Friday, June 9, 2017

REMEMBER MY NAME 1978

You forgot you said you loved me/swore you’d never cause me pain
while you’re forgetting, baby/remember my name 


I’ve wanted to write about Remember My Name since I started this blog, but held out in the hopes that I’d no longer have to rely on my fuzzy, TV-recorded DVD+R copy, and this forgotten '70s gem would one day receive a pristine, DVD or Blu-Ray release. (Or any kind of release, for that matter. For it seems music copyright issues have kept this longtime favorite from being released to the public in any format, whatsoever.)
Well, it’s been several years now and Remember My Name seems no closer to seeing the light of DVD day; so fuzzy screencaps, here we come.
Remember My Name is a moody, disconcerting, not-to-everyone’s-taste update of the classic 1940s women’s melodrama. not to everyone's taste in that this Altman-esque neo-noir (it was written and directed by Robert Altman protégé Alan Rudolph) takes its time and resists standard genre structure in dramatizing this exploration of the femme fatale mystique through a distinctly ‘70s, decidedly feminist prism.
Geraldine Chaplin as Emily
Anthony Perkins as Neil Curry
Berry Berenson as Barbara Curry
Moses Gunn as Pike
Jeff Goldblum as Mr. Nudd
Alfre Woodard as Rita
When I was growing up, movie theaters screened films in “continuous performance.” This simply meant that movies (usually double or triple features) were screened continuously throughout the day, often without benefit of intermissions, and patrons were free to come and go as they wished.
What this meant for me and my three sisters—the eldest harboring a near-manic aversion to coming in on a movie already in progress—was that every trip to the movies involved an elaborate lobby ritual built around ensuring our not hearing or catching a glimpse of the ending of feature #1, yet making certain we were in our seats in enough time for the start of feature #2.
When arriving at a theater before movie #1 had ended, my elder sister would insist we stand in the lobby—balancing our popcorn, drinks, and candy—assigning a reluctant electee (me) the task of periodically peeking through the slats of the auditorium double doors, so as to be on the lookout for scrolling end credits: this being the sign to give my sisters the “thumbs up,” indicating that the coast was clear and it was at last safe for us to enter a spoiler-free environment. 
Most times things proceeded without a hitch, for when I was on my game, I was practically the Sherlock Holmes of listening without hearing and watching without actually taking any information in. I was a crack at discerning end-of-movie themes and gauging the length of closing credits. However, once in a rare while my technique was gummed up by those deceptive films which crowd all their credits into the opening, thereby ending on a lone “The End” title card or silent fade-to-black.

On one such occasion I suffered such an error in judgment that, in mistaking the opening credits of film #2 for the closing credits of film #1, I gave the signal to my sisters only after the second feature had already BEGUN. Yes, for all our waiting and stealthy machinations, thanks to me we all wound up missing the beginning of the movie (all sixty seconds of it, I might add). Nevertheless my sister was livid. In fact, had she been able to devise a reasonable explanation to offer our parents for my absence, demise, I’m certain she would have pushed me over the theater’s balcony that day. 
I too always prefer to see a movie from the beginning, but in instances where it can’t be helped, I find there to be something uniquely enjoyable in trying to pick up and assemble the threads of a film’s plot from the middle working backwards. To, in essence, play “catch up” with the events of a film; taking bits of plot and character information revealed out of context in the present, and ascribing to them, in reverse order, a kind of imagined order and motive. 

This phenomenon is used to great effect in this, Alan Rudolph’s second film (his first being 1976s Welcome to L.A.), for like a lot of good movies and most great mysteries, Remember My Name feels like a story we’ve picked up in the middle. The film opens with the image of a lone, late-model car winding down a California highway mountain road. Its driver: a slight, flinty-looking woman in dark glasses who, when glimpsed roadside with her ever-present cigarette, is revealed to be dressed in the drab khaki and blues of institutional clothing. Is she an ex-convict…a parolee…an escapee from an asylum? At this point we don’t know. What we do know is that she is following a man in a car. Very closely and very intently.
When the man arrives at his destination‒a residential construction site‒the woman of mystery lags behind, affording him time to exit his vehicle. As she drives slowly past, she pauses just long enough to give two blasts of her horn; an act which both draws attention to herself, and elicits from the man a response betraying something deeper than the rattled curiosity over the identity of a stranger in a car.

