Wednesday, May 24, 2017

FUNNY LADY 1975

I had such a good time watching the Joan Crawford/ Bette Davis cable TV series Feud that when its eight-episode run on the FX channel was over, it left me with both a lingering taste for biographical films that play fast and loose with the facts, and a hankering for outsized performances by actors whose scrupulously-engineered screen personas are inextricably linked to their public image.
So naturally, I thought of Barbra Streisand. That is, Barbra Streisand by way of Fanny Brice; Fanny Brice by way of Funny Girl; and ultimately, Streisand and Brice by way of the misguided, contractually-mandated Funny Girl sequel—that rapturous, cotton candy fashion parade, ego-stroke of a musical guilty pleasure known as Funny Lady.
Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice
James Caan as Billy Rose
Omar Sharif as Nick Arnstein 
Roddy McDowall as Bobby Moore
(I wanted to give McDowall his own screencap, but the
poor guy hasn't a single close-up in the entire film)

When the narrative of the 1964 Broadway musical and subsequent 1968 film adaptation of Funny Girl concluded sometime in the late 1920s, we all knew there was more to the Fanny Brice story (punctuated by brief forays into film and television, Brice's success as a radio star lasted up to her death in 1951). Whether or not that story was anything worth telling is another matter.
Funny Lady (which some of you may know by its alternate title: “The Back of James Caan’s Head”) is ostensibly the continuing saga of Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice, who, when last seen in Funny Girl, was photogenically torchin’ on a dark stage, crying her Egyptian-eyelinered eyes out after having been dumped by recently-sprung-from-jail-for-embezzlement hubby Nicky Arnstein.
An admitted highly-fictionalized account of Brice’s later years, Funny Lady picks up roughly where Funny Girl left off (very roughly, in fact); with Brice shown backstage, still-pining-for-Nicky, being served final divorce papers by Arnstein in absentia. Romantic rejection of this sort is usually the stuff of tragedy, but as this sentimental setback grants Streisand the first of many opportunities to fling her head back in classic “suffering diva” mode (treating fans to the actress’s regal profile and shapely septum) Funny Lady instantly establishes an unfortunate precedent for a musical entertainment: Streisand is at her best when Fanny is at her worst.
Indeed, given the degree of care Oscar-nominated cinematographer James Wong Howe lavishes on La Streisand when in the throes of heartbreak, from a fan's point of view, the glow of a happy Fanny Brice is no match for the luminous sheen of a miserable Barbra Streisand. So, in essence, the worse things go for Fanny, the better things go for the Streisand-watchers. This is going to be a fun musical.
 Am I Blue?
What's bad for Miss Brice is super for Streisand-watchers 

At what point in history this all transpires is rather nebulously conveyed, for the film’s vaguely delineated timeline is actually a mashup of Brice’s real-life 1927 divorce, the 1929 stock market crash, and the onset of the Great Depression. However long it's been, clearly enough time has elapsed allowing for Fanny’s transmogrification from the optimistic, likable, gently self-deprecating “People” person of Funny Girl, to the overdressed, perpetually scowling, foul-mouthed know-it-all of Funny Lady.

Funny Girl was the rags-to-riches, broken-heart-for-every-bulb-on Broadway saga of a gangly waif whose prodigious talent triumphed over humble beginnings and unconventional beauty. Audiences responded to it because it took the usual Horatio Alger clichés of the celebrity bio, added a duckling-into-a-swan fairy-tale, and crossed it with a Cinderella love story.
Funny Lady, on the other hand, showcases a Fanny Brice who’s a firmly established star. Successful, confident, glamorous (to an almost parodic degree), calling her own shots, and without a single insecure bone in her body. This proves marvelous for Streisand, who gets to look fabulous throughout without once having to endure a single joke made at the expense of her looks; dominate in numerous scenes depicting her offering people professional advice and basically telling others how they can better do their jobs; and finally, she doesn’t have to be the least bit funny. This is thanks to a screenplay which has characters tell her…at regular intervals…to her face…just how delightfully funny she is.
Funny Girl was a Cinderella fantasy, which everyone loves. Funny Lady is built on a Have-It-All Fantasy (I have talent, wealth, fame, and beauty...why can't I find love?) which is kinda annoying

A screenplay highlighting a self-possessed Fanny Brice no-doubt proved instrumental in getting Streisand to agree to appear in a sequel she really didn’t want to do, but the lack of character conflict leaves Funny Lady with almost no narrative thrust. Sure, there’s a Depression going on, but the film has Streisand parade around in so many outlandishly glamorous Bob Mackie/Ray Aghayan outfits, Brice merely comes off as living in a bubble of privilege.
Similarly, the plot sets up Brice as professionally rudderless in her post-Ziegfeld years, weathering the financial storm of the Great Depression by having to team up with novice-showman/seasoned-huckster Billy Rose in order to stay afloat. But after approximately two lines of expositional dialogue and a couple of brief exchanges, Bruce’s money woes are quickly dispatched, never to be mentioned again. 
Down on her luck, Fanny Brice goes slumming in a casual daytime frock

No, Funny Lady’s single dramatic arc (milked for all its worth for close to 2½ hours) concerns whether or not Fanny can shed her romantic illusions about the dashing Nick Arnstein in time to realize that falling “in like” with the sloppy, unsophisticated, very Henry Street, Billy Rose is perhaps where her happiness lies. But even THIS minimal, not terribly compelling conflict is undermined by the casting of athletic, macho James Caan as the diminutive (4' 11"), unprepossessing Billy Rose. What could have been an interesting gender-reversal of Funny Girl’s “opposites attract” relationship is reduced to Fanny having to choose between the extraordinarily handsome guy who says “tomato” and the extraordinarily handsome guy who says “tomahto.”
Streisand in an interview; "It comes down to whom the audience wants to see me kiss.
Robert Blake [an early Billy Rose contender], no. James, Caan, yes."
  
