to Drew, is evil personified as the cruel and miserly Mr. Potter; Henry Travers (The Bells of St. Mary's) has a scene stealing turn as Clarence the angel, adding a bit of humorous leavening to the proceedings; Thomas Mitchell (Gone With the Wind, Pocketful of Miracles) is dotty Uncle Billy, and Beulah Bondi (Make Way for Tomorrow, Tammy and the Doctor) is George’s sweet mother. Lovely Donna Reed (From Here to Eternity), is, of course, perfect as George's faithful wife.

I’m not usually fan of young actors portraying the star in flashback, but the device works well here in the prologue, where Young George played by Robert J. Anderson (The Bishop's Wife) is responsible for my first flood of tears, when his ears are boxed by a drunken, grieving H.B. Warner (King of Kings).

Donna Reed as Mary Hatch Bailey

All the great actors’ fine moments in this film are too numerous to mention, but Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, Sheldon Leonard, Lillian Randolph, Frank Faylen and Todd Karnes each contribute to the iconic moments that tug at the heart and make us smile.

At the center, though, is James Stewart’s intense and complex performance as the conflicted George Bailey. Despite George’s heart of gold, his easy charm, sense of humor, kindness and generosity, the odds seem stacked against him and his gradual descent into bitterness and despair takes the audience on a journey into their own souls, their own gallery of deep disappointments and unrequited desires.


"Merry Christmas!"

The moment near the end of the picture where George bows his head and prays, sobbing “I want to live again” triggers the same reaction in me year after year; I am choked up and awash with tears, every time, never fails. Perhaps it’s my way of letting go of the frustrations and disappointments and pain of the previous year and facing the new one with some hope and optimism, grateful to have friends, family, a roof over my head, etc.

For me and millions of others, It’s a Wonderful Life provides an annual ritual of release, a good cry that leaves us feeling happy, refreshed and ready to face the world anew as the New Year dawns. That’s more than enough to make James Stewart, Frank Capra and company inspiring heroes in my book.



This blog is part of the Inspiring Heroes Blogathon hosted by The Midnite Drive-In and Hamlette’s Soliloquy. Happy holidays, and best wishes to all for a joyous new year.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

A Funny, Talented, Beautiful Girl


Last December, I finally got to see Barbra Streisand perform live, after a lifetime of loving and idolizing her. La Streisand was truly divine, in full command of her voice and her talents, and transported us through a half century of her greatest hits, including a few of the famous Christmas songs she had not sung for decades. It was magical. (That concert tour, "The Music, The Mem'ries, The Magic" is now available on Netflix and iTunes.) Every Christmas season, I listen to that classic Christmas album, and also find time to watch the delightful movie Funny Girl (1968), which I first saw during a long-ago holiday season.

Barbra Streisand was launched as an international superstar in her film debut, the big-screen version of her 1964 Broadway triumph. The songstress was already a best-selling recording artist and a Broadway star, with several CBS television specials under her belt, but movies are an entirely different animal. The Jule Styne and Bob Merrill musical is a rags-to-riches tale of Tin Pan Alley-era entertainer Fanny Brice, whose trajectory from Henry Street in Brooklyn to the Ziegfeld Follies and international stardom failed to bring her personal happiness and fulfillment.


Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice as Barbra Streisand...building a character and her own legend

The leap from stage to television to screen was helped by the fact that the Broadways musical’s songs were already hits by the time the film was released, thanks to Barbra’s rerecordings of “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” on her already spectacularly successful record albums. Barbra herself had been introduced to TV audiences, first through guest shots on variety hours including a notable appearance on The Judy Garland Show, then through the series of CBS specials she headlined herself starting in 1965.

Directed by the great William Wyler (The Little Foxes, The Heiress), with musical numbers staged by Herbert Ross (The Turning Point, Steel Magnolias), Funny Girl gave Streisand an auspicious and audacious film debut. Barbra gets the full star treatment in this old-fashioned backstage musical romance, costumed by Oscar-winning designer Irene Sharaff and cast opposite Egypt-born heartthrob Omar Sharif, who had made international 1960s audiences swoon with his handsome presence in the epics Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago.

