"Knight Thoughts" -- exclusive web content
The Streisand Movie Troika: Fanny-Dolly-Melinda. After these seminal roles, alas, the initial promise of
enshrinement in the Movie Star Hall of Fame faded away amidst Streisand's crass movies of the seventies.
Knight at the Movies Essay:
Barbra Streisand=Movie Star: A Look Back
8-25-06 "Knight Thoughts" web exclusive
By Richard Knight, Jr.
Barbra, Can You Hear Us?
Barbra Streisand was a movie star for her first three movies: Funny Girl, Hello Dolly! and On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. After
that, the mantle of movie stardom began to slip away from her image on the screen. By the time of the unwatchable A Star Is Born
and the execrable The Main Event, Streisand’s intermittent star glitter (bright in The Owl & The Pussycat and The Way We Were,
completely missing from What’s Up Doc? and Nuts) had all but twinkled out.
Progressively, she had been coming in clearer and clearer (not unlike that familiar song), no longer up there among the movie star
gods and goddesses but a regular person – that obnoxious girl that shows up uninvited to the party and then eats the last piece of
pizza. There she is, in 1976 and 1977, at the top of the film food chain, with her curly, Harpo Marx hairdo, raking Kris Kristofferson
with her razor-like talons, punching Ryan O’Neal in the stomach and showing off her buttocks, bending over again and again,
subconsciously asking audiences to kiss her ass. Inexplicably, millions did. Why?
In the decades that followed, Miss Streisand, now officially star/director and songwriter and unofficially Everything Else, foisted her
increasingly transparent anxieties and doubts upon a weary public. Even her most ferocious defenders had trouble with sections of
The Mirror Has Two Faces, the movie that pretty much ended her star over the title film career. Barbra, once the biggest star in every
corner of the entertainment galaxy, had been sucked into her own Black Hole of insecurity and indulgence it seemed. “Okay,
Barbra, you’re pretty, already” Newsweek magazine wrote, dismissing Mirror with less than a paragraph.
Really, there is nothing new in any of this. All stars fade away or abruptly wink out. Let their egos take over. Die sitting on a toilet
or puking into it. Take Seconal and go over the rainbow. Make decisions based on whom they’re sleeping with at the moment.
Jump on couches and tout their crazy cult religions in public. Get drunk and spout racial epithets. Nod off at the Motion Picture
County Relief Home and never wake up. Tastes change, times change. Audiences want one of their own contemporaries up there
on the screen. The young gays don’t know this Barbra of the movies; don’t worship her, dress up in Fanny Brice roller skate drag.
To them Madonna is old. Where does that leave Miss Buttah? Funny Grandma anyone?
Surprising then, exhilarating then, to enter a movie theater 35 years after its initial release in order to revel in the revival of 1968’s
Funny Girl and encounter OUR Babs – the one WE made famous with our insane devotion. “How kind people are,” Blanche
Hudson/Joan Crawford commented in What Ever Happened In Baby Jane? feeling the rush of fan recognition after reading some fan
mail. You bet, Blanche, we understand because there are those of us that fondly remember Barbra Streisand, too. Not the butt of
endless political conservative swipes, not the recording artist singing duets with Celine Dion and Bryan Adams in order to keep up
with “the kids.” No, it’s Barbra Streisand the Movie Star that we remember and miss. The one who’s name truly equaled the
equation Barbra Streisand=Movie Star. AND RIGHT NOW, DAMMIT we’re going to talk about her and laugh with her and sing with her
and we’re NOT going to parody her by crossing our eyes or waving our perfect Lee Press On Nails or by lighting candles and taking
creamy bubble baths.
We’re going to lounge in the reflected glory of Barbra’s lush costumes and hairstyles and indulge our every Funny Girl Fantasy. The
Way We Were, you see, is not a song, a movie, a boring novel by the prickly gay writer Arthur Laurents. It’s us and Barbra at the
same time – a tightly packed group of moviegoers wrapped around her – protecting her, loving her, encouraging her with our
laughter and applause. Releasing her, praising her, lauding her defiant Jewish sexy earthiness. Understanding why the nose was
necessary and beautiful. “Don’t you ever change!” we silently screamed at the screen, thrilled at her daring and chutzpah.