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I get a kick out of Funny Lady in spite of the fact that it’s fairly useless as biography, bloodless as a love story, and too disjointed and episodic to even satisfy as a cohesive narrative (it’s impossible to keep track of how much time has elapsed between scenes). But Funny Lady works best, makes the most sense, and proves both an invaluable source of information and entertainment when taken for what it really is: a Barbra Streisand report card.  
Here, Streisand grants the audience permission to get a load of her
Think about it. Beyond the old “If they liked it once, they’ll love it twice” maxim that serves as the inspirational catalyst for most movie sequels; the only reason Funny Lady exists at all is that Streisand owed Funny Girl producer Ray Stark one more film on their four-picture contract. Press releases claim the reluctant Streisand had initially informed Stark that he’d have to sue her before she’d do a Funny Girl sequel, but changed her mind after reading the script.
Not buying it. Anybody who’s seen Funny Lady knows that its script is more likely to instigate a lawsuit, not stop one. No. My gut tells me that Streisand agreed to appear in the sequel because, after a long musical hiatus (her last was 1970s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) Funny Lady provided her with a showy vehicle that amounts to being a $7.5 million dollar progress report showcasing how far she’s come in the seven years since Funny Girl.

Funny Lady is an investors presentation of a movie, furnishing fans and the public at large irrefutable evidence that, in spite of Oscar-winning Johnny-come-latelys like Time magazine’s “New Miss Show Biz” Liza Minnelli (Funny Lady enlists the talents of Cabaret’s songwriting team [Kander & Ebb] and screenwriter [Jay Presson Allen]), Barbra Streisand—after one Oscar; eight films; and countless albums, awards, and TV specials—still has the ol’ musical comedy poop.

Funny Lady is Streisand as she enters the most self-aware (and self-serious) phase of her screen career. In this film Streisand moves to shed the old screen persona she helped create—that of the self-effacing, pigeon-toed kook with lungs of brass—and presents herself as strong, self-confident, glamorous, and in control. Admirable qualities, to be sure, but not exactly conducive to fun. In fact, this Fanny is a bit of a pill.
In place of the ingratiating, eager-to-please woman we met in 1968, 1975 Streisand doesn’t appear particularly concerned with whether or not you like her. You’re welcome to worship her, if you like; but this Streisand doesn’t need your validation. Nor does she need anyone to tell her how fabulous she is. She knows it. (In fact, this is the least smiling Streisand ever…she actually looks angry 90% of the time. But as any woman who’s been told by a perfect stranger on the street to “Smile!” can tell you, a woman choosing NOT to smile is practically an act of social rebellion.)
Let's Hear It For Me...or else

PERFORMANCES
Leaving Streisand aside for the moment (dare I?), I’d like to give a quick shout-out to all those shuttled to the wings while the funny lady commands center stage.

James Caan is one of the more underrated actors to come out of the ‘70s, and I’m as guilty as the next of never quite giving this versatile actor his due. While I’m of the mind that Robert Blake would have made the most intriguing Billy Rose, James Caan is no slouch. He's actually very good here, playing Rose as a fast-talking sharpie reminiscent of Jimmy Cagney in comedy mode. He sings well, is charming, and as Streisand co-stars go, he’s one of the strongest. Too bad the overall effectiveness of his performance is sabotaged by editing which relegates him to co-star status rather than leading man.

For a gay icon with a gay son, Barbra Streisand has a pretty shady reputation for onscreen gay representation. Several of her films have characters uttering homophobic slurs (in The Owl and the Pussycat and For Pete’s Sake, she’s the culprit), and in Funny Lady, the points Roddy McDowall’s openly gay character gets for inclusion (he’s her best friend and world’s oldest chorus boy) are subverted by a script which seldom misses an opportunity to refer to him in “period appropriate” derogatory ways.
I can’t speak to McDowall’s performance because, as in 1965s Inside Daisy Clover, he doesn’t actually have anything to do, but there’s something old-Hollywood comforting about seeing him.

It’s doubtful Tony Award-winning performer Ben Vereen had a very sizable role to begin with, but most of what he did contribute became a casualty of all the editing Funny Lady underwent before release. Playing vaudeville entertainer Bert Robinson (a fictional combination of real-life artists Bert Williams and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Vereen has no interaction with the main cast at all, and with the three-minute “So Long Honey Lamb” number cut to three seconds (a bullet dodged, in my opinion); only Vereen’s dynamic singing and dancing in “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie” remains. He’s marvelous, of course, and gives the film a much-needed kick in the pants, energy-wise, but it feels disembodied from the rest of the action, like those Lena Horne novelty sequences in MGM musicals which were filmed in ways that made them easy to be removed in Southern theaters.

It’s poor Omar Sharif who fares the worst, however. His character set up to be knocked down; so much dialogue is given over to Streisand (“No, you don’t have any lines here. It’s my turn” she actually says to him in one of Funny Lady’s many startlingly meta moments) he merely shows up, smiles, and bows out. Twice!
Streisand draws our attention to her favorite co-star: Her nails

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Like a great many musicals, Funny Lady is at its best when no one is talking. The film looks spectacular, thanks to the contributions of no less than three on/off cinematographers: Vilmos Zsigmond, Ernest Laszlo, James Wong Howe; and the nifty musical score is a combination of period classics and five new numbers by John Kander & Fred Ebb (though the fan-worship pandering of “How Lucky Can you Get?” and “Let’s Hear It For Me” is so shameless you might find yourself blushing). Adding to the film’s pluses are the witty, Oscar-nominated costumes by Mackie/Aghayan, which capture the theatrical, over-the-top appeal of classic Hollywood musicals.
Streisand in a little knockabout crowd-pleaser she throws on
for those nights when she just doesn't care what she looks like
 

Funny Lady’s production numbers play better now than they did in 1975, when the musical arrangements and intentionally garish costuming made 1930s Broadway look like 1970s outtakes from The Carol Burnett Show (not exactly a coincidence since Funny Lady features Burnett show alumni Peter Matz [Oscar-nominated musical director], Mackie [costumes], and several members of Carol Burnett's dance chorus.)