Things really start to percolate when we at last get a good look at the stranger (sort of, for her eyes are obscured by large aviator sunglasses) who, as it so happens, is in the process of  making a harassing phone call to an unidentified woman. What these three individuals have in common, if anything, has yet to be discerned. But in plopping us smack dab in the middle of what already feels like a situation fraught with portent, Remember My Name intensifies our desire to know who these three people are, what their history is, and how their lives will intersect. As its mystery unfolds, Remember My Name reveals itself to be a suspense thriller set in the present, concerning three people attempting to build a future, yet confronted with the fact that they must first come to terms with their pasts.
Emily (Geraldine Chaplin) has just been released from prison after serving 12 years for involuntary manslaughter. Rarely far from a cigarette, walking furtively about with downcast eyes, arms pinned to her sides, muscles-coiled and body braced for either attack or defense; Emily navigates open spaces as though still behind bars. Clearly unversed in the relaxed give-and-take of casual conversation, she speaks in the blunt and deliberate manner of one accustomed to only answering questions.

But if the outward appearance of Emily’s actions offer the superficial reassurance of an ex-convict making a sincere effort to adapt to society—in rather rapid order she purchases new clothes, lands a cashier’s job at a Thrifty Mart, snags a seedy downtown apartment, and undergoes a curiously over-femme makeover (getting an elaborate bouffant hairdo perhaps more in vogue back in the late ‘60s when she was jailed)—one can’t also help but detect in it all, an air of impermanence.

For in her private moments, moments dedicated to reciting well-rehearsed, melodramatic speeches; re-acclimating herself to high heeled shoes; and practicing feminine poses of seduction; it’s obvious that Emily’s single-minded determination is less about personal reform and adapting to freedom, and more about settling a score with construction worker Neil Curry (Anthony Perkins) and wife Barbara (Berenson). With a vengeance.
Emily embarks on a campaign of stalking, harassment, and breaking and entering

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I suppose I always get such a kick out of revenge thrillers because in real life, investing so much effort in “getting back” at someone really is such an exhausting and colossal waste of time. But as vicarious thrills go, Remember My Name ranks high on my list of movies that traffic in what I call The Theater of Methodical Payback. These studies self-help justice are so engrossing because, as structured, they tend not to clue you in on the “whys” of the revenge plot until well after you’ve come to know the characters. By the time all is revealed, the viewer—in coming to know and/or identify with these individuals—has hopefully come to develop an emotional investment in the outcome. No longer mere voyeurs, we each have a stake in the proceedings: do we want to see Emily triumph, or do we hope her plans are thwarted? Best of all, just when we think we know where Remember My Name is headed and what’s in Emily’s mind; the film throws us one final curve. And it’s a good one.
Confrontation
During the nostalgia-crazed ‘70s, several filmmakers used the public’s preoccupation with all things retro (with all its inherent desire to escape into an imagined “simpler” past) as an opportunity to make significant comments about contemporary times. Certainly Robert Altman with his updated private eye thriller The Long Goodbye (1973) and Robert Benton’s nourish The Late Show (1977)...also produced by Altman. But to my recollection, Remember My Name was the only one of the lot to offer up neo-noir from a female perspective and devise an updated take on the once-popular “woman’s film” genre of the 1940s.

Masculin/Féminin
Remember My Name offers provocative commentary of issues of masculinity and femininity. Some of it intentional: as in the mannish/aggressive behavior Emily exhibits intermittently with the studied, mannered femininity she adopts when she sets about using the male gaze to her advantage. Some of it unintentional: the pairing of the bisexual Perkins with real-life wife Berenson in her film debut makes for a curiously androgynous couple, their male/female similarity adding to the film's gender provocation.
 Cumbersome feminine allure / male vulnerability / woman self-defined

