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Seven years after the success of Funny Girl (1968), the story of Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice, its sequel, Funny Lady, was released in 1975. Picking up on the Brice story where Funny Girl left off, Barbra Streisand reprised the role that made her famous and Ray Stark (the real life son-in-law of Brice) once again played executive producer, but the circumstances were much different on this production. Omar Sharif, returning in his role as Nicky Arnstein, became a secondary character in relation to James Caan's Billy Rose, and the constant battle of wills between Streisand and Stark threatened the production on an almost daily basis. That the film was even made was a small miracle; in her biography, Her Name is Barbra by Randall Riese, Streisand recalled, "When Ray Stark told me he wanted to make the sequel to Funny Girl, I told him, 'You'll have to drag me into court to do that picture.'" Court wouldn't have been completely out of the question: Stark, credited with discovering Streisand, had a contract with the actress for four pictures, and she had one more to go, after completing Funny Girl, The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), and The Way We Were (1973).
There was perhaps, however, an even more powerful incentive for the actress to do the picture than a lawsuit: Liza. In the last several years, Ms. Minnelli had become a major rival for screen and stage musicals as well as television specials. With a Tony win at nineteen, the Oscar® for Cabaret (1972) and an Emmy win for her live television concert, "Liza With a Z", she was in striking distance. From the Riese biography: "But Barbara was not quite ready to step down. She decided to make Funny Lady, turning it into her Cabaret. John Kander and Fred Ebb, who had composed both Cabaret and 'Liza with a Z,' were hired to compose the music. Jay Presson Allen, who wrote the screenplay for Cabaret would do the same for Funny Lady." Because Herb Ross was already signed on as director, having graduated from choreographer in Girl, Streisand couldn't get Cabaret helmer Bob Fosse. But she got the style, signing on Fosse protege Ben Vereen in a featured role.
Brice's love interest in the film, Billy Rose, caused some casting concerns. The real-life Billy Rose was diminutive, at four-foot-eleven-inches. The first actor to read for the part? Robert Blake, the star of the television series Baretta from 1975 to 1978. Almost thirty years later, he is in the spotlight again: he is set to go on trial for the murder of his wife this fall. Passing on Blake, several names floated around, including Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, and Richard Dreyfuss. The role, however, went to James Caan, even though he was the physical opposite of Rose; Streisand explained the casting best: "It comes down to whom the audience wants me to kiss. Robert Blake, no. James Caan, yes." Caan proved himself a bit of a troublemaker on set at times; a fervent rodeo fan with the nickname "The Jewish Cowboy," the actor snuck off during production to be in a roping competition in nearby Palm Springs. He returned with a broken thumb that had to be placed in a cast; director Ross engineered inventive ways to film around it. Ever the instigator, Stark was heard to remark about another Caan disappearance, "Have you checked the alligator farms around here? He's probably wrestling one."
Omar Sharif, after a string of disappointments following Funny Girl, signed on for a drastically reduced role in Funny Lady. His character, Nicky Arnstein, has but a few scenes in the film and is ultimately rejected by Brice; in real life, the tables had turned as well. A highly-publicized affair between Streisand and Sharif occurred during the shooting of Funny Girl, which ended at Sharif's behest, but the rejecter apparently became the rejected during the filming of Funny Lady. Streisand was in a relationship with hairstylist Jon Peters; the romance, in fact, had shaped her priorities and was rumored to be one of the reasons she wanted to get her commitment to Stark fulfilled and out of the way: "I'm not going to work for a while after this. I've discovered a whole life to live away from show business and this time I like it." Sharif was brief about the issue in his autobiography, saying only, "We had been through a great love affair - both on and off the movie set. There we were, old friends getting together again - both on and off the set."
Even though Barbra's love life was flying high, she had no real love - for flying. The script called for Streisand to hop into a biplane to see Caan, and she was not thrilled at the prospect. Assistant Director Jack Roe recalls in James Spada's Streisand : Her Life: "[Director] Herb was wonderful, he could really finesse actors. She had a right to be scared; it was, after all, only a two-seater plane. But he talked her into it. I had set it up with the airport for the plane to take off and turn around and then land; she wasn't supposed to be up in the air very long. But it got messed up and the control tower couldn't let it land. It was bizarre. She was up there for almost half an hour, scared to death, and you could hear her screaming bloody murder from the minute the plane touched down until it taxied to a stop. She said she thought she was being kidnapped. It was terrible. But amazingly, Herb was able to talk her into doing it again!"
Yet despite the power struggles, the broken thumbs, shunned lovers, and malfunctioning planes, the production wrapped successfully in the summer of 1974. It was released the next year to mostly positive reviews, earned almost 50 million dollars, and was nominated for five Oscars® including Best Cinematography (James Wong Howe), Best Score, Best Song, Best Costume Design and Best Sound. Streisand made her peace with Stark; it was rumored that she presented him with a post-production gift of an antique mirror, on which she had scrawled in red lipstick: "Paid in full." As befits their love-hate relationship, however, a plaque also accompanied the mirror, reading, "Even though I sometimes forget to say it, thank you, Ray. Love, Barbra."
Producer: Ray Stark
Director: Herbert Ross
Screenplay: Jay Presson Allen, Arnold Schulman (also story)
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Film Editing: Marion Rothman, Maury Winetrobe
Art Direction: George Jenkins
Music: John Kander, Peter Matz
Cast: Barbra Streisand (Fanny Brice), James Caan (Billy Rose), Omar Sharif (Nicky Arnstein), Roddy McDowall (Bobby Moore), Ben Vereen (Bert Robbins), Carole Wells (Norma Butler).
by Eleanor Quin