The "Great Day" number featuring Streisand surrounded by an all-black dance ensemble (top), perhaps found its inspiration in the similarly staged "High/Low" number Ethel Merman performed with an all-black chorus in the 1936 musical Strike Me Pink (bottom).

Although I hate it when movies feature scenes of seasoned theater professionals breaking
character simply when things go wrong on stage, I absolutely adored this set design
You're forgiven if you assume the above screencaps are from The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, The Donny & Marie Show, The Captain and Tennille, or The Brady Bunch Hour...all '70s TV variety shows looked like this.

Portraying a Fiend of Fanny Brice Proves Risky Business
Actress Carole Wells, as Brice's friend Norma Butler in Funny Lady, suffered a fate similar to that of Anne Francis in Funny Girl: finding that the bulk of her scenes had been left on the cutting room floor

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Funny Lady debuted in March of 1975, the very same month that saw the release of Ken Russell’s Tommy and Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love. Tommy was such a revelatory thrill to me that I went to see it practically every weekend during its entire run at SF’s Northpoint Theater, so by the time I got around to seeing Funny Lady, I had grown so besotted with Tommy’s mind-blowing innovation that Streisand’s film seemed positively underwhelming by comparison. Having not yet seen Funny Girl at this point—Funny Lady was just my third Streisand film—I didn’t even have sentimentality on my side (the significance of that yellow rose featured so prominently in the film’s advertising was lost on me). It was only when Funny Lady was in second-run and came to the Alhambra Theater (where I ushered) that I came to appreciate it: the patchy musical playing significantly better when viewed à la carte.
Critics seemed to hate the unconvincing old-age makeup used in Funny Lady's final scenes, but I thought Caan and Streisand looked absolutely adorable. Certainly preferable to when in 1991 Caan teamed up with Bette Midler in For The Boys and the old-age makeup applied made both actors look like reptile people

These days, Funny Lady remains both a guilty pleasure and the last of the enjoyable Streisand musicals. More Grande Lady than Funny Lady, it’s a marvelous film to revisit whenever I find myself in need of a Streisand fix.

A Streisand fix being akin to my Joan Crawford fixation: both being stars of such unique talents; they fascinate even when they’re awful. I like Barbra Streisand considerably more as a singer than an actress, but in these cookie-cutter times when I honestly can’t tell a bland Chris Pine from a vanilla Bradley Cooper, I find I’ve grown fonder (or at least more tolerant of) her distinctive screen persona. When Streisand is on her game (Funny Girl, On a Clear Day, What’s Up, Doc?) there isn’t anyone better. And while Funny Lady is not much of a showcase for Streisand the actress or comedienne, it’s a helluva showcase for Streisand the star.



BONUS MATERIAL
Distributed in theater lobbies: My Funny Lady promotional foldout from 1975.  
For those interested, the terrific The Barbra Streisand Archives offers more info than you'll likely ever want to know about the making of Funny Lady. From deleted scenes and interviews to costume sketches and behind-the-scenes trivia.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

23 comments:

  1. Dear Ken: A very enjoyable post about a film that is, as you point out, hard to like as a whole even if it has some good parts to it.

    I first saw "Funny Lady" on a "Sunday Night at the Movies" showing in the early 1980s, when I was in high school, and like you, before I had see "Funny Girl." (In fact, the most intriguing aspect of my first viewing of "Lady" was seeing the clips of "Girl" that play behind the credits!)

    You've articulated well many reasons why "Lady" really doesn't work as a film. But for me, the main one is finding it hard to care about Brice as a character. (Which for the moment leaves to one side the consideration of whether Streisand is even playing a character or instead, simply giving us an--impressive--display of "Streisand the Star.") I enjoy all those MGM musicals from the 1940s and 1950s with Jane Powell and Esther Williams, where everyone is so unfailingly kind and gracious to each other. I admit that behavior is quite unbelievable, but I think it's preferable, at least in escapist terms, to the more "realistic" musicals we got starting in the 1960s where characters are moody, sour and downright cruel to each other at times.

    (My husband and I re-watched "Kiss Me, Kate" this past weekend, and even though the two leads spend the whole film snarling and being condescending to each other, they also display enough fragility that you really do care about whether they get back together at the end.)

    Of course, as you point out, Streisand the performer interacting in any meaningful way with her co-stars is a pretty rare thing. Once Streisand gained confidence and power by the mid-1970s, unfortunately she lost something as a fully rounded human being. (Her luminous sense of humor, for example, pretty much disappeared except on rare occasions.)

    I saw "Lady" again about a dozen years ago on TCM and found that the most enjoyable parts were (some of) the musical numbers. But even there, they're more enjoyable on the soundtrack LP (which I used to have), where we can hear them uninterrupted and uncut, than in the often fragmentarily edited way they're presented in the film. For example, "I've Got a Code in my Doze" is a genuine delight when you hear the whole thing (and it shows that, when she tried, Streisand could still be funny!), but in the film the portion shown is so brief it barely makes an impression.

    Other good numbers: "More Than You Know," "Great Day," (although the staging is pretty cringe-worthy), even the lovely orchestral version of "Me and My Shadow" that plays when Eleanor Holm and her girls are swimming.