Photographed by veteran cameraman Harry Stradling, a favorite among actresses because he always painstakingly lit each of his leading ladies to look their very best, the Stradling treatment sets Streisand’s unusual features aglow, unveiling to the world her unique beauty in widescreen splendor.

A beautiful reflection: Director of photography Harry Stradling highlighted Streisand's unusual, unique features

In a movie year that included innovative fare including the groundbreaking sci-fi alleghory Planet of the Apes and the startling study of contemporary evil Rosemary’s Baby, Funny Girl is a throwback to showbiz biopics made 10 to 20 years earlier, including Words and Music and Love Me or Leave Me. But it works because it is a vehicle for a timeless, contemporary, new breed of star, an exciting new personality who is clearly headed for a bright future; Streisand is timeless, at home in front of the camera, and also a solid actor with remarkable comic timing, real romantic chemistry with costar Sharif and a vulnerability that registered perfectly on the movie screen if not in real life. (Tales of Streisand being a  difficult diva—willful, narcissistic, exacting and perfectionistic and tough—begin right here on this picture.)

Good-looking Arab boy meets nice Jewish girl: Sharif and Streisand

The movie itself is solid and entertaining, and also contains one of Omar Sharif’s finest performances as well, as the ne’er do well Nick Arnstein (though the pairing of Jewish Barbra and the Arab Omar caused some controversy in the Middle East). Kay Medford and Walter Pidgeon lend memorable support as Mama Brice and Flo Ziegfeld, but Funny Girl is clearly, unmistakably Streisand’s picture. There’s little room for anyone or anything else. (Beautiful actress Anne Francis’s role as Fanny’s sardonic showgirl confidante was all but cut out of the film, for example, to make more room for Barbra’s singing and emoting.

Duelling divas: Streisand and Garland harmonize

And it is indeed a rich, satisfying and startling film performance. Not since Judy Garland had there been a musical star so vibrant, so versatile, so in command in front of the camera. Garland had been galvanized, inspired and challenged by the youngster’s talents during that memorable 1963 guest appearance. Judy herself had been considered an unconventional Hollywood beauty as well, feeling like an ugly duckling next to costars like Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr at MGM.


"I'm the Greatest Star" —and she wasn't kidding
Streisand won the coveted Academy Award that year for her performance as Fanny Brice. Though she shared the award in a tie with Katharine Hepburn (Kate’s third of an eventual FOUR Best Actress statuettes), the film veteran didn’t show up at the ceremonies, leaving Barbra the spotlight on Oscar night. She accepted her Academy Award in a chic see-through miniskirt creation designed by Arnold Scaasi.

Winning an acting Oscar for your film debut is unusual; for a musical performance, even more rarified. Three years earlier, Julie Andrews had won Best Actress for her film debut in the musical Mary Poppins, and 20 years later Jennifer Hudson would win a Supporting Oscar for her first film, the movie version of Dreamgirls.

Golden-voiced singer, Academy Award-winning Best Actress

Streisand would win a second Academy Award in 1976 as composer of the Oscar-winning song “Evergreen” (this time sharing the honor with Paul Williams) from her film A Star Is Born, but the only other time she would be nominated for her acting (so far!) would be for The Way We Were in 1973.

In the inimitable Hollywood way of attempting to cash in on itself, Streisand’s next two films would also be in the old-school musical vein. Barbra was rushed into two more musicals back to back, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever and Hello, Dolly, with not-always stellar results, proving that the epic  movie musical was approaching its death throes...but Barbra’s triumphant career was only just beginning. She jumped into the 1970s with a series of fine performance in more contemporary fare including The Owl and the Pussycat and What’s Up, Doc. Years later, Streisand very reluctantly reprised her role of Fanny Brice in the inferior sequel Funny Lady to fulfill a contract obligation with Ray Stark, the producer who had paved her road to stardom with Funny Girl (and happened to be married to Fanny Brice’s daughter Fran).

Her tour de force film debut took Hollywood and the world by storm, and the indefatigable Barbra has remained an A-List superstar ever since.