In Geraldine Chaplin’s Emily, Remember My Name has a female anti-heroine at the center of its narrative. A complex, inarticulate, study in contradictions; she’s hard and soft, pitiable and terrifying, understandable and opaque, protagonist and villain. Emily operates under her own instincts, agency, and agenda, none of which is ever made fully clear to us. The thrill of watching her, in all her unstable unpredictability, is that her actions alone propel the entirety of the plot. She’s the reason it starts, and she’s ultimately the one who decides how it ends.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Remember My Name is a character drama cloaked in a genre film. What Alan Rudolph’s moody screenplay (in no great hurry to get to where it’s headed) and eye for character detail does is place very unexceptional people in the extraordinary, heightened-reality framework of film noir, then sits back (there’s that leisurely thing again) as they struggle to cope with how little effort it takes for the bedrock of lives to be demolished. 
For the viewer, this ordinary/extraordinary contrast creates a subtle tension born of wanting the story to flow and progress along the traditional lines and tropes of the genre, only to have one’s expectations entertainingly subverted at every turn due to the erratic idiosyncrasies of the characters and the near-certain combustibility of their interactions.
Alan Autry as Rusty, Rita's bullying boyfriend
There’s Jeff Goldblum as the harried manager of a thrift store who employs the ex-cons his mother recommends (she, just happening to be incarcerated for killing his father); Alfre Woodard (making her film debut) as Goldblum’s suspicious assistant, a snooping  agitator who has no idea what she’s taking on wrangling with the volatile Emily; and Moses Gunn as Pike, the brusk building manager with whom Emily forges something resembling a relationship—or at the very least, the closest thing to a relationship her sealed-off heart will allow.
And then of course there’s Barbara and Neil Curry, the focus of Emily’s obsessive harassment. Anthony Perkins’ Neil seems an Average Joe type, but there’s something a bit off about him (it IS Anthony Perkins, after all). In an instance of an actor’s real-life discomfort in his a role working to a film’s advantage (Perkins felt he couldn’t convincingly play a construction worker, and he’s right), Neil comes across as a person attempting to hide something unsavory about their past in the adoption of a new persona that’s an ill fit. As ill-fitting as his marriage, it would appear. For while no mention is made of how long they’ve been together (Neil’s plans to build the two of them a cabin hint of being somewhat-newlyweds), cracks are already beginning to show in the relationship, evident in Neil’s prolonged absences and Barbara’s perpetual bewilderment (alas, the sole character trait afforded Berry Berenson’s character).
In Remember My Name, a film that can be looked upon as a kind of cynical treatise on love as life’s ultimate natural disaster (earthquake reports play incessantly on TV sets in the background); no relationship is easy, no associations are clear-cut, and in the end, a woman may find it necessary to toughen up in order to save herself from the collateral damage of romance.


PERFORMANCES
This is my absolute favorite of all Geraldine Chaplin’s screen performances. In fact, I’d rate her Emily as one of the most memorable, intriguing characters written for a woman. Movie femme fatales come in all stripes. Most, regrettably, embodying some aspect of men’s fear of women. A great many of these films ask us to view the femme fatale from the lead male character’s perspective. What I find so fascinating about Emily and Chaplin’s intense, internal portrayal, is that, in being a study in contradictions, she belongs to no one but herself.
Emily, giving few fucks, as usual
You can try to peg her as a villain/victim, hard/vulnerable, insane or determined; but at every turn she resists pigeonholing. Eventually you’re forced to surrender your expectations and all those familiar names attributed to women in these kinds of movies, and simply let her character be who she is. In the end, you may come away with name for the type of woman Emily is revealed to be, but it’s a conclusion arrived at by knowledge, not assumption. Chaplin fleshes out her character with unique depth. So compelling I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. She’s terrific. 

Geraldine Chaplin was the 1978 Best Actress winner at both
 the Paris Film Festival and the Miami Film Festival

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Appropriately enough, my introduction to Alan Rudolph was his first film Welcome to LA. Unfortunately, all that I found enjoyable about his very Altman-like look at Los Angeles bed-hopping was marred by how unbearable I found Richard Baskin’s music (I find it to be so hard going that when I watch it, it's either with my remote at the ready so I can mute it, or with the sound completely off, reading the subtitles). Rudolph's second film is considerably more to my liking and tastes, for while music still figures prominently in Remember My Name, it's jazz, which I like, and the songs composed and sung by Alberta Hunter are uniformly wonderful and serve as the eloquent emotional voice of the film’s inarticulate and closed-off characters.
Jeff Perry as Harry, a co-worker who gives Emily no trouble. Lucky for him

I can’t say enough good things about Remember My Name, fully aware that my praises are of a subjective nature and that everything from his screenplay to his overall direction here just suits me to a T.  Rudolph directs with flair and the film is punctuated by stylistic touches enhanced by Tak Fujimoto’s descriptive cinematography.
Emily is haunted by the sound of cell doors closing (it's the very first sound we hear, before the Columbia logo is off the screen). Bars become a motif throughout the film, suggesting imprisonment, confinement, and emotional distance.

