William Wyler | 2hr 35min
If you were to ask Elvis Presley, making the move from singing to the silver screen is not an easy leap to make. Though Frank Sinatra was substantially more successful in this regard, he would have agreed too, taking over a decade to finally hit his stride in The Man With the Golden Arm. As such, Barbara Streisand’s comical wit and vibrant musicality in her film debut in Funny Girl is nothing short of remarkable, proving her to be a naturally magnetic presence whether she is clumsily falling over her roller skates or taking the spotlight with soulful ballads pining after her gambling lover, Nicky Arnstein. Based on the stage musical of the same name, which in turn was based on the life of comedienne and Broadway star Fanny Brice, Funny Girl finely balances a rollicking showcase of its leading woman’s talents against the drama of her personal troubles, radiating an upbeat irreverence that was so uncommon among female performers of her era.
Loneliness bookends both sides of this film, wedging the extended flashback of Fanny’s life story between scenes set in 1927 where her relationship with Nicky has drawn to a cold, dark close. Though she is in virtually every second of this film and leads every single musical number, William Wyler knows when to subdue her dynamic presence with a subtler cinematic touch, introducing her with a long take hanging on the back of her head as she silently enters the empty theatre where her production, the Ziegfeld Follies, headlines the billboards. It isn’t until she settles in front of a mirror that we see her face for the first time, drained of the passion and laughter that we will soon see her younger self embody.
When we do finally see her light up, it is apparent that Streisand is uniquely suited to translating this role to the screen, with her bright, slightly crossed eyes and distinct profile setting her apart from more conventionally attractive alternatives. Fanny’s physical comedy is there in Streisand’s performance, as she shows off a range of physical comedy talents in a cartoonish, balletic parody of Swan Lake, and appears as a bride with a fake, pregnant belly in a musical number she irreverently turns into a straight-up charade. But even offstage, Streisand deflects invasive media questions with quick-thinking wit, and in one high-stakes poker game that she is invited to observe, her rapid shift between expressions of nail-biting anxiety and blank impassivity is incongruently hilarious.
Unlike Streisand, Wyler was a mainstay of big-budget Hollywood extravaganzas by the time Funny Girl came around, crossing into the movie-musical genre for the first time after a long career of directing romances, dramas, and historical epics. As one of the relatively few filmmakers whose artistic voice flourished during the glory years of America’s studio system, he is well-acquainted with stunning displays of interior production design, here crafting velvet red dining rooms, vibrantly purple bedrooms, and a muted green restaurant of rattan decor and indoor plants. Crucial to the filming of these sets is his trademark deep focus photography, handsomely capturing the bustling crowds that fill Fanny’s family’s bar, and he even experiments a little in the realm of editing with freeze frames that ring an angelic echo of “Nicky Arnstein” around in Fanny’s head when she first falls head over heels for him.
Most of all though, Wyler proves to be especially versatile in his staging of his major musical numbers, moving beyond the theatre with the end of Act 1 showstopper, ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’. Up to this point, soundstages have allowed him the flexibility to crane shots around handsomely mounted sets in sweeping motions, but here as Fanny decisively risks her career to chase Nicky across America and start their new life together, she emerges into the real world. As she rides her train through a forest, she hits each consonant with unwavering force, and when the final chorus finally arrives, Wyler blasts us with a helicopter shot of her steamboat cruising past the Statue of Liberty, swooping the camera right up to her face and out again in a single, extraordinary take.
Love and prosperity surround Fanny at every turn in the early years of her relationship with Nicky, situating them on either side of a pink sun setting over a waterfront as they properly commit to each other. As was foreshadowed in the very opening scene though, such good fortune cannot last forever. Nicky’s corrupt business ventures and gambling losses have put them in deep debt, but even more devastating for Fanny is his lack of moral support, missing her show’s opening night and wearing away at her radiant optimism. The pressure to hide such tragic circumstances from the public and maintain the image of a “funny girl” is difficult enough on its own, but the final gut punch arrives when her own husband, of all people, places that label on her.
In this way, the final number ‘My Man’ is a retort to everything that has built up in Fanny’s life to this point. With her black dress blending in with the black curtains, Streisand’s body sinks into her surroundings, though Wyler sharply carves out the shape of her face against the backdrop to light up her aching, melancholic expressions, yearning for the man who can’t take her seriously. Whatever compassionate respect Fanny was denied in her lifetime, Streisand and Wyler make up for in their representation of her as a sensitively layered figure here, examining the energetic drive behind this subversive innovator of female roles in the show business of 1920s America.
Funny Girl is currently streaming on Paramount Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.