William Wyler and Funny Girl

by Steven LaVigne

William Wyler (1902-1981) was one of Hollywood’s top directors. Nominated for a record 13 times, he won Oscars for  Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Ben-Hur (1959) all of which were also honored as Best Picture, too. Of Jewish heritage, he was born in Alsace, before it was part of France, but came to the USA as a teenager. He directed Bette Davis (with whom he had a romance), Olivia de Havilland, Greer Garson, Fredric March, Teresa Wright, Harold Russell, Audrey Hepburn, Burl Ives, Charlton Heston and Hugh Griffith in Oscar-winning performances. In 1968, he directed Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice to an Oscar for her first film and Wyler’s only musical, Funny Girl.

Who was Fanny Brice?

Fanny Borach (1891-1951) was born on New York’s Lower East Side and was an important, influential woman in the world of entertainment. Of Jewish descent, she got her start at Keeney’s Music Hall in the early 20th Century. In 1910 she was chosen by Florenz Ziegfeld for his Follies. She appeared in a handful of movies, including Everybody Sing! (with Judy Garland), The Great Ziegfeld, Ziegfeld Follies and Be Yourself. After a short-lived marriage when she was younger, she married Julius “Nicky” Arnstein in 1918. Arnstein was a con-artist who’d spent time in prison for wiretapping and robbery, but he managed to bilk Brice out of thousands of dollars, even while in prison. The couple had two children, but after Brice divorced him, Arnstein disappeared from her life. She later married impresario Billy Rose and created the role of Baby Snooks, playing the character successfully on stage, screen and radio. She died from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1951 at the age of 59.

In 1940, her daughter Frances married Ray Stark, an independent producer who founded 7 Arts Productions and later became CEO of Columbia Pictures. In 1939, 20th Century-Fox had released Rose of Washington Square, a thinly-disguised musical based on Brice’s marriage to Arnstein. It starred Tyrone Power, Alice Faye and Al Jolson. Fanny Brice brought a lawsuit against the studio that was settled out-of-court. Stark hired several writers to develop a screenplay for My Man, a film that would be more faithful to the life of his mother-in-law. None of the scripts was acceptable, but Mary Martin read a treatment and suggested he turn it into a stage musical. Writer Isabel Lennart wrote a script that came closest to Stark’s vision.

During the 1950s, actress Kaye Ballard toured in a nightclub act playing Brice, performing her most famous songs (it’s available on CD). Ballard was the first choice for the role, but with the opportunity to work with Gower Champion and play “The Incomparable Rosalie” in Carnival, she bowed out. Ann Bancroft was the next choice, but when she heard the score, she realized the material wasn’t right for her.

In the early 1960s, after a stint on Broadway in I Can Get It For You Wholesale, and successful nightclub engagements, Barbra Streisand began attracting attention. One night, Frances and Ray Stark caught her act and she was immediately signed for the project. Sidney Chaplin (Charlie’s brother), Kay Medford, Danny Meehan, Lainie Kazan and Jean Stapleton also joined the cast.

Stark built a production team that included Jerome Robbins as director and choreographer, Jule Styne and Bob Merrill as composer and lyricist and Irene Sharaff for the costumes. Due to script troubles, Robbins was replaced by Garson Kanin with Carol Haney creating the choreography. Streisand later asked that Robbins return. He did, receiving Supervisor credit.

The 1963-64 season was packed with hit shows, but Hello, Dolly! was the smash hit of the year. When the Tony Awards came around, Funny Girl failed to win any. However, it ran 1,340 performances, with Mimi Hines replacing Streisand who went to star in the London production, following the birth of her son, Jason Gould.

It took a lot of convincing before Wyler, who was deaf in one ear, but he reluctantly agreed to direct, because, as he stated in the films’ souvenir program, “what interested me most was Barbra.”

The screenplay gets closer to Brice’s real life, but is still fiction. Nick Arnstein, for example, is presented as a suave, sophisticated professional gambler, and as played by Omar Sharif, he’s far more glamorous than the real Arnstein. Sharif doesn’t have trouble seducing Streisand (and the audience) during “You Are Woman, I Am Man.” The two have real chemistry together. They even had an affair which made international headlines, because of the recent Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt. This eventually led to Streisand’s divorce from Elliot Gould, although they remain friends.

Streisand has been called a diva, but it’s tough to argue with her behavior. Known to be a perfectionist, she wanted everything to be great because she knew her career was on the line. Fortunately, Funny Girl is one of the best movie musicals of the 1960s as well as one of the greatest screen debuts in cinema history. Wyler was as much of a perfectionist as Streisand – his clashes with Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland are legendary.

Sometime between her early years in nightclubs and when filming began, Barbra Streisand’s voice took on a richer quality. Never is this more evident than in her rendition of “People.” (The official program states that it took 15 takes to get right). The films’ finale, “My Man” was recorded live to capture the emotional impact of the scene, so the tears in her eyes are real.

Funny Girl opens in Mrs. Brice’s saloon in the Jewish neighborhood when Fanny’s about 17. She’s primping before her first day at Keeney’s, while her mother’s poker-playing friends express their doubts about her future in show business. Among the women is Mae Questal as Mrs. Strakosh. If she sounds familiar, Questal was the voice for both Olive Oyl and Betty Boop. In Woody Allen’s film Zelig, her voice was used for a tune credited to Fanny Brice. “Cornet Man” was replaced by “I’d Rather Be Blue Over You,” and “The Roller Skate Rag” legitimized the show’s logo, which featured the funny girl on roller skates.

While the movie makes it appear that Brice went from Keeney’s to the Follies in about six months, there was actually a decade between these engagements. One of Wyler’s greatest strengths as a director is his ability to get full-bodied performances from even the minor characters, as he does with Anne Francis, who plays Georgia James, a showgirl who’s time as a Ziegfeld girl is almost finished. Of course, the two production numbers that highlight the first half of the movie are both spectacular! The bride number, “His Love Makes Me Beautiful,” is far bigger and more lavish than anything that could ever fit on the New Amsterdam Theater‘s stage, (restored by Disney whose current tenant is Aladdin), but it’s more fun, too. “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” the traveling number that ends the first half is an amazing feat in cinematography, moving from station to train to taxi to ferry in New York sound. (I still get goosebumps when the ferry sails past the Statue of Liberty and Streisand raises her bouquet of wilting yellow roses in tribute).

The second half adds dramatic texture as it deals with Nick’s ill-fated attempts to remain the breadwinner. As Brice’s career offers continued success, Arnstein sinks into criminal activity, eventually being sent to prison for his involvement with a phony bond deal. There are fewer songs and only one production number, “The Swan,” a ballet spoof which replaces the World War I number from the stage version. Sadly, two beautiful songs, “Who Are You Now?” and “The Music That Makes Me Dance” have been swapped for a new title song and of course, “My Man.” This latter is brilliantly performed, with Streisand wearing Irene Sharaff’s black velvet gown. Filmed against darkness, the vision of only Streisand’s face and hands brings Funny Girl to a dynamic conclusion.

Funny Girl was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but only Streisand was honored. When Ingrid Bergman opened the envelope, she exclaimed “It’s a tie!.” The Oscar was shared with with Katharine Hepburn for her brilliant performance as Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter. She went on to replace other Broadway stars for the film versions of Hello, Dolly!, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and The Owl and the Pussycat. Six years later, Streisand’s acting chops would be further challenged when she gave a fine and nuanced performance opposite Robert Redford in Sidney Pollack’s drama about the Red Scare, The Way We Were.

In 1975, Streisand owed Ray Stark another film, so they made Funny Lady, a sequel to the original film. Jay Presson Allen’s script is much more faithful to Brice’s later life, especially its performance sequences. In the story, Brice still yearns for Arnstein, but eventually realizes his shallowness and after walking out on him, determines to make her marriage to impresario Billy Rose a success. (It wasn’t) With a cast that includes Sharif, James Caan, Roddy McDowell and Ben Vereen, directed by Herbert Ross, choreographer of Funny Girl and with new songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb, whose tune “How Lucky Can You Get?” was nominated for Best Song.

The film was a moneymaker, but also a disappointment, probably because it came so shortly after the original. However, after about 40 years, I saw it on television and really enjoyed it. Among its highlights are the calamitous opening performance of Billy Rose’s “Crazy Quilt,” (A success in the film, a failure in reality), the counterpoint “I Like Him/Her,” and the Aquacade scene. As Brice’s best friend Bobby, McDowell beautifully captures the character of an aging gay chorus boy; Ben Vereen plays a cross between Bert Williams and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and James Caan is both funny and sexy as Rose. While nowhere near as good as the original, Funny Lady is a decent sequel.

Over the years, I’ve learned that many films that were hip and popular during the 1960s haven’t aged well. The Graduate, for example, is really just a snarky movie about nasty and arrogant suburbanites; The Longest Day is just that — long. Stylish and sexy movies like The Carpetbaggers, Petulia and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice either don’t hold up or are unwatchable. However, due to the perfectionism of both Barbra Streisand and William Wyler, Funny Girl is still as fresh as it was in 1968. In 2016, Funny Girl was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Available on disc and for streaming, it remains an outstanding movie musical and one of the best films ever directed by William Wyler. It’s available to stream or on DVD and is worth seeing again or for the first time!