    Final verdict: I don't know if I ever care to watch "Funny Lady" again. But maybe I should download some of those tracks! :)

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  2. Hi David
    It’s interesting that you saw FUNNY LADY before FUNNY GIRL, too. And I felt the same as you regarding the FUNNY GIRL clips shown in the opening montage. They (unfortunately) call attention to what FUNNY LADY lacks. I felt the same when, in the reunion scene between Nick and Fanny, the score slips into the melody of the song “People.” No songs in FUNNY LADY come close to it in quality.

    When you cite how you find it difficult to like Fanny as a character in this film, I too think that’s a problem. When Streisand was a nobody, the script (having the benefit of being based on a show that underwent numerous rewrites before opening) works hard to get us to like her. FUNNY LADY, being an established star vehicle, seems to approach the material from the perspective of Streisand’s likeability being a given, and no effort is made to give her character any qualities that make us care for her.
    Your referencing the civility of old Hollywood musicals is a good example. Even when characters are combative (say Gene Kelly and Judy Garland in SUMMER STOCK) they each have scenes where we get to see their sympathetic sides.

    Streisand can be so good when forced to share the spotlight (as Bogdanovich made her do in WHAT’S UP DOC?) but she did indeed stifle her marvelous and appealing humor once she began taking herself so seriously.

    I too like the FUNNY LADY album a lot. And like you, I was so disappointed that so many of the funniest numbers never last very long on the screen. After seeing the non-stop singing in TOMMY, FUNNY LADY’s abbreviated numbers felt like an exercise in frustration. I always hoped the “Code in My Doze” number and “Blind Date” would appear on DVD extras in their entirety.

    It does sound like we share such a similar response to the film, appreciating its virtues while being well aware of its liabilities.
    Thank you for calling attention to so many observable points (the staging of “Great Day” IS a bit wince-inducing) and sharing your personal experience of the film. Good hearing from you , David!!

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  3. FUNNY LADY!

    Bleccch!

    Bless you for noting that FUNNY LADY and TOMMY share the same moment in history. What a rich observation. TOMMY floated on my teenaged fealty to Ken Russell and would have been loved even without all its astonishing film making. Tina Turner! Elton John! Ann-Margret! Bilions of Beans!!! Almost simultaneously, fame-damaged Barbra nearly committed career suicide making this threadbare crap. One film explodes into the future with bold risk taking and imagination, while the other crawls into the long-gone past and pulls punches on its way to insignificance. America was at a crossroads in the '70's. Some embraced the future. Some retreated to the past. The 'Nostalgia Craze' of the '70's was enormous. Ruby Keeler in "No! No! Nanette!" Debbie Reynolds in "Irene." Barbra in "Funny Lady." Safe and familiar. Only Ruby made it into something genuine and exciting. The Other Lady(s) just floated in it. Easy money, for sure. But all that glitters is not Ruby. I will think about this all day.


    A few years ago, I worked on a project with a lovely man who, it turned out, had danced in the "Great Day" numbah. That just popped out during some casual chit-chat. Of course, I wanted the dirt. There was none. They worked a long, long time on it. Many incarnations. As for Babs, all the gentleman said was that she was 110% concentrated on her work and on getting everything right. What was most interesting was that "Great Day" was filmed concurrently with the 1975 Academy Awards. Streisand had the pressure of being nominated for "The Way We Were" while shooting "Funny Lady." They shot for "Great Day" on the morning of the Academy Awards broadcast, breaking early so Barbra could get ready for the broadcast. The next day, they started a bit late. 11 a.m.? Something like that. Barbra was back in the 'Great Day' costume, shooting more film, having lost the Oscar just hours before. One must respect that. Everyone on the set was aware of the pressure she was under, but she worked right through it. Other less disciplined stars might have called in sick the day after that. Not our Babs!

    Peter Matz is the man who made Barbra a star. He did many of the orchestrations for her early albums. If anyone shaped and moulded her singing and gave her the keys to stardom, it's Peter Matz. Back in the 90's, I managed some studio theaters in NYC. One morning, I was in early to get things ready for auditions that would occur that day. In one of the studios, I found a middle aged guy in a trench coat reading the paper. I introduced myself and asked who he was. "Oh, I'm Peter Matz. I'm going to play for the audition. I thought I could wait in here, as I got here a little early. Is that okay?" I know my jaw dropped when I heard his name. I'm thinking, "OMG! Peter Matz! He CREATED Barbra Streisand!" Of course, I couldn't say that. All I could think was to make an apology for our shitty pianos. He shrugged his shoulders. "No problem. It's just a rehearsal piano. It doesn't matter." We chatted for a few minutes. I've had contact with lots of celebrities and you can spot the actors from down the hall. Or down the block. They almost always make themselves known. But Peter Matz, on a rainy Tuesday morning, completely took me by surprise. The hand I shook wrote those outstanding charts.

    Barbra's voice was at its very best for this one. Her recording of "If I Loved Again" is perfect. The phrasing at the end of the intro, where she skips the breath and goes right into the song. Great singing. But the film is a garish, gawdaful mess. And if I ever see another drag queen smack a work light....

    Thanks for that recollection that Funny Lady and Tommy share a birthday. That's astonishing.

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    1. Three great points you bring up: First- I hadn’t really thought of the role the ‘70s nostalgia craze played into making a sequel to “Funny Girl” appear a more practical film concept than it seems now. Looking back, it must have seemed a shoo-in for success.
      Second- I really liked reading about the circumstances surrounding the “Great Day” number and Streisand’s professionalism. All the ego-related stuff that came to be associated with her next film “A Star Is Born” soured me on her a great deal (perhaps we have the seriously creepy Jon Peters to thank for that) so it’s wonderful to read of a circumstance that really gives a sense of what a pro she is.
      Lastly- I had no idea Peter Matz was at all involved with Streisand. I hear that name and I can only associate it with Carol Burnett signaling to her variety show audience to give him a hand.
      How terrific you got to meet and talk to him!