And for those in search of a motive for Emily's revenge, I think it can be found in the film's title Remember My Name; which to me shares an intersectionality sisterhood with the current hashtag social movement #SayHerName devoted to raising awareness of black female victims of violence and police brutality. Too often in our culture, women are labeled the victim, the wife, the girlfriend, the ex; etc. When a woman demands that her name be remembered (or spoken) it's a demand to be humanized and not dismissed or marginalized. I like to think that Emily's quest is simply the insistence not be easily swept into the past. And based on how the film ends, there's little danger of that.


BONUS MATERIAL
In creating the soundtrack for Remember My Name, Alan Rudolph sought out 83-year-old retired (for 25 years) jazz great Alberta Hunter to write and perform nine songs for the film. It's said she has a brief walk-on in the film, but I've yet to catch it.  Popular in the '20s & '30s, she enjoyed a late-career resurgence that lasted until her death in 1989.

Anthony Perkins and Barry Berenson had been married about four years when they began work together in Remember My Name. Berry, the younger sister of actress/model Marisa Berenson, was a photographer and model herself. She and Perkins had two sons and remained wed until his death in 1992. Berenson died tragically at the age of 53, a passenger on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Towers on Sept. 11, 2001.


It's your time now/But it's gonna be mine some sweet day
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

FUNNY LADY 1975

I had such a good time watching the Joan Crawford/ Bette Davis cable TV series Feud that when its eight-episode run on the FX channel was over, it left me with both a lingering taste for biographical films that play fast and loose with the facts, and a hankering for outsized performances by actors whose scrupulously-engineered screen personas are inextricably linked to their public image.
So naturally, I thought of Barbra Streisand. That is, Barbra Streisand by way of Fanny Brice; Fanny Brice by way of Funny Girl; and ultimately, Streisand and Brice by way of the misguided, contractually-mandated Funny Girl sequel—that rapturous, cotton candy fashion parade, ego-stroke of a musical guilty pleasure known as Funny Lady.
Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice
James Caan as Billy Rose
Omar Sharif as Nick Arnstein 
Roddy McDowall as Bobby Moore
(I wanted to give McDowall his own screencap, but the
poor guy hasn't a single close-up in the entire film)

When the narrative of the 1964 Broadway musical and subsequent 1968 film adaptation of Funny Girl concluded sometime in the late 1920s, we all knew there was more to the Fanny Brice story (punctuated by brief forays into film and television, Brice's success as a radio star lasted up to her death in 1951). Whether or not that story was anything worth telling is another matter.
Funny Lady (which some of you may know by its alternate title: “The Back of James Caan’s Head”) is ostensibly the continuing saga of Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice, who, when last seen in Funny Girl, was photogenically torchin’ on a dark stage, crying her Egyptian-eyelinered eyes out after having been dumped by recently-sprung-from-jail-for-embezzlement hubby Nicky Arnstein.
An admitted highly-fictionalized account of Brice’s later years, Funny Lady picks up roughly where Funny Girl left off (very roughly, in fact); with Brice shown backstage, still-pining-for-Nicky, being served final divorce papers by Arnstein in absentia. Romantic rejection of this sort is usually the stuff of tragedy, but as this sentimental setback grants Streisand the first of many opportunities to fling her head back in classic “suffering diva” mode (treating fans to the actress’s regal profile and shapely septum) Funny Lady instantly establishes an unfortunate precedent for a musical entertainment: Streisand is at her best when Fanny is at her worst.
Indeed, given the degree of care Oscar-nominated cinematographer James Wong Howe lavishes on La Streisand when in the throes of heartbreak, from a fan's point of view, the glow of a happy Fanny Brice is no match for the luminous sheen of a miserable Barbra Streisand. So, in essence, the worse things go for Fanny, the better things go for the Streisand-watchers. This is going to be a fun musical.
 Am I Blue?
What's bad for Miss Brice is super for Streisand-watchers 