See what happens when we get started on OUR Barbra? We are the father that Barbra has always wanted – proud, beaming,
radiant. We can’t stop praising her to the skies! We will not let anyone rain on her parade. Run, Barbra, Run we will rail when
bullies come to write and say nasty things about her.
Enough. Come. Be converted. Let’s go take a look at her – even better – at the way we were when we first saw her up there.
Funny, Fabulous Fanny
Funny Girl, the vehicle that propelled Barbra Streisand onto the world stage, sadly, is the only movie that truly utilizes every aspect of
her talent. In many ways it is not just her first film but her last. Never again would this strange, hungry for love girl, this bizarre
broad suffering from the worst case of star sickness ever diagnosed, have such a rich smorgasbord of talent working to help put her
across. Barbra, having played Fanny Brice on stage 900 times and getting three months of rehearsals before shooting commenced,
Sit here next to me and let’s watch together. There she is, walking down the alley in that leopard coat and hat, 40 feet high and
about to kick start the whole shebang with her opening line. “Hello gorgeous” she says to herself in the mirror. Now. This line has
been used and re-used so many times since it was first uttered (even becoming the name of a Streisand merchandise shop in San
Francisco for awhile) that we don’t even really hear it, heed it’s greedy cry for validation. Barbra herself started the decades of
parody by using it as the opening of her Oscar acceptance speech. But stop and hear the declaration and take it to heart. “Hello
gorgeous,” delivered in Barbra’s self-deprecating style is the definition of the woman and the performer at once.
To this date, Streisand remains the essence of this line and the self-contempt with which she delivered it. No matter that she was
joking in that Oscar speech – this is the thing that she has tried to overcome all her life. All that had come before and all that would
come after would be an attempt to allow her to deliver the line to herself without the self-deprecation. “Okay, Barbra, you’re pretty,
already.” Delivered with humor at a safe distance in the obvious faux biographical story of Funny Girl we’re okay with the message.
Most of us are ugly ducklings, too. But the same ugly truth forced on us straight (as in The Mirror Has Two Faces) won’t go down
without a chaser (A song or two would have helped in that case).
Barbra is marvelous at self-disfigurement and the desperate earnestness is intoxicating. She has us because she’s trying to get us.
Funny Girl’s hidden amazement is this: she gave a damn. It really mattered that she connect with us for this was her one big chance
at what mattered above all else. Mattered more than that one in ten million singing voice, more than the Broadway smash, the gold
records, the TV specials with the high ratings and the awards that had come before. This was finally, finally her chance to make
good at the one thing she seemed to care about: movie stardom. So, she used every trick in her arsenal to connect with us.
And does she! She is at turns hilarious, melancholy, shy, vulnerable, pushy and aggressive, ugly, sad, sexy, warm and loving and,
yes, beautiful and very moving. Now she is skating, doing pratfalls, running and running, biting her nails, deeply kissing and
hugging her leading man, preparing to eat a third lobster. Omar Sharif is dark and impossibly beautiful, the dark side of the moon
to her sunless white Brooklyn skin and teased up kinky curls. They are yin and yang lovers, the perfect visual composition. His
curly, sensual devil lips and enormous Keane eyes balance her out perfectly. Barbra was only to repeat this visual trick once more –
in reverse – in The Way We Were with Redford. That time she played the tall dark forest to his sunny sky smile.
But now we are in 1968 lapping up more Barbra, bouquets of Barbra. There is a zest in her performance, a tickle me Elmo kind of
exuberance that draws us in. Barbra holds nothing back and we are delighted – we can project every misbegotten fantasy, every
lousy love affair onto this girl up there on the screen. The dark hints about husband Nick’s gambling habits scare us for her and
when the heartbreak inevitably begins, no one suffers as Barbra does. As the tears come during “My Man” they course down our
cheeks, too. She has earned those tears and we have earned them with her. Around us, even now, watching the revival, there are
sniffles. Oh, Barbra, it could have been so good with us, what happened?
