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.
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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.
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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.)
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.