If I may be permitted a paraphrase of Anne Baxter's inimitable line as Nefertiri in The Ten Commandments: Oh, Barbra, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool! (I'll leave it to armchair psychologists to draw any parallels between La Streisand and Moses). Streisand is loved, she is loathed. Admired and disdained. Worshipped and denigrated. Ah, the life of a superstar. Streisand's supposed hubris reached no greater heights than when she did pretty much the equivalent of a one-woman show in Yentl, her 1983 directorial debut which is finally making it to DVD on Region 1. That surfeit of personality is everywhere in evidence in the film, so your reaction will probably solely be based on how you feel about its star and director. As I was watching this DVD, one of my sons wandered by and asked "Is this a scary movie?" Ever the willing granter of a bon mot, I replied, "Barbra Streisand completely in control of everything--you decide!"
Based on a story by famed Jewish author Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yentl takes us back to the halcyon days of the generic Eastern European shtetl, when boys were raised to know the Torah and Talmud backwards and forwards, and girls were expected to cook and clean. Yentl (Streisand) is the daughter of a Talmudic scholar (Nehemiah Persoff) who has quietly broken the rules and taught her the intricacies of dialectic reasoning. When the father dies, Yentl makes the somewhat rash decision to pass as a male and enter a yeshiva, a Jewish house of learning, boys' club style. Along the way she comes under the mentorship of Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin), a burgeoning Talmudic genius who sees Yentl (at least as first) as a replacement for his recently deceased little brother. Avigdor is engaged to Hadass (Amy Irving), setting up a weird sort of romantic triangle as Yentl attempts to continue living life as a male even as she knows she's developing feelings for Avigdor. Along the way we get a proto-feminist slant on Jewish life in days of yore in the "big picture" arena, as well as a more intimate examination of a woman desperately seeking her place in the universe in the "close up" category.
Yentl rests squarely on the shoulders of Barbra Streisand, both in front of and behind the camera, and, frankly, whatever your personal opinions of her are, the fact is Yentl, while overlong and, yes, self-indulgent, is a superbly made film. Featuring an elegant (perhaps too elegant, considering the rustic characters) Oscar winning score by Michel Legrand and Marilyn and Alan Bergman, which is sung only by Streisand, Yentl treads a nice middle ground between traditional musicals, where characters just suddenly burst out singing, and the more introspective style that was pioneered a few years earlier by the huge flop Goodbye, Mr. Chips (which I'll be reviewing here soon), where many musical moments are handled as voiceovers, revealing the inner thoughts of characters. Legrand and the Bergmans are simply unparalleled masters of modern song (the Bergmans are my favorite all-time lyricists, bar none, and Legrand certainly places in my top five favorite film composers), but they are inerrantly sophisticated. That may have served Streisand the singer very well (she sounds glorious throughout this film), but it doesn't particularly suit this time frame to a tee.
Streisand obviously learned her directorial craft well at the feet of such masters as William Wyler (Funny Girl) and Vincente Minnelli (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever). As is made quite clear in some of the bounteous extras included in this 2 DVD set, Streisand was fully in control of the staging of the film (you expected otherwise?), and provides a fluidity of camerawork that is always supportive of the film's musical segments. Director of Photography David Watkins bathes the film in an amber glow that recalls Oswald Morris' work a decade earlier on Fiddler on the Roof. In fact, both Yentl and Fiddler might be momentarily faulted for portraying the village life of this era's Jews as too pretty--there's not a dust mite to be seen anywhere, which might make sense filmically but which removes a certain degree of verisimilitude from the proceedings.
Yentl is to be commended, however, on not following the expected romantic triangle trope. In fact when Yentl's cross-dressing alter ego Anschell actually ends up "marrying" Hadass, the film actually moves quite easily into a pseudo-farcical realm that provides some hearty comedy relief. Irving is especially touching in these scenes as she attempts to figure out why her new "husband" is so sex-averse. In a sort of Funny Girl finale hommage of sorts, Yentl ends with a boat trip to the "New World," which begs the question--what does Yentl really expect the United States to offer her? A job at the (tragic) Triangle Factory? Of course, that's left as an open-ended question in the film.
There's no doubt that Streisand was making some piquante comments on what it's like to be a woman working in a "man's world," whether that be the academic halls of Talmud, or the workaday world of directing a major motion picture. It's to her credit that the film never plays like a screed, and in fact features one of her most winning, "tick-free" performances. Patinkin is also less mannered than he usually is (or at least became later in his career), bringing an athletic presence to Avigdor that is appealing and heartfelt. But Irving really steals the show here, more aptly portraying the strictures on women of the time than Streisand's Yentl. (Look for Steven Hill in a cameo as Irving's father).
Streisand may indeed have been a stubborn, splendid adorable fool in pushing Yentl through to completion. But I for one find the film fool's gold, so to speak--a touching, if at times too urbane for its own good, evocation of one woman's struggle to empower herself. Streisand has obviously lived this struggle herself, and brings an unusual passion and craft to the project, which overcomes its occasional faults to provide one of the most compelling musical films of its era.
Disc 2 offers another introduction by Barbra, as well as "The Director's Reel," with outtakes and "home movies" of a sort showing Barbra completely in control of the proceedings (you expected anything less?). Also on tap are more "home movies" of "The Rehearsal Process," showing Streisand setting up shots months before principal photography; "My Wonderful Cast and Crew," a tribute to the artisans in front of and behind the camera; a deleted song storyboard; a very interesting 8mm "concept film" from Streisand that started the Yentl ball rolling; and a stuffed to the gills photo gallery.