      Barbra does sound great in this film. I was very familiar with the album by the time I saw the film, and “If I Love Again” emerged my absolute favorite song. The album take is my favorite (it’s only slightly different in phrasing on a part or two).

      For all its weaknesses, I do remember “Funny Girl” being this almost unfathomable hit. Almost no one I knew really liked it very much, but everyone had to see it. The combination of her rare TV special/”Funny Lady” infomercial, the press interviews, and of course, the record stores on Polk Street and shops on Castro all seemed to have major “Funny Girl” displays of some sort. It was quite an “event.” Perhaps I would have had a better time of it had I seen it with the opening week audiences.
      Thanks so much for your terrifically informative and personal comment contributions. Nice how you balance respect for Streisand the artist while having absolutely no love for the movie. A nice example of critical thinking - often a rarity in the world of internet film discourse.

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    2. Ah... the infomercial! The infomercial worked out really well for me. My best and most long standing friend attended that performance in the Kennedy Center. Sadly, for him, he sat in the back of the balcony and was fraught with anger that he really couldn't see her in any detail from that seat. He's a musician and watching her do her work was not really possible from that location. He vowed that one day he would address this great loss.

      Fast forward to my 50th birthday. Babs was on tour. My milestone birthday provided all the justification needed to buy two front row seats (for a bone-chilling amount of money.) I was happy to help him turn turn the purchase from an indulgence into really spectacular altruism. So, off we flew to Las Vegas.

      Sadly, we ended up in the second row, not the first. But in the center section. That was probably a bit better for our aging necks. We were absolutely surrounded by hard core Barbra FREAKS.

      We could look right up Babs' nose and see when she sweat. But that voice! She was still in good voice and out the golden sound poured for 90 minutes. Watching her from that vantage point was unforgettable. Worth every one of the thousands of dollars that he paid. Bless him. And bless the impeccable timing of my 50th.

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    3. Now that's a real Hollywood ending to a Streisand story, and a great way to usher in one's 5th decade!
      I have friends who have made the effort to see her live and they all say it was worth every penny.

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  4. This was absolutely hilarious—and really the best way to watch and appreciate such a spectacle. I programmed this at the revival theater I had in the 1980s (co-feature: For the Boys—it was actually a James Caan double bill!) and instead of getting a 35mm print, we were stuck with less dazzling 16mm library print. But the best part was, the 16mm print ran 17 minutes longer than the theatrical cut.

    The sign in the box office: Bad News—We’re Running Late. Good News—You’re Seeing More Barbra Than You’ve Seen Before.

    What’s important is so many Barbra fans left with ooobly-boobly feelings.

    Thanks Ken!

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    1. Hi Max
      Wow...a James Caan double bill AND a double dose of onetime NYC chanteuses! And I love the boxoffice sign, for indeed, a Streisand fan who gets to see more Streisand, is a happy fan, no matter the circumstances.

      Speaking of ooobly-boobly feelings: back when this film was just coming out, there was a diner/eatery on Polk street that had those little juke box selectors on the table. Every time I went there it seemed someone had selected "Let's hear It For Me" it played on a near-nonstop loop. I heard it so much I always assumed that was going to be the big hit from the movie, but "How Lucky Can You Get?" wound up with the Oscar nomination.
      Go figure.

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  5. Funny Lady was one of my top favorite films of 1975.I saw it many times at the theater and had it on video tape in 80's and then it faded away until last year when I revisited it. Oh My! All the technical aspects still looked wonderful and the acting was fine but, boy did the story seem lacking! But the music still was awesome. Thanks for all the great reviews of the films I love. We are the same age and became aware of the power of film at the same time so many of your reviews cover my favorites, (Day of the Locust) and I really appreciate the in depth reviews of all these films.

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    1. Hi Dan
      Your first two sentences sounded like one of my high school best friends talking. He absolutely adored FUNNY LADY when it came out (and still does, I believe) and when it was playing at the theater where I worked, he came to the first show and sat through every screening until my shift ended. He must have seen it 3 times at least in one day.
      It's so nice to hear that the film still has a great deal of appeal for you after all these years, and that the aspects you cited have remained its most enduring.
      Thank you for the kind words regarding the blog! In being the same age, it's gratifying to know that that particular point in time was as rich for other film fans as they so undoubtedly were for me.
      "The Day of the Locust" is another big favorite of my high school best friend, making me think we all would have gotten along terrifically back in 1975, debating the pros and cons of movies we always enjoyed even when didn't always love them.
      Thank you very much for your comments and I'm very happy you've found this blog!

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  6. Ken,
    I think I like your review better than I would like this movie! Think I will just check out clips of the various numbers on YouTube, if they can be had.

    Love your comparison to Joan Crawford, because as I read your take on Babs latter day Fanny Brice, I was thinking about Joan Crawford preening and barking orders in "Torch Song!"

    Thinking back as a teen in the early to mid-70s, everyone went to Barbra Streisand movies, regardless. For every "The Way We Were," there was "A Star is Born" and "The Main Event."

    Thanks for your fun and incisive take on the not so funny lady!

    Rick

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    1. Hi Rick
      There really IS a bit of "Torch Song"s Jenny Stewart in Streisand's "Funny Girl" Fanny Brice, leaving me to think those two films would make a marvelous revival theater double-bill.
      You're also right in remembering that Streisand movies in the '70 were attended the way some people attended Clint Eastwood movies; she was a star, she made one film every couple of years or so, and you went regardless of what critics said. That's a great observation that really takes me back.
      Thanks, Rick. And if you haven't seen this movie by now, I think those YouTube clips are a good idea.