Fanny Brice was at once the perfect role for Streisand and the curse from which, in retrospect, she never recovered. The picture itself
has a lot to do with that. Old fashioned with its cookie cutter backstage story, Funny Girl is familiar and safe: ugly duckling turns into
Cinderella and wins Prince Charming. Despite the film revolution going on in the latter half of the 60s with pictures like Bonnie &
Clyde and Blow Up!, there were still huge audiences for the warm dappled musical fantasies of Hollywood. The Sound of Music, only
three years before, had seemed to reassure both studio executives and a large cross section of those buying their product. Further
proof: 1968, the year of Funny Girl, saw Oliver! named Best Picture of The Year over The Graduate. Musicals were still to be trusted
and luxuriated in. Fuck you Viet Nam. Go to hell hippies. Drop dead youthful malaise.
What was different then about Funny Girl had to be the girl from the Bronx being put into the old formula. That was the risk. It’s
hard to remember now but musicals, often at the top of the studio’s film chain, were events. As such, they were “presented” in a
format that now seems antique: road show attractions. This meant that they were carefully released in New York and L.A. first, with
attendant premieres. It could take months for a major hit to reach the sticks. Road show attractions usually featured an audio
overture, an intermission, lavish program booklets, and most had running times well over two hours. That meant fewer showings per
screen per day. A lot of money went into them and their marketing. They were always at the top of the studio’s output for the year.
Funny Girl, coming on the heels of My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, and the aforementioned The Sound of Music was from the first planned to
be a major release. Streisand was familiar to audiences from her records and two television specials. A third – A Happening In Central
Park – was filmed and aired by the time Funny Girl opened. But she had not done a movie and the leap from television or the stage,
common in these days, wasn’t so common then. Natalie Wood did not do television. Judy Carne did not star in movies.
Streisand was primarily a recording artist. She’d been away from the public, off doing “Funny Girl” in London and then taking time
off to have her son Jason. So Columbia Pictures took a calculated risk when it signed her for the film. What was perhaps easier to
camouflage on the tiny home screen would be inescapable 40 feet high in movie theatres. No television star – let alone movie star
– had ever looked like Barbra Streisand (Fanny Brice herself seems to come closest and her biggest success came on the radio
where she could sound ethnic but movie audiences couldn’t see her). How to photograph that nose?
Veteran director William Wyler at first seems an odd choice but upon closer inspection is inspired. True, he had never directed a
musical (and understanding that, Columbia brought in Herb Ross to stage the numbers – he really deserves a co-directing credit)
but Wyler had handled Bette Davis and made sure that with even her high jinx she had brought home an Oscar for Jezebel and
almost another for The Letter. And Wyler’s previous picture, 1966’s languorously paced, not particularly funny Audrey Hepburn-Peter
O’Toole “caper comedy” How To Steal A Million hadn’t been terrible. More important: it was a good bet that he could handle
Streisand, whose reputation for pesky, persistent questioning and aggressive nonchalance with her elders preceded her arrival in the
land of sunshine.
Barbra, worried sick about losing the movie to . . . well, anyone, signed a long-term contract with producer and Fanny Brice son-in-law
(and reported son-of-a-bitch) Ray Stark in order to guarantee the part. Once hers, she reverted to type and began by loudly griping
when Wyler showed up an hour late for a meeting with the cast and crew at the outset of rehearsals. She also insisted on applying
her own make-up and when meeting the formidable costume designer Irene Sharaff for the first time immediately began voicing her
likes and dislikes.
