Sunday, September 23, 2007

Funny Girl

This is for that Wyler Blogathon over at goatdog's movies.

I watched Funny Girl again about three weeks ago, even though I knew I could probably write an entire treatise on this movie without watching it again. I should come clean--this was the movie I would ask to stay up late to watch in its entirety when I was eight. Every year it was on I would watch it. In college, I used to request the soundtrack at the music library when I had extra time and journal while listening to it. And in grad school, during some extra time, I looked up the original reviews of the stage production.
So--let's deal with the elephant in the room first--Barbra. This is movie is about her, and there's no way to deny it. When renting the movie I should really own on DVD, Terry Sue, the venerable queen who owns the video store, called this "the best movie she ever directed" when I mentioned the featurette showed her behind the scenes interested in how everything was put together. And he also gave me an earful of why Anne Francis (who has third billing) is in the movie for about 5 mintues and has less screen time than Emma, Fanny's maid. And also how she had Lainie Kazan fired at the first moment she could from the stage play. And sure, you could put this all on Stresiand, but I do think Wyler, wisely, just let her do her thing and followed it. He has said that she did the role over a 1,000 times before doing it for the film, so he didn't really have much to offer her.
The most telling thing for me, back-story-wise, is how the movie charts Streisand's story and will a little more accurately than Brice's. One of the original reviews of the stage show said something like "She's not doing Fanny Brice, but whatever she is doing is astounding." The real Fanny Brice grew up on Long Island, had some money, and knew what she was getting into with Arnstein. But Ray Stark's mother-in-law was Fanny Brice's daughter, so the lore stayed intact. And it works. Streisand herself was a poor Jewish girl from Brooklyn who had a burning desire to perform and the talent to match. Who better to play the Jewish girl who made it from the second avenue theatres all the way to Broadway? Streisand basically did something similar.
The drive that took, and the drive that Streisand has, makes this movie work the way it does. A similar story is told in "Star", made the same year, starring Julie Andrews. Where that picture is overlong, confusing, and boring, this one seems, even at 2 1/2 hours, to be streamlined and seamless. I think it works because we focus on her talent, drive, and how it affects the love in her life. That is the only story told--even the daughter disappears and is only spoken of. Wyler's sense of movement, and the stellar performance of Streisand make it watchable over an over.
First, the costumes. Just as this wasn't really the story of Fanny Brice, this is not really the 20's. It's the 20s in 1968. See Barbra's long fingernails when she's going her first audition? Did someone tell her once that she had beautiful hands? Those fingernails are everywhere in the movie--they even have a spotlight to open the second half in "Sadie..". And the big sixties hair--kind of a twenties fantasia on the hair, right down to her asymetrical pageboy. She manages to look period and a la mode at the same time. There are too many costume pieces to love in this, and I think Irene Sharaff deserves a lot of credit for making this all work--the orange dress for "Don't rain on my Parade", the purple periwinkle toilet brush drop waist bauble for "You are woman, I am man" against an eniterly red room; the great teardrop bangled burnished plum dress she wears for "People". I could go on, but let's talk about the leopard coat.
Wyler makes a great decision to show us this leopard coat crossing a rainy streeet, going into a theater, walking about, and then finally the star looking over the collar in a mirror to say "Hello Gorgeous", which has become a signature line for Streisand. It's wry, but it's self-mocking tone was perfect to introduce an unlikely star and an unlikely "gorgeous" woman. And to introduce a story about a woman desparate to be seen and to be found beautiful.
With the opening, Wyler tells us he's going to follow his star, and follow her he does. I was struck watching this time how Stresiand holds the screen. Wyler trusts that we'll be with her. Unlike the current fast cutting mania, he manages to be still when he needs to be, but never be stagnant. "I"m the Greatest Star" (which is I still think one of thebbest musical moments on film ever), is basically two tracking shots. He doesn't cut unless he needs to, but he moves with her. And around her--her POV from the stage right before she sings "I'm the greatest star" for the first time heightens the excitement, as we're alone with her in the theatre, seeing what she sees.
With the exception of the bride number, Wyler keeps the stage to stage dimensions, befitting the story of a theatre talent. We're spared the "theatre turns into an enormous soundstage" numbers, and left with full on proscenium views for most of the numbers. For the numbers outside of the theatre, notably "Don't Rain on My Parade", he uses all that he has at his disposal--there's a train, a boat, an aerial shot--anything to keep the number moving. The numbers outside of the theatre have a theatrical quality about them--People feels as if it's on a soundstage, Nick becomes a participant in "Sadie, Married Lady" and "You are woman I am man", where the innner monologue versus outer conversation is handled deftly to hilarious results. The only camera shenanigans that didn't work for me are the two freezes when she meets Nick Arnstein. They happen twice, but are intrusive in a way that you are suddenly aware that someone has stopped the film and that you are watching a film. What does work, and something I think someone should have picked up for Dreamgirls, is "My Man". There is one cut in the entire number, and it's stunning. It works emotionally, it's the climax of the film, and you can't look away. Here Wyler again trusted his star. I feel like watching Wyler's direction in this movie I find myself saying "just because you can doesn't mean you should"--He manages to avoid any intrusive tricks, never getting in the way of the actors. You don't really notice his direction except that it supports the story. And for someone directing a big budget musical featuring the film debut of the lead, that's quite a feat.

And now for some of my favorite quotes:
Fanny: He's a gentleman. A gentleman fits in a any place.
Mrs: Brice: A sponge fits in any place. To me when a person's a stranger they should act a little strange.

When Fanny says she hasn't suffered enough to get a job with Zigfield, Mrs. Brice responds:
"Who says if you get it, in a week you won't lose it?"

Fanny;"Do you think beautiful girls are gonna stay in style forvever?!"


StinkyLulu said...

Nicely done, kitten.

Michael said...

So I had this big plan of watching every William Wyler movie I hadn't already seen so I could comment sagely on each of the blog posts for this 'thon, but I didn't get very far, and not as far as Funny Girl. However, the amount of attention it received (from you and two other participants) and the quality of the writing have pushed it right to the top of my Netflix queue. Thanks so much for participating, and I'll be back to comment again after I see it. (this is goatdog speaking)