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  7. Ken, I was hoping you'd get to Funny Lady one of these days. I loved - LOVED - Funny Girl and couldn't wait to see Funny Lady. We had just gotten HBO and they were showing it so I watched it on the little color TV in my parent's bedroom.

    First, Barbra looked gorgeous. Second, I didn't particularly like James Caan (or his type) but he was charming, even with his reedy singing voice. Thirdly, I knew the movie was in trouble when she goes West to see Omar Sharif.

    Like any other female in 1967, I developed a raging crush on Sharif's Nicky Arnstein. But that scene was so limp, so anticlimatic, so, well, dumb, that I realized I just didn't care. Bad thing to happen in a sequel to one of the most blazingly entertaining musicals and electrifying star turns ever. Whatever chemistry there had once been between Barbra and Omar was flatter than day old champagne. Worse, it made Fanny look stupid - Streisand's own intelligence and artistic gifts couldn't make me believe the scene or Fanny's hang up on Nick was true.

    What it did make me realize, and appreciate, was how much Funny Girl was William We're movie, not Barbra's. Compare the two movies and several of Funny Lady's set pieces are pale carbon copies of Wyler's original. Don't Rain on My Parade is iconic; Let's Hear It for Me, meh. How Lucky Can You Get wilts in comparison to Wyler's close up of Barbra singing My Man at the end of Funny Girl.

    Wyler's sure hands and stature meant Barbra couldn't steamroll the production into a vanity piece. Yet his genius made it her vehicle in the absolute best of ways.

    Your analysis is spot on, Ken, as always. Another one of the reasons I run to Le Cinema Dreams whenever a new post comes along.



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    1. Hi Roberta
      Such an excellent, well-taken point regarding the oft-overlooked contributions of William Wyler in making "Funny Girl" work. It kind of cuts to the core of what is seldom addressed in a great many creative collaborations (the whole Dionne Warwick/Burt Bacharach/Hal David association comes to mind): that each of the individuals may be genuinely talented, but it is often how they work together that is responsible for the creation of something great.
      Streisand is inarguably talented, but I think "Funny Lady" is a good example of what all that talent can look like without much guidance and shaping from a s strong director.

      And the total lack of chemistry between Sharif and Streisand is almost baffling here. His charm is neutered by the writing, which never affords his character any strength or upper-hand in any scene, and Streisand doesn't seem to have the acting chops to make her infatuation with him ring remotely believable.

      From what I read on the Streisand archive site, it seems there was an initial effort to make "Funny Lady" less garish and colorful initially (the "Cabaret" influence, again), but market-minded heads prevailed and the film began to follow too closely in the footsteps of its predecessor. Resulting in what you cite: in every instance "Funny Lady" tries to recapture a moment from "Funny Girl," it only pales in comparison.
      I think "Funny Lady" provided Streisand fans in the '70s with the musical kick they needed after Barbra's string of non-singing roles, but in the end it feels like a fan-favorite film, not one intended for general audiences.
      I know you saw this for the 1st time on a little TV set, I wonder (I've forgotten, were you even born in 1975?) if you would have felt differently seeing it on the big screen. Even with all its faults, that amplified voice and those widescreen color vistas can be pretty intoxicating.
      Thanks so much for your comments, and contributing a well-deserved nod to the unsung hero of "Funny Girl" in this forum! (And re: your next message, autocorrect will get you every time!)

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  8. Damn autocorrect...I meant William Wyler of course!!!!

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  9. Hi Ken - you like this film a bit more than I do, and this is a beautifully written and illustrated essay that convices me to give it another look!!. I'm such a fan of the original, both musically and performance-wise, that this always seemed a forced attempt to reignite the magic. (On top if it all, I am not a big fan of James Caan and the heavenly Omar Sharif has but a cameo here.) But your beautifully curated screen caps prove how visually sumptuous the film is...did Bob Mackie do the costumes? And a couple of the Kander & Ebb tunes are pretty good, but the musical numbers seem overproduced.

    Maybe it's that Funny Girl feels like a real, honest-to-goodness classic from Hollywood's golden era, and Funny Lady is like an ersatz 1970s homage to a bygone era, like WC Fields and Me or Gable and Lombard?

    And thank you for shouting out one of my favorite unsung movie heros...the versatile Roddy McDowall. As you note, again he has precious little to do here. Thank God for the Apes films, and Liz Taylor's Cleopatra. Even in Poseidon Adventure they kill him off first,=. And he was never even nominated for an Oscar!

    I will look at Funny Lady through your Dreamy eyes next time I see it, Mr. Anderson!!
    -Chris

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    1. Hi Chris
      I do enjoy this movie, but I can't divorce my pleasure in it from a certain amount of nostalgia. As just my third Barbra Streisand film I really was looking forward to seeing it, and played the album incessantly at the time. San Francisco (at least Polk Street and the Castro area) promoted it shamelessly and practically declared its opening day a holiday.
      I still feel all of that when I watch FUNNY LADY, so many of its glaring faults are softened.
      But you're right in tagging it to those nostalgia era films that didn't quite hit the mark.

      And it's funny about Roddy McDowall. I wish he had written his memoirs. Aside from all the people he knew, I often wondered what kind of actor's ego he had. He was a"star" who appeared in so many big films in such tiny roles. He starred in very few, but played sometimes almost bit roles in others. I wondered if he was one of those professionals who was just happy to be working consistently, or if he felt that his career had slipped off the tracks. He's certainly well-represented on this blog, six of his movies being featured.
      Also, it kinda surprises me he never got an Oscar nomination! I sincerely hope he has a star on Hollywood Blvd, at least.
      Thanks for commenting Chris, and don't rush into seeing FUNNY LADY again any time soon...you may hold it against me!