But Harry Stradling was different. This was the man that would be responsible for lighting her, for photographing her. A mutual
respect almost immediately blossomed. Stradling understood, apparently, that underneath the aggression, she desperately wanted
to make good; wanted to be asked to stay for the Hollywood party. In the end, figuring out how to light her by utilizing a series of
filters to soften and flatter her, Stradling wrought a cinematic miracle. Ironically, she IS gorgeous in Funny Girl – and would remain
so for Hello Dolly! and On A Clear Day and throughout most of The Owl & The Pussycat – until Stradling died midway through the
picture. Take a look at the difference between his work and whoever ran the cameras for A Happening In Central Park – the television
special taped during a three day hiatus from filming on Funny Girl and Stradling’s genius is immediately apparent. Here was a man
that knew how to light and use deep focus and shadows to bring warmth and delicacy to a face that is, to be honest, deeply
When one considers the American WASP movie star standard of 1968 – Faye Dunaway, Sharon Tate, and Candice Bergen, the
blondes, Raquel Welch, Katherine Ross and Jacqueline Bisset, the brunettes, Jane Fonda, the redhead and even Mia Farrow with her
right up to the moment Vidal Sassoon Feral Child Waif look – Stradling comes off as even more of a genius. Harry Stradling had
begun his career in 1920! By the time he looked at Miss Bronx in 1967 through his lens he had photographed Norma Shearer, Judy
Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Esther Williams, Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, Joan Crawford, Doris Day, Patricia Neal,
Kim Novak, Jean Simmons, Paul Newman, Rosalind Russell, Sandra Dee, Virna Lisi, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, and at least
three pictures with Natalie Wood.
Because of Stradling, Barbra looked like she belonged in that esteemed company. Truly, he transformed her, made the equation
Barbra Streisand=Movie Star a reality. She was his last creation and his greatest. Now combine Stradling’s work with the sensitive
direction of Wyler, who elicits from Barbra the performance of her lifetime and you have, at last, the secret that turned Barbara
Streisand Kind+Bronx=Kook into Barbra Streisand=Movie Star: two old guys at the end of their careers (both men were 66 at the
time) doing their jobs.
All Aboard the Dolly Express
Further evidence? All aboard for Barbra’s next movie, the half-baked Hello Dolly! Filmed before the release of Funny Girl, Streisand,
thrilled with how she was photographed, insisted on Stradling for the turn of the century Broadway musical smash. Twentieth Century-
Fox, having paid big bucks for the rights and having gotten a sneak peak at Barbra Streisand=Movie Star in key scenes from the
Fanny Brice Story suddenly had to have her. Carol who?
At 25, Barbra, fresh from her musical Citizen Kane, sadly, couldn’t do a thing about director Gene Kelly or a slew of dead walrus on
screen co-stars (from Walter Matthau on down to scrawny Michael Crawford). That Barbra is even more beautiful in Dolly! than in the
Fanny Brice picture again singles out Stradling’s photographic skills and exposes the rest of the film as a dreadful, sodden mess.
Kelly should have checked his ego at the studio gate and brought back co-director Stanley Donen. The outdoor locations look
anything but pleasant. They don’t reek of sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. One thinks, instead, of perspiration and sweat stains
on the heavy clothes, frazzled tempers held in check as those dancer/acrobats go through their paces for yet another take.
Still, Barbra Streisand=Movie Star is very much in evidence in Hello Dolly! and that is its only redeeming quality. Ravishing in the
reddish gold Gibson girl wig and pale make-up further softening her features and released from having to play a character that is
even remotely realistic (the insufferable Mrs. Levi is described in this version as being of “indeterminate age”), Barbra exuberantly
takes center stage. “Just Leave Everything to Me,” the new song written to open the picture, gets things off to a bang up start. And
famously cribbing the Mae West accent further informs us that Barbra knows when to trust her instincts. She is soft and inviting on
the park bench under the tree when she begins “Before the Parade Passes By,” enthralling at its gigantic end, stunning perched in
her golden halo glory at the top of the Harmonia Garden stairs for the title number. Then she is dancing a bit – yes, that’s right,
Barbra Streisand=Movie Star acts and sings and dances.
