Saturday, December 23, 2023

Appreciations: Barbra Streisand’s ‘Yentl,’ 40 Years On

Forty years ago this holiday season, moviegoers—and, especially, the all-important Oscar voters—watched with more than the usual amount of interest one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars bring to the screen what many thought was, at best, a niche product.

But Barbra Streisand had the drive, the clout, and the money to put her vision before a mass audience.

Though not a blockbuster, Yentl, an adaptation of the Isaac Bashevis Singer short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” performed well enough ($40 million on a $16 million budget) that the singer-actress would be able to get behind the cameras again a few more times in the next dozen years.

I had never viewed the film until I watched a DVD in preparation for writing this blog. My reaction may well have been different had I seen it when it premiered. 

For all its imperfections, I still can’t help but respect the zeal and craftsmanship with which the singer-actress made this labor of love.

You will notice that my headline for this post has the phrase, “Barbra Streisand’s ‘Yentl.’” I don’t think a truer three words were ever put on this blog.

It wasn’t “Isaac Bashevis Singer’s ‘Yentl.’” Great storyteller that the Nobel Literature laureate was, his tale left enormous gaps in the narrative that he felt no need to fill. The way that fiction such as his describes thought and time diverges from the methods of film. And what he felt the story was “about” differed quite a bit from Streisand’s.

This is one instance in which Hollywood’s annoying habit of saying “A Film By [director's name],” without acknowledging collaborators, makes sense. Streisand played multiple roles throughout the production: star, singer, co-screenwriter, producer, and director.

The last actress who had performed this actor-hyphenate role was Ida Lupino in the late Forties to mid-Fifties. But the pictures Lupino made were low-budget. Streisand's was far more high-profile. 

For all her admitted large ego (which, she believed, gave her "strength" to achieve), she was also acutely aware, in a sexist industry, that Yentl's failure could set back progress not just for her but also for other women who hoped to helm a project. 

To her credit, Streisand saw the movie through, from beginning to end—doubly extraordinary since it took 15 years to get it made.

The seeds of the project took root in Streisand’s mind even before 1968 acting screen debut, Funny Girl, when she came upon the opening phrase of the story: “After her father's death.”

The inscription on the tombstone of her own father, who died when she was only 15 months old, reminded her more than a little of Yentl’s deceased parent: “Beloved Teacher and Scholar.” (The film ended up “dedicated to my father...and to all our fathers.”)

Among the difficulties Streisand faced in bringing the story to the screen:

*The disbelief of movie industry associates, even her intimates, about commercial prospects for such subject matter. Streisand’s agent in 1968, David Begelman, strongly advised her that taking on a character so identified as Jewish right after Funny Girl risked stereotyped her, and would not fly with moviegoers anyway. The star broke with a later agent, the legendary Sue Mengers, in part for expressing similar doubts. Her commitment to the project also severely strained her relationship with then-lover Jon Peters. By my count, at least three studios—Orion, Columbia, and Polygram Pictures—passed on the proposal until United Artists agreed, on the basis of several concessions by Streisand.

*Skepticism from some of the same sources about whether Streisand was the right person for the role. Singer did not specifically state Yentl’s age, but most people who’ve read the story (myself included) believe she’s no more than 20. By the time Streisand came across the tale, she was already in her mid-20s. The longer the project took, the older she looked for a yeshiva student. Streisand herself thought her character was about 28. By taking care of herself (and with the right lighting and hairstyle), Streisand may have felt that, even at age 40 (when she was finally able to go before the cameras), she could pass for someone in her late 20s. That was surely wishful thinking, but the history of Hollywood is filled with actors who try to pass themselves off for younger.

*The gender-bending plot was one that neither Hollywood nor audiences was accustomed to. Yentl loves the Torah so much that she is willing to dress as a male to be in the one environment where she can study it to her heart's content: a yeshiva, a traditional Jewish school centering on the teaching of Rabbinic literature. The film's script explored the complications of cross-dressing, including how both a male and female come to care for her in different ways. Even Streisand admitted to concentrating more on the feminist aspects of the story rather than its gender-bending ones. But the subtext was hard to miss, and the movie is now regarded as something of a landmark in LBGT depictions.

*Streisand had to direct this because her initial choices passed on it. One, Ivan Passer, told the actress in 1971 that she was too old and famous to play the role. Another, Milos Forman, upon hearing her pitch, gave her the same advice as Passer: Given her strong feelings on how the movie should be made, she should direct it herself.

*Much of the film was shot on location in Czechoslovakia—which, while it placed her far away from interfering Hollywood “suits,” also meant she was cut off from the many resources and personnel available for domestic shooting. (Filming at a British studio went more smoothly.)

*Amy Irving initially resisted being cast as Hadass Vishkower, the unwitting center of an unwitting love triangle. She might have felt better when all was said and done, as she was nominated for an Academy Award—the only one she ever received.

*Her leading man made a clumsy pass at her. In her new memoir, My Name Is Barbra, the star recalled her astonishment when, in pressing Mandy Patinkin for why he had acted so oddly in a recent scene, he blurted out, “I thought we were going to have a more personal relationship”—i.e., an affair. After she threatened to replace him if he didn’t act more professionally, he complied, but he still unnerved her enough that she scrapped a planned love scene with him. (That last decision may have been for the best, because there was nothing like this in Singer's story.)

*An actor cast as the rabbi died right after his run-through. Harold Goldblatt made an excellent impression, but Streisand (who had cradled his head until the ambulance arrived) was flabbergasted to learn that he’d understated his years by 20 years to get his role.