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  10. Hi Ken,

    No I have not fallen off the face of the earth but it’s been hectic in my corner of the world and while I enjoyed reading your last few posts I just haven’t had much to say about those particular films…it’s been many ages since I saw Jean Brodie and my memory of it is super cloudy, I was indifferent to Obsession and I flat out hated The Conversation despite loving the cast. But with Funny Lady now we’re talkin’!!

    While I was reading your take on this the first thing that came to mind is the wedding scene in “In and Out” where Kevin Kline finally realizing he’s gay is throwing Joan Cusack over and she screams “Do you have ANY idea how many times I’ve sat through Funny Lady?!” and he otherwise befuddled yells exasperatedly “She was under a contractual obligation!” And boy is it ever obvious when watching this!!

    Geez this held so much promise and while it’s not a calamity it is a huge letdown after the delight of Funny Girl. The many faults start right at the top with who is behind the lens…or rather who isn’t. Herb Ross was a good director, at times very good, but erratic and while Wyler might have been at the end of his career and deaf as a post he always knew his onions and wasn’t about to let some kid, no matter how talented, plow over him. Perhaps Ross was worn down from his previous picture, The Last of Sheila (a movie I ADORE!) and just wasn’t up to reining in Streisand after wrangling that rough shoot-that resulted in a much better film. But not only doesn’t Ross control Babs his pacing is off and the film plods at times.

    Then there’s the supporting characters. They aren't nearly as enjoyable or fleshed out as in the first, where is the hell is Kay Medford's (who was very much alive when this was made) wonderful mother? She’s referenced I think once and she added so much snap to the original being a strong enough performer to withstand the Streisand juggernaut and make Rose a distinct person. She is sorely missed.

    What they did to Sharif is appalling! Okay the real Nick Arnstein was a lout, a waster and pretty much a bad news buffet but that’s not who we were presented with in Funny Girl. By making him a creepy snook in this it sours the memory of Fanny & Nick’s story in the original-why would you want to do that?

    I remember seeing this in the theatre on its release and seeing Carole Wells name in the credits and being thrilled-I had loved her (and the rest of the cast-including Ruth McDevitt and Ann Sheridan) in the sitcom Pistols & Petticoats which was regrettably short-lived ending after a year when Ann Sheridan died far too young from cancer-and was pleased that she had landed such a high profile role…that was until the credits rolled and thought “Well she looked great but she had zero to do.” Such was the case with EVERYBODY else whose last name wasn’t Streisand or Caan!

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    1. Hi Joel
      Nice to hear from you! It's always a pleasure to see a familiar name here in the comments section, but I honestly enjoy writing too much to do it with an eye toward who does and doesn’t comment. I still get a kick out of it when anyone like yourself takes the time to both read and respond to my posts. I’m always gratified but never expectant. I write this blog as a film diary for myself, and would do so even without a comments section. So please don’t ever feel you owe an explanation if you don’t feel like commenting (I’d certainly never divulge to you whether or not I was aware that you’d taken a hiatus!)

      As for FUNNY LADY, from all I've read, it sounds as though much of what you suspect turned out to be true. According to Carole Wells (on that Streisand Archive site) one of the ways the studio was able to corral her into doing the film was to offer her a little more "power" and say-so in the making. Wells is certain Streisand is the reason for her whittled down part, but apparently Kay Medford was in an early draft of the script, but as the film began taking on weight (all those production numbers) and losing shape and focus, her part was eliminated.
      When movies meet the fate of being deemed "too long" and people (not always creative people) start chopping off scenes and abbreviating things, there's always a problem with uneven pacing and a sense that something is missing. FUNNY LADY really feels a great deal was left on the cutting room floor.
      By the way, you have to be the first person I've known to reference "Pistols and Petticoats" in easily 40 years!

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  11. Now I LOVE Barbra Streisand I own most of her albums-including this soundtrack-and have seen all of her films but a lot of what’s wrong with the picture can be firmly laid at her feet. She is of course is loaded with talent but she’s brittle and haughty, two things that Fanny Brice never was. As you said she seems to be scowling through a good deal of the picture and even when she jokes it has the whiff of sourness. It’s a disservice to the character and the audience.

    She looks amazing, the production design excellent and many of the costumes eye popping, that green feathered dress that you picture is amazing my favorite thing she wears in the entire film-I cracked up at your reference to her slumming in casual daytime wear under the picture of that red number that encases her, but they are dressing up an average affair.

    Most of the music is excellent-perhaps not uniformly at the level of the first but with the exception of one or two numbers terrific songs, the problem is the staging is atrocious. We only get snippets of many of them like "More Than You Know" and "Am I Blue" and several of the ones we do get full versions of are muddled. The absolute worst- "It's Gonna Be a Great Day". Barbra gives an exceptional rendition of the song (and it’s phenomenal on the album) but it's botched and messy on screen drowned mostly in long shots and the sound of the shuffling feet of the surrounding dancers. "Let's Hear It for Me" is a blatant rip-off of "Don't Rain on My Parade" but nowhere near the quality. Perhaps the best number in the film, "If I Love Again" which Streisand gives a hauntingly beautiful rendition of on disc as well as the film is wasted in merely being used for the most part as background music in a scene rather than the evocative mood setter it should have been.

    Caan is alright as Billy Rose (again I got a real chuckle out of your use of “The back of James Caan’s head” as an alternate title for the movie) but he and Babs share little chemistry, he mostly shouts his part hardly making the most romantic leading man and if you’re at all familiar with the real Billy Rose completely physically wrong in the role. The scrappy bombastic Robert Blake would have been nearly ideal.