At what point in history this all transpires is rather nebulously conveyed, for the film’s vaguely delineated timeline is actually a mashup of Brice’s real-life 1927 divorce, the 1929 stock market crash, and the onset of the Great Depression. However long it's been, clearly enough time has elapsed allowing for Fanny’s transmogrification from the optimistic, likable, gently self-deprecating “People” person of Funny Girl, to the overdressed, perpetually scowling, foul-mouthed know-it-all of Funny Lady.

Funny Girl was the rags-to-riches, broken-heart-for-every-bulb-on Broadway saga of a gangly waif whose prodigious talent triumphed over humble beginnings and unconventional beauty. Audiences responded to it because it took the usual Horatio Alger clichés of the celebrity bio, added a duckling-into-a-swan fairy-tale, and crossed it with a Cinderella love story.
Funny Lady, on the other hand, showcases a Fanny Brice who’s a firmly established star. Successful, confident, glamorous (to an almost parodic degree), calling her own shots, and without a single insecure bone in her body. This proves marvelous for Streisand, who gets to look fabulous throughout without once having to endure a single joke made at the expense of her looks; dominate in numerous scenes depicting her offering people professional advice and basically telling others how they can better do their jobs; and finally, she doesn’t have to be the least bit funny. This is thanks to a screenplay which has characters tell her…at regular intervals…to her face…just how delightfully funny she is.
Funny Girl was a Cinderella fantasy, which everyone loves. Funny Lady is built on a Have-It-All Fantasy (I have talent, wealth, fame, and beauty...why can't I find love?) which is kinda annoying

A screenplay highlighting a self-possessed Fanny Brice no-doubt proved instrumental in getting Streisand to agree to appear in a sequel she really didn’t want to do, but the lack of character conflict leaves Funny Lady with almost no narrative thrust. Sure, there’s a Depression going on, but the film has Streisand parade around in so many outlandishly glamorous Bob Mackie/Ray Aghayan outfits, Brice merely comes off as living in a bubble of privilege.
Similarly, the plot sets up Brice as professionally rudderless in her post-Ziegfeld years, weathering the financial storm of the Great Depression by having to team up with novice-showman/seasoned-huckster Billy Rose in order to stay afloat. But after approximately two lines of expositional dialogue and a couple of brief exchanges, Bruce’s money woes are quickly dispatched, never to be mentioned again. 
Down on her luck, Fanny Brice goes slumming in a casual daytime frock

No, Funny Lady’s single dramatic arc (milked for all its worth for close to 2½ hours) concerns whether or not Fanny can shed her romantic illusions about the dashing Nick Arnstein in time to realize that falling “in like” with the sloppy, unsophisticated, very Henry Street, Billy Rose is perhaps where her happiness lies. But even THIS minimal, not terribly compelling conflict is undermined by the casting of athletic, macho James Caan as the diminutive (4' 11"), unprepossessing Billy Rose. What could have been an interesting gender-reversal of Funny Girl’s “opposites attract” relationship is reduced to Fanny having to choose between the extraordinarily handsome guy who says “tomato” and the extraordinarily handsome guy who says “tomahto.”
Streisand in an interview; "It comes down to whom the audience wants to see me kiss.
Robert Blake [an early Billy Rose contender], no. James, Caan, yes."
  
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I get a kick out of Funny Lady in spite of the fact that it’s fairly useless as biography, bloodless as a love story, and too disjointed and episodic to even satisfy as a cohesive narrative (it’s impossible to keep track of how much time has elapsed between scenes). But Funny Lady works best, makes the most sense, and proves both an invaluable source of information and entertainment when taken for what it really is: a Barbra Streisand report card.  
Here, Streisand grants the audience permission to get a load of her
Think about it. Beyond the old “If they liked it once, they’ll love it twice” maxim that serves as the inspirational catalyst for most movie sequels; the only reason Funny Lady exists at all is that Streisand owed Funny Girl producer Ray Stark one more film on their four-picture contract. Press releases claim the reluctant Streisand had initially informed Stark that he’d have to sue her before she’d do a Funny Girl sequel, but changed her mind after reading the script.
Not buying it. Anybody who’s seen Funny Lady knows that its script is more likely to instigate a lawsuit, not stop one. No. My gut tells me that Streisand agreed to appear in the sequel because, after a long musical hiatus (her last was 1970s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) Funny Lady provided her with a showy vehicle that amounts to being a $7.5 million dollar progress report showcasing how far she’s come in the seven years since Funny Girl.