*Rumors circulated that Streisand was flubbing her shot at directing. The actress’ penchant for asking for advice led some to wonder if she knew what she was doing, according to Gregg Kilday's December 2015 profile of her for The Hollywood Reporter. Conversely, her reputation for being difficult sparked rumors that she was driving the crew crazy. (Streisand was so sensitive to such talk that, for the 25th anniversary of the film’s release, the accompanying DVD included the studio crew’s typed letter to a London paper denying any discord—the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this in a product meant to celebrate, rather than defend, work from long ago. Streisand might have been a force of nature, but that didn’t lessen her sensitivity to charges that she was a perfectionist diva.)

*The insurance company was ready to yank control away from her just as she began shooting. In a prior post on Tyrone Power’s fatal 1958 heart attack on location for Solomon and Sheba, I demonstrated one of the lesser-known aspects of moviemaking: how insurance affects production in ways that a layman can’t imagine. Streisand experienced her own moments of stress at the hands of an insurance company when, just before shooting, she was told she’d have to sign a completion bond, or a written contract guaranteeing a movie will be finished and delivered on schedule and within budget. At one point, when she was $1 million over the budget, the company working with United Artists, Completion Bond Co., told her they’d take control of the movie away from her if she didn’t complete dubbing within six weeks rather than the 10 she believed she needed, according to Streisand’s February 1984 interview with Dale Pollack for Playgirl Magazine. (Completion Bond was not making an idle threat: In 1992, Spike Lee required financial assistance from prominent African-Americans like Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Earvin (Magic) Johnson, Janet Jackson, and Prince to retain control of Malcolm X from the company after he went $5 million over budget.)

*Staying on budget entailed other financial sacrifices and even risks for Streisand. As she told Pollack, she didn't get paid for co-writing the script, was compensated only scale for directing, and had to agree to give back half her salary if she went over budget.

A compromised, but still impressive, product

Although as a woman, Streisand was operating under greater constraints than any studio would allow a man, it's also true that she was now working in an environment in which directors of both sexes were being scrutinized more heavily than they had been in years. Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate fiasco had curtailed director-driven cinema and given carte-blanche to studio execs and their bean-counters.

That swing in power not only meant that Yentl would be a musical, but dictated what kind of musical it would be.

Adding songs to the screenplay was suggested to Streisand by United Artists, as a means of bolstering its box-office appeal. The soundtrack would, in effect, cross-promote the film as well. 

Lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, whom Streisand had used, to Oscar-winning impact, on The Way We Were, had the idea of creating the songs as interior monologues by Yentl. It was a fascinating, unusual, even distinctive form of a musical. 

Both Mandy Patinkin and Amy Irving were accomplished singers (he, on Broadway in Evita; she, onscreen, as a country-and-western singer, in Honeysuckle Rose), but the soundtrack for Yentl made no use of their talents. In fact, nobody else but Streisand sings in the film.

Onscreen, then, there is no interaction between the characters in these minutes. Additionally, with only nine days for rehearsing actors for musical numbers, Streisand kept dancing to a minimum, retaining highly respected Cats choreographer Gillian Lynne basically for a wedding scene. Although director of photography David Watkin provided Streisand with beautifully lit scenes, her preference for a long lens kept variety to a minimum.  

The upshot was not merely that the camera was largely stationary for this "motion picture," but also that the focus would be squarely on Streisand, opening her to the familiar charge that she was egocentric.

 And, with the director persuading United Artists to allow her to go beyond their two-hour limit by 12 minutes (and with an additional four minutes inserted for the DVD "director's cut"), the overall pace can be languid.

After the film's release, Singer wrote an article for The New York Times that criticized the movie on three points: 

1) Streisand did not understand the character as well as Tovah Feldshuh, who had played Yentl on Broadway in 1976 (and who, at 27, was admittedly more age-appropriate than Streisand); 

2) as a director, Streisand allowed herself to "monopolize" the action at the expense of other cast members; and 

3) the "kitsch ending" (which is reminiscent of Streisand's "Don't Rain on My Parade" in the film Funny Girl) "was done without any kinship to Yentl's character, her ideals, her sacrifice, her great passion for spiritual achievement."

Predictably, Streisand (who had rejected Singer's script in 1969) dismissed him as a misogynist. My own feeling is that, though the author's points are well-taken, he might not have grasped that a work of creation can have a very different meaning among those who encounter and embrace it than he might have originally intended.

I agree, then, with Pauline Kael's assessment in The New Yorker, that Yentl “has a distinctive and surprising spirit. It's funny, delicate, and intenseall at the same time.”

More specifically, the movie was well-cast, with Streisand eliciting excellent performances all around (including, in the end, the troublesome Patinkin); she sings the Bergman-Michel Legrand tunes with unrivaled psychological insight and purity of tone; and, from its first shot, it pays full tribute to Judaism as a culture with a deep reverence bordering on passion for the book.

Though winning a Golden Globe for her direction, Streisand remains peeved that she was not nominated for either this movie nor her follow-up behind the director's chair, The Prince of Tides

But she can take comfort in the fact that her success with Yentl made it possible for women to advance from outside the mainstream (where Lupino and Italian director Lina Wertmuller had been confined) to studio fare previously reserved entirely for men. I hope that, if Greta Gerwig wins an Oscar in 2024 for Barbie, she makes sure to thank Streisand for paving the way years before.

No comments: