Monday 14 November 2011

Movie Review: Funny Girl (1968)

A grand musical love story, Funny Girl is ambitious in scope and stellar in execution. Barbra Streisand turns in a star-making performance in her movie debut, recreating her Broadway role as Fanny Brice, and Omar Sharif provides able support.

The film starts with Brice established as a New York stage superstar, but all the events take place in one long flashback, with the story starting early in the 20th century. Born and raised in a humble Jewish neighbourhood, Brice never had the looks of a star, but she more than made up for the lack of glamour with talent and sheer gutso. She grabs an opportunity to perform at the local vaudeville theatre, where she immediately attracts the attention of the suave Nicky Arnstein (Sharif), an international gambler.

Brice's burgeoning reputation lands her a deal with the most famous of Broadway musical impresarios, Florenz Ziegfield (Walter Pidgeon). Brice is just as scrappy and outspoken with the revered Ziegfield as she is with everyone else, risking his wrath but earning his respect. She becomes a star; her romance with Arnstein blossoms, and after a night of seduction in Baltimore and a gambling triumph at the poker tables, they marry. But Arnstein soon runs into significant money problems, and he finds himself unable to handle Brice's continued dazzling popularity. Eventually he turns to illegal activities that undermine the marriage.

Loosely based on the real-life romance between Brice and her first husband, William Wyler directs Funny Girl (his first musical) with equal respect for the music and drama, and provides Streisand with every opportunity to seize her destiny as a star actress and singer with impeccable timing. Funny Girl is Streisand's show from beginning to end, her opening line of "Hello, gorgeous", delivered to her mirror image, immediately welcoming a new supernova to the Hollywood galaxy. She makes the role and the movie her own with a powerful mixture of self-depreciation, extroversion, determination and ridiculous talent. It is one of the defining debut performances in the history of the movies.

With a running length of 155 minutes, Wyler does have to work hard to maintain interest in a draggy final third, as the Isobel Lennart script (based on her book) becomes entrenched in strict drama land, the love story turning to a slow-motion wreck. Wyler brings out Streisand's flashes of showmanship to generate forward momentum at critical moments, with the timing never more perfect than when Brice, immediately after a performance, has to face a horde of reporters following the arrest of Arnstein for embezzlement. Streisand plays the scene with perfect doses of superstar bravado and earnest sensitivity.

Opposite Streisand, Omar Sharif brings just enough aristocratic je ne sais quoi to hold his own as Nicky Arnstein. Already a confident and established star after Lawrence Of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, Sharif effortlessly breezes through the dramatic moments but struggles with the musical numbers, and fortunately for him his singing requirements are kept to a minimum.

Given the epic length of the movie, the supporting cast is surprisingly lacklustre, only Walter Pidgeon bringing any sense of scope to his engaging turn as Flo Ziegfield. The set designs and costumes do look gorgeous, although they tip into clean-scrubbed theatre territory where some back-alley locational grime would have occasionally been welcome.

The success of Funny Girl hinged on the single performance of Barbra Streisand in the central role. Her triumph was complete and spectacular, creating an instant legend and a classic, timelessly entertaining movie.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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