Funny Lady is an investors presentation of a movie, furnishing fans and the public at large irrefutable evidence that, in spite of Oscar-winning Johnny-come-latelys like Time magazine’s “New Miss Show Biz” Liza Minnelli (Funny Lady enlists the talents of Cabaret’s songwriting team [Kander & Ebb] and screenwriter [Jay Presson Allen]), Barbra Streisand—after one Oscar; eight films; and countless albums, awards, and TV specials—still has the ol’ musical comedy poop.

Funny Lady is Streisand as she enters the most self-aware (and self-serious) phase of her screen career. In this film Streisand moves to shed the old screen persona she helped create—that of the self-effacing, pigeon-toed kook with lungs of brass—and presents herself as strong, self-confident, glamorous, and in control. Admirable qualities, to be sure, but not exactly conducive to fun. In fact, this Fanny is a bit of a pill.
In place of the ingratiating, eager-to-please woman we met in 1968, 1975 Streisand doesn’t appear particularly concerned with whether or not you like her. You’re welcome to worship her, if you like; but this Streisand doesn’t need your validation. Nor does she need anyone to tell her how fabulous she is. She knows it. (In fact, this is the least smiling Streisand ever…she actually looks angry 90% of the time. But as any woman who’s been told by a perfect stranger on the street to “Smile!” can tell you, a woman choosing NOT to smile is practically an act of social rebellion.)
Let's Hear It For Me...or else

PERFORMANCES
Leaving Streisand aside for the moment (dare I?), I’d like to give a quick shout-out to all those shuttled to the wings while the funny lady commands center stage.

James Caan is one of the more underrated actors to come out of the ‘70s, and I’m as guilty as the next of never quite giving this versatile actor his due. While I’m of the mind that Robert Blake would have made the most intriguing Billy Rose, James Caan is no slouch. He's actually very good here, playing Rose as a fast-talking sharpie reminiscent of Jimmy Cagney in comedy mode. He sings well, is charming, and as Streisand co-stars go, he’s one of the strongest. Too bad the overall effectiveness of his performance is sabotaged by editing which relegates him to co-star status rather than leading man.

For a gay icon with a gay son, Barbra Streisand has a pretty shady reputation for onscreen gay representation. Several of her films have characters uttering homophobic slurs (in The Owl and the Pussycat and For Pete’s Sake, she’s the culprit), and in Funny Lady, the points Roddy McDowall’s openly gay character gets for inclusion (he’s her best friend and world’s oldest chorus boy) are subverted by a script which seldom misses an opportunity to refer to him in “period appropriate” derogatory ways.
I can’t speak to McDowall’s performance because, as in 1965s Inside Daisy Clover, he doesn’t actually have anything to do, but there’s something old-Hollywood comforting about seeing him.

It’s doubtful Tony Award-winning performer Ben Vereen had a very sizable role to begin with, but most of what he did contribute became a casualty of all the editing Funny Lady underwent before release. Playing vaudeville entertainer Bert Robinson (a fictional combination of real-life artists Bert Williams and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Vereen has no interaction with the main cast at all, and with the three-minute “So Long Honey Lamb” number cut to three seconds (a bullet dodged, in my opinion); only Vereen’s dynamic singing and dancing in “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie” remains. He’s marvelous, of course, and gives the film a much-needed kick in the pants, energy-wise, but it feels disembodied from the rest of the action, like those Lena Horne novelty sequences in MGM musicals which were filmed in ways that made them easy to be removed in Southern theaters.