    Now I have to admit after dumping all this vitriol on the movie that I don’t think it’s a waste of time, I’ve sat through far worst but you just can't go into it expecting the high quality of the first film. I even own it, more because it came in a special edition with the original remastered film than a deep love of the film itself. I guess a good descriptor of my feelings for the movie is that if I run across Funny Girl no matter where it’s at I will stop and watch until the end, with this I MAY watch a scene or two but have no problem turning the channel and rarely if ever give a look to my copy.

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    1. Part II!
      i love all your comments on the film, and I think all of them are well taken. I too am not fond of all those abbreviated songs, and the way the numbers are filmed do lack a bit of panache.
      Also, a pet peeve of mine is when musical numbers which are meant to be funny due to ineptitude (like the long "crazy Quilt" sequence) are NOT. Everything just looks forced and I long for the comic ineptitude of what Mel Brooks brought to the original "The Producers".
      In essence, it sounds as though FUNNY LADY failed to be as respectful to what worked in FUNNY GIRL, and on that point I have to agree.
      Fanny and Nick had a romance. He was flawed, but he had some good qualities. It a shame they couldn't see to making Sharif a little more like his charming self so we could feel a sense of her loss. the whole "good riddance" feel of their split is sour, and as you note, spoils the memory of the first film.

      In the end, I just wish they had a better reason to make the sequel than her contractual obligation, the nostalgia craze, or even the desire to go to the well of a former hit. I would have loved the film to have been about something.
      Oh and Roberta (a commenter above) reminded me of that hilarious exchange in "In and Out". It is a riot and for some reason it gives people permission to love it (die hard Babs fans) and hate it (its not THAT good, but that doesn't mean a person find it enjoyable).
      Thanks for your funny and engagingly impassioned comments. I've said it before, but it's informative as hell to have someone able to articulate what doesn't work about a film for them. It's insight into different ways of perceiving and responding to film.
      Thanks a heap!

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  12. Ken,

    Another great read, as usual. I missed Funny Lady when it first came out. My mother was a big Streisand fan, particularly of the first couple of LPs. I think people forget how important she was to women in the early 1960s, particularly those who were quirky and not movie-start pretty. Her slow version of Happy Days Are Here Again was something of an anthem for them, and I heard it a lot growing up. So anything with Streisand in it was, to me, a mom movie and not for teenaged me. I was definitely in the Tommy camp in 1975 and wouldn't have been caught dead at a Barbra Streisand movie.

    So I come to this one late in life. And, man, is this a frustrating movie. There seems to be a wonderful story hinted at here and there, but it never really comes into focus. To my mind, Fanny Brice training Billy Rose in what works on stage is what this is almost about. Funny Lady is not quite a role-reversed version of A Star is Born, with Streisand as the accomplished Norman Maine character and James Caan as the talented, but raw up-and-comer, but it's close. I wonder if Streisand sensed this, which is why she did A Star is Born for her next movie after this? (I would have loved to see James Caan give a tearful, “I am Mr. Fanny Brice” speech, though.)

    You described Funny Lady as a sour movie, and that is a perfect word for it. I thought the Crazy Quilt sequence was mean rather than funny. The failure of the show was placed on the stagehands and the dancers and not the incompetence of Billy Rose’s sets and staging. And there is one scene of Fanny and her daughter, which seems to be there just so she can berate Nick Arnstein and once that is done, the daughter vanishes. Maybe she ran away with Roddy McDowall’s Bobby character, which explains their disappearance from the film.
    But parts of Funny Lady are excellent, which is what makes it so frustrating to watch. Ben Vereen is a joy to watch, (I could have done without the watermelon suit, though), the stage sets in the Crazy Quilt section are a hoot and the costumes have an over-the-top, 1970s charm. If all you know about Funny Lady were the soundtrack LP and a couple of YouTube clips, you’d think this was a great lost musical. But as you point out, Streisand is mesmerizing when she is being miserable. I’m glad I saw this and I’ll watch it again, but I suspect the fast forward button will be within easy reach.

    Michael (Selmerguy on Twitter)

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    1. Hi Michael
      What a wonderfully personal yet comprehensive assessment of “Funny Lady”! Chiefly I like how you place Streisand’s early career in perfect context with how she was viewed by “kids,” and her significance to women (moms).
      Both “People” and “Happy Days Are Here Again” were high replay favorites of my mother, so I identify precisely with how you viewed Streisand as a youngster.

      But your observations on the narrative structure of “Funny Girl” is rather refreshing too. Primarily because, while I’ve always been aware of (and annoyed by) so many of Streisand’s films seeming to go out of their way to feature scenes in which she is showing others how to do their jobs better, it hadn’t really occurred to me how these scenes echo the common male movie occurrence of leading men “mansplaining” things to women (a la Garland’s “A Star is Born”).

      Just thinking of how rare it is for women in movies to display more knowledge and skill than their male co-stars sheds a heretofore ignored feminist light on “Funny Lady” that I’d never paid attention to.
      While this doesn’t make it a better film, but it does inform Streisand and her films with heroines that men (like myself) might label annoying, pushy, bossy, etc., that we’d never attribute to a male character.
      Your contrasting “Funny Lady”s plotline with Streisand’s follow-up film “A Star is Born” is food for thought.

      I of course laughed at you other comments, particularly the idea of Roddy McDowall’s Bobby & Fanny’s daughter running off together. I’ve seen the earlier script drafts which allowed for a more graceful exit for Bobby (post-divorce from Billy, she tells him that she needs to grow up and learn to look after herself); but the daughter is short-shrifted anyway, although she had a pretty good pre-marriage scene voicing her displeasure with mom’s choice of a new husband.

      In sharing with us what you see to be the pluses and minus of a problematic film, you provide another even-handed look at a film whose parts are frustratingly greater than the sum.
      Thank you, Michael, for your insight and for contributing such a thoughtful, well-written take on “Funny Lady”!

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