Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Generally considered the inferior sequel to 1968's Funny Girl, wherein Barbara Streisand cemented
her name as a movie star, Funny Lady is a reasonable followup with a few laughs and even a
nice song or two. It's held back by a script that never seems more than a rehash of musical biography
clichés, and by Ms. Streisand herself, who may sing about needing People, but doesn't
convince us that she's anywhere near that human.
Divorced by a humbled Nicky Arnstein (Omar Sharif), Fanny Brice (Barbara Streisand)
embarks on the second stage of her career with the pushy, obnoxious yet charming Billy Rose (James
Caan). A successful songwriter (Me and My Shadow, Paper Moon), with Fanny's help
Billy parlays a speakeasy into an empire of show business, until he has several extravaganzas
touring at once. His grating overtures to Fanny are interrupted by her continued infatuation with
Arnstein, who's remarried to a rich sugar mommy;
when Fanny does say yes, the romance in their marriage is slow to develop. Eventually they both end
up working in different cities, with Rose attracted to the star of an aquacade, and Fanny
once more being wooed by the Nicky who still sends her ...
A pretty darn good try at an earlier breed of musical, Funny Lady just served to pound more
nails into the coffin of that genre. Top talent worked on the production design for the glitzy showbiz
trappings of the Billy Rose stage shows, but the film is lopsided in favor of its star, the immeasurably
talented but cinematically frustrating Streisand. She looked like trouble in Funny Girl, singing
'I am the greatest star' with such punch that you knew she meant it down to the smallest bone in her
body. After being bounced around in some bad musical vehicles, she soon arrived at the state where her
star clout was far greater than that of any studio. If you worship the ground this woman
walks on, then you've already seen Funny Lady 20 times and it's Perfect. If, like Savant, you
think her personality is just too powerful to let anything as insignificant as a story, drama or other
actors interrupt her star aura, than Funny Lady will have you shaking your head.
The problem can be seen in every frame where Streisand is on screen. Whatever the original intent of
a particular scene was, it's been creatively killed by the Prime Directive: All Streisand,
All the Time. She's the center of the cosmos; nothing is allowed to hold attention for
more than a few miliseconds. Streisand follows in the tradition of savvy egoists like Joan Crawford,
making sure that no other female has an attractive closeup or is allowed to develop a personality. Every
'beauty performance' by the girls in the chorus (or the acquacade) is countered by a 'cute' Brice/Streisand
moment. Perhaps still believing in her ugly duckling image, Streisand makes sure the writing gives
her ample opportunities to slight the Ziegfeld beauties around her. The film takes delight in turning
them into stupid cows felled by collapsing sets and a (how symbolic) runaway buffalo. It's all summed up in one of Fanny's
raging speeches: "I don't need you, I'm a Star! I don't need anybody!"
That puts everyone and everything else in the show under the catgegory of 'support crew', which
does exceedingly well. James Caan tackles what for him is a very atypical role - a mouthy, crass,
cheapskate broadway promoter. He plays well off of Barbara, and does a good job of not looking foolish
when the blocking is twisted to keep the left, preferred side of Streisand's face to camera at all
times. I call his the George Brent role, and Caan does it well. We never believe he wrote all those
sensitive & sentimental songs, but he does good things with most of the comedy.
When there is comedy. The show plays as if post-scripting changes have
hammered all the fun out of it. The story cranks along mechanically, centering of course on Streisand
(which isn't in itself bad), but other threads are lost along the way. Roddy McDowall makes a good
impression, but is dropped, along with a score of other supporting players never allowed to develop
into anything. The bits that remain of Brice's hangers-on and Billy's business personnel indicate that
they were meant to play a bigger part in the continuity. It's no myth that stars with too much power
post-production process to whittle away at anything and anybody who crowds their spotlight, and
Funny Lady has all the earmarks of this kind of futzing in the cutting room. In the film, Fanny
chides Billy that his first theatrical effort is woefully overproduced (a clumsy attempt to one-up
an episode in The Band Wagon) and that he needs to get rid of 50% of the scenery so that the
people can enjoy what they came to see - her. Did Streisand write these lines herself?
The biggest casualty is continuity. We can never tell where we are in time. Fanny Brice was
a star at MGM for a spell, which is presumably why she's in Los Angeles before going on the radio, but
this is not covered. One unimaginative number puts her into a small biplane (to fly to the midwest?)
as a weak substitute for the tugboat scene in Funny Girl. 1
One appallingly unmotivated time jump leaps 14 years into the 1940s, with Caan and Barbara in
pitiful old age makeup, gray wigs and nothing else. If the dialogue didn't emphasize the passing time,
one would think that another movie altogether had been mistakenly spliced into the negative.
If the script once made an effort to tell more of the real story of Fanny Brice, it's gone now.
Streisand avoids Brice's stock Jewish 'Baby Snooks' character, as if irritated that screen time has to
be wasted on celebrating the famous vaudevillian. Judging by Funny Lady's interpretation
of her career, Brice was not just a shticky clown, but also the greatest chanteuse of the 20's and
30's. In Funny Girl, William Wyler and Co. acknowledged the fact that they had a powerhouse
talent in Streisand, by breaking clean out of their format for a finale that simply celebrated Barbara
alone on an empty stage. Funny Lady is still doing that, but with the pretense of a movie going
on around her.
The production is handsome and sleek, thanks to the unfussy designs of George Jenson. There's nothing
too compelling about any of the stage numbers, and we only get to see dancin' Ben Vereen for a few
seconds. The picture begins and ends with giant, soft-focus closeups of Barbara Streisand's searching
eyes. Ever since High School, Savant has met female fans who play her records all the time; back in
the '70s, it seemed that every young girl who wanted to sing at a party, came out with a poorly
calculated imitation of Barbara. Funny Lady is for them.
Columbia TriStar's DVD of Funny Lady has a scratch here and there but otherwise looks terrific,
with vibrant colors and very clear audio. It's the last credited film by the great James Wong Howe.
Hopefully his age and not this assignment prompted the camera stylist to retire. The only extra is a
menu choice that allows one to go directly to the songs in the show. Fans of Barbara Streisand will
love this disc.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Funny Lady rates:
Supplements: Chaptered songs
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: February 16, 2002
1. It's pretty funny seeing Streisand singing in perfect sync and waving
her arms while strapped into the biplane. Pretty brave stuff, but pitiful moviemaking. Note the many
television aerials visible off the runway in 1935, by the way. The capper tugboat reprise is of
course the end of Yentl,
where Babs sings on the deck of a boatful of immigrants (stock still, to avoid distracting faces),
while the camera cranes away into the sky. Savant has to admit,
at that point he's always wanted to cut in a periscope rising, followed by a torpedoing scene from
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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