It’s poor Omar Sharif who fares the worst, however. His character set up to be knocked down; so much dialogue is given over to Streisand (“No, you don’t have any lines here. It’s my turn” she actually says to him in one of Funny Lady’s many startlingly meta moments) he merely shows up, smiles, and bows out. Twice!
Streisand draws our attention to her favorite co-star: Her nails

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Like a great many musicals, Funny Lady is at its best when no one is talking. The film looks spectacular, thanks to the contributions of no less than three on/off cinematographers: Vilmos Zsigmond, Ernest Laszlo, James Wong Howe; and the nifty musical score is a combination of period classics and five new numbers by John Kander & Fred Ebb (though the fan-worship pandering of “How Lucky Can you Get?” and “Let’s Hear It For Me” is so shameless you might find yourself blushing). Adding to the film’s pluses are the witty, Oscar-nominated costumes by Mackie/Aghayan, which capture the theatrical, over-the-top appeal of classic Hollywood musicals.
Streisand in a little knockabout crowd-pleaser she throws on
for those nights when she just doesn't care what she looks like
 

Funny Lady’s production numbers play better now than they did in 1975, when the musical arrangements and intentionally garish costuming made 1930s Broadway look like 1970s outtakes from The Carol Burnett Show (not exactly a coincidence since Funny Lady features Burnett show alumni Peter Matz [Oscar-nominated musical director], Mackie [costumes], and several members of Carol Burnett's dance chorus.)

The "Great Day" number featuring Streisand surrounded by an all-black dance ensemble (top), perhaps found its inspiration in the similarly staged "High/Low" number Ethel Merman performed with an all-black chorus in the 1936 musical Strike Me Pink (bottom).

Although I hate it when movies feature scenes of seasoned theater professionals breaking
character simply when things go wrong on stage, I absolutely adored this set design
You're forgiven if you assume the above screencaps are from The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, The Donny & Marie Show, The Captain and Tennille, or The Brady Bunch Hour...all '70s TV variety shows looked like this.

Portraying a Fiend of Fanny Brice Proves Risky Business
Actress Carole Wells, as Brice's friend Norma Butler in Funny Lady, suffered a fate similar to that of Anne Francis in Funny Girl: finding that the bulk of her scenes had been left on the cutting room floor

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Funny Lady debuted in March of 1975, the very same month that saw the release of Ken Russell’s Tommy and Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love. Tommy was such a revelatory thrill to me that I went to see it practically every weekend during its entire run at SF’s Northpoint Theater, so by the time I got around to seeing Funny Lady, I had grown so besotted with Tommy’s mind-blowing innovation that Streisand’s film seemed positively underwhelming by comparison. Having not yet seen Funny Girl at this point—Funny Lady was just my third Streisand film—I didn’t even have sentimentality on my side (the significance of that yellow rose featured so prominently in the film’s advertising was lost on me). It was only when Funny Lady was in second-run and came to the Alhambra Theater (where I ushered) that I came to appreciate it: the patchy musical playing significantly better when viewed à la carte.
Critics seemed to hate the unconvincing old-age makeup used in Funny Lady's final scenes, but I thought Caan and Streisand looked absolutely adorable. Certainly preferable to when in 1991 Caan teamed up with Bette Midler in For The Boys and the old-age makeup applied made both actors look like reptile people

These days, Funny Lady remains both a guilty pleasure and the last of the enjoyable Streisand musicals. More Grande Lady than Funny Lady, it’s a marvelous film to revisit whenever I find myself in need of a Streisand fix.

A Streisand fix being akin to my Joan Crawford fixation: both being stars of such unique talents; they fascinate even when they’re awful. I like Barbra Streisand considerably more as a singer than an actress, but in these cookie-cutter times when I honestly can’t tell a bland Chris Pine from a vanilla Bradley Cooper, I find I’ve grown fonder (or at least more tolerant of) her distinctive screen persona. When Streisand is on her game (Funny Girl, On a Clear Day, What’s Up, Doc?) there isn’t anyone better. And while Funny Lady is not much of a showcase for Streisand the actress or comedienne, it’s a helluva showcase for Streisand the star.



BONUS MATERIAL
Distributed in theater lobbies: My Funny Lady promotional foldout from 1975.  
For those interested, the terrific The Barbra Streisand Archives offers more info than you'll likely ever want to know about the making of Funny Lady. From deleted scenes and interviews to costume sketches and behind-the-scenes trivia.

Copyright © Ken Anderson