21 February 2001 | gbrumburgh
A Funny Girl Happened on the Way to the Follies.
There are not enough superlatives in the world to bestow on Barbra Streisand for her rags-to-riches portrayal of 20s Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice. To say she gives the single most triumphant musical performance ever showcased on the silver screen could be close. I am constantly bowled over with each viewing at how the 26-year-old Brooklyn novice ever pulled off this incredible stunt. Cinderella playing Cinderella. Even the finicky Hollywood powers-that-be, who NEVER use untried screen talent for such a weighty role (Julie Andrews and "My Fair Lady" come to mind), knew that nobody but Barbra could inhabit this part. She won the Oscar, naturally, and it was befitting that the newcomer should share this honor with perhaps the greatest screen legend ever, Katharine Hepburn.
Barbra's Fanny Brice first conquered Broadway where she lost the Tony award to another irrepressible talent, Carol Channing, for "Hello Dolly!" She got her revenge of sorts years later when she won the coveted screen role of Dolly due strictly to her auspicious debut in "Funny Girl." Transferred to celluloid, the movie loosens its bustles quite a bit and grants more breathing room for Barbra to expand her natural comic and dramatic talents both keenly and intimately amid the elaborate sets and costumes.
The timing of this film couldn't have been better for Streisand. The late 60s ushered in a new legion of stars. The rash of talent coming to the forefront purposely lacked the super-model good looks and incredibly-sculpted physiques of their predecessors. Audiences now clamored for realism...human imperfection. What less attractive guys like Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino did for the men, Barbra did for the distaff side. She dragged out her own Cinderella version, making a virtue of her odd looks and gawky gait while laying out her two big trump cards -- she was a supreme song stylist and a gifted, self-deprecating cut-up.
Hardly ever off screen, Streisand totally immerses herself in the role of chorus clown-turned-Ziegfeld headliner, weaving a spell around each and every song she touches. From the stubbornly optimistic "I'm the Greatest Star" to the profoundly touching "My Man", the actress matures Brice into the glowing swan of her own dreams, while exposing a deep, personal vulnerability she never recaptured (or allowed) again on screen -- to her detriment.
Despite heavy critical lambasting, I still say exotically handsome Omar Sharif was indeed the consummate choice to play wanderlust husband and card shark Nicky Arnstein. Polished, prideful and totally in his element as the global-gambling playboy, one can believe the ungainly Fanny (or Streisand, for that matter) placing this glossy god on a pedestal. It may not appear to be much of a stretch (in real life, Sharif was a world-class bridge player), but he owns the part as much as delightful Kay Medford does as Brice's droll Jewish mama. Everyone else, however, is pretty expendable. It's been said that Anne Francis blamed Streisand for her supposedly top featured role being butchered. If it's true, she has an open-and-shut case. Francis was left with a nothing part.
Highly fictionalized and weak as biography, Streisand champions above the sometimes grandiose material from the moment she utters her first classic words: "Hello, gorgeous!" And so she is.