Thursday, August 7, 2014

Wyler's Touch in FUNNY GIRL

One of the most bombastic big screen debuts in the history of Hollywood musicals.  That's what Barbra Streisand delivered in Funny Girl.  She was guided by the masterful direction of William Wyler.  You're already familiar with this classic film and you already know that its the screen version of the Broadway musical that made young Streisand a blazingly hot new stage and recording star.
Herb Ross helped with direction of the musical numbers.  Wyler definitely handled the story and soul of the film.  I love how Wyler could set a tone and communicate plenty of information in an important scene that had little or no dialogue.  I've written about that in previous blog posts.  Think about the scandalous Olympus Ball dance with Bette Davis and Henry Fonda in Jezebel.  The opening of The Letter, also starring Bette Davis, with the upper class married woman pumping six bullets point blank into her lover.  The excessive shooting of the hoodlum played by Humphrey Bogart in Dead End, the chariot race in Ben-Hur and the Gregory Peck vs Charlton Heston fist fight in   The Big Country are other examples.  In Funny Girl, it's the "Hello, Gorgeous" open.  We see a visible sign of success and the back of an expensive coat worn and a matching hat by a character looking at the sign.  We know that's the star -- Fanny Brice as played by Barbra Streisand.
There's a touch of melancholy in the background instrumental and the pace of her walk into the theater. When we get the now-famous "Hello, Gorgeous," we get a wistfulness.  There are tears in her eyes.  That sets the tone for the story.  Stardom didn't bring total personal happiness.
I love stories that have a full arc, take us a major emotional journey and end where they began.  Like The Wizard of Oz and George Cukor's 1954 musical remake of A Star Is Born.  Wyler's Funny Girl does that.  The unknown Fanny Brice sings "I'm the Greatest Star" to an empty theater.  No one's in the audience after she's unsuccessfully auditioned to be a music hall dancer.  She dreams of fame and recognition on the stage.
At the end, she sings "My Man" (directed by Wyler).  The audience is packed.  She's onstage.  She is the greatest star. But now she wants only one person -- Nicky Arnstein, the gambler husband who's had bad luck and wants a divorce.
In college, I read a biography of Fanny Brice.  I read it for a broadcasting class.  I was researching a paper on Brice, because her radio show had been a great success and we were covering the Golden Age of Radio in one class.  The real life Nicky was a louse.  The movie version Nicky is way better.  We care about him.  The improved Nicky works in showing the bittersweet love story of two people who are right yet not right for each other.  She's addicted to her career.  He's addicted to gambling.  Love isn't enough to hold their marriage together.  And, in Funny Girl, Nicky (as played by Omar Sharif) does love Fanny very much.
Two of my favorite screen shots involve the film's two stars.  One comes during the "People" number.  It's a very tender sequence.  This is the beginning of the love affair.  This leads to the first kiss, with Nicky's hand softly on her chin.
That touch, that moment, is rhymed at the break-up.  The two people, who still love each other, must break up.  They married.  They had a child.  Fanny became of the Ziegfeld's biggest stars.  Nicky's gambler's luck declined.  He took responsibility for some bad judgments and did jail time.   Nicky wants her to divorce him.  He feels her career will suffer because of his misfortune.  Fanny knows that he's right. But he did make her feel beautiful for a very long time.  No one else had.

That Omar Sharif touch and that William Wyler directorial touch get me every time.

After Nicky leaves Fanny's dressing room, she's heartbroken and sees that the mirror has two faces.  She's left to see her two selves -- Fanny Brice the Broadway star and Fanny Brice, the woman who will soon be the ex Mrs. Nicky Arnstein.
Here's some movie trivia for you:  Remember the Swan Lake parody number?  Barbra Streisand's ballet partner, the man playing The Prince, was one of the best dancers in classic MGM musicals.

The Prince was Tommy Rall, the dancer, singer and actor who added dazzle to MGM's Kiss Me Kate with Ann Miller and Bob Fosse.
He was sensational dancing with her and in between tall Bobby Van and Bob Fosse.
Rall and Fosse had a terrific theatre alley challenge number together in Columbia's 1955 musical My Sister Eileen with choreography by Fosse.
Tommy Rall was also one of the dancing backwoodsmen in MGM's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.


Here's a last bit of trivia:  Before the stage project eventually went to Broadway newcomer Barbra Streisand, you know who was considered to play Fanny Brice?  Oscar winner Anne Bancroft was in discussions about possibly playing Brice.  If she could handle the songs.

The Fates, however, decided that it would be the star-making vehicle for Barbra Streisand.

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