My personal favorite moment in the half movie is when Barbra has let her hair down – it literally cascades down over her ample
bosom. She combs her big, thick hair preparing for her big night at the restaurant and sings “Love Is Only Love,” the other song
Jerry Herman wrote for the movie. It is a classic Hollywood rest stop, just right for a quiet pause in the action, the moment when the
theme of the picture is expressed in song (“Over The Rainbow” would be the supreme example of a “rest stop” song). This is also
the moment of Stradling’s supreme Hello Dolly achievement and Streisand is presented to us the way she would years later film Amy
Irving in Yentl: as a lush, ripe, sensual dream of femininity. Singing. We have no choice but to surrender to the glamorous swell of
the strings, awash in the intoxicating perfume of The Movies.
Inside Daisy Gamble is Melinda Tentrees
Perhaps yearning for more of that old stardust, Barbra angled to find a role that would pour her more deeply into the mold of the
past. She’d gotten a taste of the Judy Garland-Boy Next Door-Get Happy magic and she wanted more (and who wouldn't). Miss
Streisand (as she is rightfully addressed on her movie sets) was going to attempt to recreate the Funny Girl fantasy again and now,
with the Oscar in tow, she had the power to do it. With that in mind, her choice of Judy’s director/ex-husband Vincente Minnelli for On
A Clear Day You Can See Forever, makes sense.
Minnelli’s Gigi was one of her favorite films and is classic Hollywood -- a stuffed birdcage of artifice -- and though he hadn’t worked
since the dreadful Tony Curtis/Debbie Reynolds Goodbye Charley six years before, he knew how to make his leading lady look great
(that was the only picture where Debbie got close to glamour). So, with Stradling again on board and Minnelli a willing accomplice,
Streisand next went after some My Fair Lady magic by getting Paramount to hire Cecil Beaton to do her period clothes, as he had
most famously for Audrey Hepburn.
So far so good – On A Clear Day would allow Miss Buttah to play kookie Daisy Brice, neé Gamble in the modern day scenes and classy
Lady Melinda Arnstein Tentrees in the flashbacks. She would get to be British and Jewish, snitty and funny, sexy and sexier. So far
so good. Good songs would again help (and it is in this musical that her voice reaches what would be the peak of its career). The
lavish budget pays off and the final result shows us Barbra Streisand=Movie Star at her pinnacle – she is frankly drop dead gorgeous
in the English sequences. These scenes, photographed at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton with the justly famed white turban and
gown, are breathtaking. But, unfortunately, they are moments few and far between, no one having rethought the material (the bulk
of the picture takes place in the dead, shag carpet looking present day of 1970).
The contrast between the two time periods brings another interesting dilemma to light: Barbra Streisand=Movie Star, it finally dawns,
exists only when dressed and placed in period costumes and settings. Barbra in modern daywear did not have the unobtainable
aura of stardom. Her modern wardrobe in On A Clear Day, designed by Arnold Scaasi, makes this less discernible. The clothes are
like adult-sized children’s outfits with their baby doll hemlines and sailor hats. They are so obviously high fashion that they don’t fit
any period – even the one for which they were designed.
But it is true nonetheless and would become immediately apparent in Streisand’s modern dress films. This problem was faced and
not always conquered by many of Hollywood’s legendary ladies. To wit: Crawford did one costume picture (The Gorgeous Hussy) and
after its flop never left the present day again. Conversely, Garbo, like Streisand, lost star glamour in modern clothes and Dietrich
had limited success when dressed in present day drag. Smart stars stayed within their time frame and never left it – like Mae West.
In pictures where Miss S sartorially returned to the past – as in The Way We Were, Funny Lady and Yentl – she regained a bit of movie
star ground. The Dorothy Jeakins black dress with the red sashes that Katie Morosky wears at the cocktail party in The Way We Were
is one vivid example of this.
As for Streisand’s On A Clear Day co-star, the French Yves Montand, he seemingly cancels himself out of the picture before Barbra can
and it’s not our girl’s fault (despite his protests to the press at the time). And no one has ever explained satisfactorily how this guy
got the part in the first place. That he and she aren’t connecting becomes obvious with her first scene opposite John Richardson,
who plays her no good but hairy chested husband, Robert Tentrees, because these two DO seem to be acting together. Montand
seems completely distracted throughout – he rarely even LOOKS at Barbra, much less connects with her. Richardson looks like he
wishes he were the wine glass nuzzling her breasts and we're convinced by their brief but memorable love play.
