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"I'm the greatest star there is by far, but no one knows it."
Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl
In 1968, everybody knew that Barbra Streisand was just about the greatest star in the world. Not only had she soared to the top with a series of smash TV specials, hit recordings and the popular stage musical Funny Girl, but when she made the transition from stage to screen in her first great vehicle, she changed the conception of what a screen queen could look like. Although always the epitome of glamour and a natural clothes horse, Streisand's unconventional features were far from the standard set by such early musical queens as Doris Day and Rita Hayworth. But when she first stepped on screen as Ziegfeld Follies star Fannie Brice, audiences couldn't take their eyes off her.
Funny Girl was the brainchild of producer Ray Stark, whose wife was Brice's daughter by first love Nicky Arnstein. He commissioned Isobel Lennart, a screenwriter noted for crafting strong female roles in films like Love Me or Leave Me (1955) and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), to create a suitably reverent script. Jule Styne, composer of such classics as "Small World" and "Just in Time," wrote the music, while Bob Merrill, who had done both words and music for the stage hit Carnival, provided the lyrics. With standards like "People" and "Don't Rain on my Parade" in the score and a star-making performance by Streisand, the show became a sensation when it opened in 1964. Streisand would go on to play Brice for two years on stages in New York and London.
Stark had always seen the stage version as a dry run for a film, and with her strong reviews and growing fan base, Streisand seemed the only choice for the lead. But her look was so unconventional that she was ordered to do a screen test to prove she could pull it off. From a combination of pride and fear, the star repeatedly refused Stark's entreaties to make the test until the studio gave in and cast her anyway.
Casting her leading man, Nick Arnstein, was much harder. With Streisand in the lead and taking a keen interest in all production elements, the film was shaping up as a vehicle to launch her film career, which meant that Arnstein would be less prominent in the film. Among those up for the role were TV star David Jannsen, Sean Connery, Gregory Peck and James Garner. Styne wanted Frank Sinatra and even offered to write new songs to expand his part, but Stark decided he was too old. They finally settled on Egyptian heartthrob Omar Sharif, still hot off the success of the David Lean epics Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), because he looked good in a tuxedo. The only problem was that he couldn't sing. They filmed one solo number for Arnstein but ended up cutting it.
At the time Stark hired him, nobody considered the irony of casting an Egyptian actor as the Jewish Arnstein. Then the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt broke out. Studio executives wanted to drop Sharif before the film started shooting, but director William Wyler and Streisand, who had not even met him at the time, threatened to walk off the picture if they did. After production started, a new furor broke out when a shot from one of the stars' love scenes turned up in the Egyptian press. This triggered a movement in Sharif's native land to revoke his citizenship. When the reporters asked Streisand how she felt about the controversy, she quipped, "You really think the Egyptians are angry? You should see the letter I got from my Aunt Rose."
Streisand had more than just a professional interest in keeping Sharif on the film by this time. Shortly after production started, the two became involved in an affair. Streisand's husband, Elliott Gould, had been by her side through pre-production and had helped soften her temperamental nature during the soundtrack recording. Then he was offered the chance to play his first major film role in The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968), which would shoot in New York. He couldn't turn down the chance to establish an identity separate from his wife's, so he took off, over her objections. Streisand's affair with Sharif would last four months, the time it took to make the film. Then they went their separate ways. So did she and Gould, who would divorce in 1971.
Even on her first film, Streisand was building a reputation as a perfectionist who demanded control over every aspect of her films. During pre-recording, she demanded extensive retakes of her songs until she got them just right. On the set, she often disregarded veteran director William Wyler to express her opinions about costumes and photography. She also had most of her scenes with Anne Francis cut (the latter was a noted Hollywood beauty who played a Ziegfeld chorus girl and Brice's best friend). As a result, Francis sued to have her name removed from the credits.
With stories of her temperament and rumors about her affair with Sharif widely reported in the press, the critics had every reason to savage Funny Girl. But for the most part, they were ecstatic about Streisand's performance and her star presence. Some carped that the film was too obviously created as a vehicle. Writing in The New York Times, Renata Adler called the film "an elaborate, painstaking launching pad, with important talents of Hollywood treating Barbra rather fondly, improbably and even patronizingly, as though they were firing off a gilded broccoli." The film's publicist responded by taking Adler to lunch and having her served a gilded broccoli, just so she could tell the difference.
Streisand's success continued when awards season rolled around. She picked up a Golden Globe, Italy's David di Donatello Award and, in a headline-making tie, the Oscar® for Best Actress. She tied with Hollywood legend Katharine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter in the Academy's® only exact tie between actors to date. Funny Girl was one of the year's bigger hits, picking up an additional seven Oscar® nominations, including Best Picture, and a Writer's Guild Award. Streisand would return to the role seven years later for Funny Lady (1975), which dealt with Brice's marriage to producer Billy Rose (James Caan) and featured Sharif in a cameo. The film was directed by Herbert Ross, who had staged and filmed the musical numbers for Funny Girl.
Producer: Ray Stark
Director: William Wyler
Screenplay: Isobel Lennart
Based on the Musical by Jule Styne, Bob Merrill and Lennart
Cinematography: Harry Stradling
Art Direction: Robert Luthardt
Music: Jule Styne, Walter Scharf
Cast: Barbra Streisand (Fanny Brice), Omar Sharif (Nick Arnstein), Kay Medford (Rose Brice), Anne Francis (Georgia James), Walter Pidgeon (Florenz Ziegfeld), Lee Allen (Eddie Ryan), Mae Questel (Mrs. Strakosh), Tommy Rall (Prince in Swan Lake parody).
C-154m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Frank Miller