Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Classics: A Review of Funny Girl By Lauren Ennis

More than just a bagel on a plate full of onion rolls
Biographies are one of the most simple and celebrated genres in film. In a biography, viewers can see an example of a person finding success, often against the odds, with the comforting knowledge that the example is one founded in fact. Because these films are based in reality, the emotions that they convey often affect audiences in a way that is more profound than a fictionalized scenario could accomplish. This accentuated emotion is only increased when such a film also utilizes the power of song to tell its story. One such film is the 1968 musical biography Funny Girl, which tells the rags to riches story of vaudeville and radio star Fanny Brice, a woman whose comedic talent, gumption, and perseverance made her an artist who was truly ahead of her time.

The story begins with comedic star Fanny Brice awaiting her husband’s return from a two year prison sentence and depicts her reflecting upon the many ups and downs that have brought her to this point in her life as she prepares for an upcoming performance. Within minutes, the film launches into a flashback of a teenaged Fanny setting out to audition at a local vaudeville show as a chorus girl against the advice of her mother and friends. While her unconventional looks and lack of dance experience hinder her success at the audition, her stubborn persistence eventually wins her a spot in the line, and an improvised performance cements her start as a stage success. While working as a chorus girl, she makes a brief acquaintance with sophisticated gambler Nick Arnstein, who provides her with both moral support and her first glimpse of life beyond the confines of her vaudeville job and upbringing in the slums of the lower east side. Fanny later reunites with Nick several years later after her successful debut in the Ziegfeld Follies, and the two are on the verge of beginning a romance when Nick leaves to participate in a high stakes poker game on a ship bound for Europe. Heartbroken, Fanny throws herself into her career only to meet Nick again one year later during one of her one night engagements. Despite her best efforts to remain guarded, she and Nick finally embark upon a romantic relationship and eventually marry. As time goes on, however, Fanny’s career continues to flourish while Nick’s luck finally runs out, forcing him into a secondary role in their relationship. Fanny’s efforts to alleviate Nick’s despondence only cause the couple further trouble and reiterate his dependence upon her, leading him to become involved in a bonds scam that ultimately results in his imprisonment at the start of the film.

One of the most effective aspects of Funny Girl is its sense of realism. While many aspects of Fanny Brice’s life are condensed or excluded in order to meet the film’s already lengthy running time, the film excellently captures the struggles that she faced in her attempt to balance her dual roles of wife and artist. Rather than limit the story’s focus to Fanny’s rise, the film creates a truly three dimensional portrait of her through its continuation into her later difficulties and persevering struggle to pick up her life and begin again. Like many films, the script in Funny Girl, does deviate from the facts of its protagonist’s story, including ignoring Fanny’s first marriage and limiting Nick’s criminal activities to one moment of desperation when in reality he had already served a prior sentence before their marriage. Despite its inaccuracies, however, the film wisely focuses upon the later struggles in Fanny’s career without trying to add more color to her early life, even going so far as to include a scene in which teenage Fanny jokingly says that she still hasn’t suffered enough to be a great artist. This lack of sensationalism in the film’s first act allows the story to build until the crisis in Fanny’s marriage that opens and closes the film, and makes the ensuing drama more effective. Through its realistic, if not entirely accurate account of Fanny Brice’s life and career, Funny Girl  tells a story that is both a sobering account of marital strife and an inspiring tale of artistic and personal triumph.

Hello gorgeous!
While the script's songs and inspiring story are compelling, neither would have made a successful transition to screen without an equally compelling cast. In her debut role, Barbra Streisand captures the quirkiness, determination, and inner strength that marked Fanny Brice’s life and career in a way that brings the 1920’s stage star to the modern screen. After viewing just one reel of Streisand’s performance, it is little wonder that the film’s producer, Brice’s real life son in law Ray Stark, refused to make the film unless Streisand reprised her Broadway role. Omar Sharif also provides an exemplary performance as Brice’s sophisticated love interest turned tormented husband, and perfectly portrays the toll that life as “Mr. Fanny Brice” takes upon Nick’s self esteem. The supporting cast round out the film with multi-faceted and scene stealing turns from Walter Pidgeon as the outwardly stern but inwardly sentimental Florenz Ziegfeld, and Kay Medford as Fanny’s equal parts good hearted and street smart mother. Through the combined talents of its cast, the film continues to transport viewers to the distant glories of New York’s theater scene at the turn of the century and the all too near difficulties of family and romantic relationships that remain as complex today as when Fanny and Nick lived through them.

Despite its title, Funny Girl is worth watching for more than just a laugh. Through its winning combination of song and subject matter, the film successfully makes the individual story of a turn of the century entertainer into a universal tale of an artist's struggle for personal and professional success. The film’s excellent cast carries the story and makes its historical content both accessible and relevant to modern audiences.  For a parade that cannot be rained on, look no further than Barbra Streisand's Oscar winning film debut in Funny Girl.

Taking the Follies where no Zeigfeld girl has gone before

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