After announcing early on big plans for Clear Day, Paramount, after the fiasco of Darling Lili (and perhaps after getting a look at the
rushes), decided to open the film without much fanfare – and certainly not as a road show attraction. Those days were over. The
studio also ended up cutting four musical numbers from the film (including something called “ESP” in which Barbra would have sung
in several different languages while wearing a Martian looking costume) but even with the songs left in, it wouldn’t have made much
of a difference. The excised numbers were all set in the dull present and what was needed was a lot more of the sumptuous, old
The movie ends up being a split personality with each time period vying for control with the shrill, boring schlub of the present day
scenes winning out. A “director’s cut” of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever tantalizes the mind – the stills of the missing material
bear out that there is a lot more Barbra Streisand=Movie Star in more of those incredible Cecil Beaton clothes. And although it was
widely reported at the time that both Minnelli and Streisand were disappointed by the savage cuts, don’t hold your breath on a
restoration – the film’s mixed reception hasn’t changed in over 30 years.
Unfortunately, by the time Streisand got to Hollywood, the only genre she was truly suited for, musicals, basically, were dead. On A
Clear Day You Can See Forever marks the end of Barbra Streiand=Movie Star. It is her eulogy.* This could not have been her
intention. If given the chance, like her predecessors, Judy Garland, Doris Day and many others, she probably would have gone on
making musical after musical. Instead, Streisand did what movie stars have always done to get back on top – she changed her
image, “contemporized” it to suit the times – first with her recording career (the astounding success of the “Stoney End” album
brought her back to the charts) and then with her movies.
Where Went the Wonder?
Her success upon doing this was extraordinary, her popularity soared, her movie career reached newer, greater financial heights and
she became a box office sensation during Hollywood’s renaissance of the 1970s. This was the decade of Coppola, Scorsese, Altman
and DePalma. Streisand, now controlling her movies with an iron fist, dropped all the blather about wanting to play Hedda Gabler
and do serious stuff after Up The Sandbox went kaput and chose stuff like For Pete’s Sake and The Main Event. Most of her pictures
from this decade, her years at the top of the box office, are now unwatchable as anything more than camp. Yet when she finally got
to direct, trusted her instincts, and returned to her classic Hollywood roots with Yentl and parts of The Prince of Tides and yes, even The
Mirror Has Two Faces, flashes of Barbra Streisand=Movie Star could be seen. Flashes.
Sadly, musicals (both comedy and drama), the only movie category she was ever really suited for, went out of fashion and
disappeared from the public psyche just as she came on the scene. Now it is too late, her voice no longer what it was, the parody of
what she has become too overbearing. What musical, pray tell, could Barbra work her old magic on? Mame? Sunset Boulevard? Both
have been bandied about as perfect projects for her. But these are but Carol Burnett sketches at best, their camp factor assured
before Barbra steps out of her state of the art RV and onto the set.
So in the end, finally, a message to Barbra: be happy, be content. Your place in the Hollywood firmament is assured. You don’t
have to do any more movies. It might be nice, however, if you haven't already, to send a thank you note to the widow and the
children of that old guy Harry Stradling. Of course you remember him, as you've said on occasion, he’s the man that made your
dreams of Barbra Streisand=Movie Star come true. In other words, his love made you not just beautiful but gorgeous. Hello!?!
*As noted, though Stradling shot most of her next film, The Owl & the Pussycat, the profane comedy called for a different look and
feel from the period musicals that had preceded it. And Irene Sharaff's and Cecil Beaton's big picture hats that had so beautifully
framed Streisand's face were gone as well.
"Barbra Streisand=Movie Star" from the forthcoming book Film Camp: Notes and Notable Quotes from the Movies we love to Hate" by
Richard Knight, Jr. © 2000-2006 Richard Knight, Jr.