skip navigation
Remind Me

The Big Idea Behind FUNNY GIRL

Sunday February, 3 2019 at 10:30 PM

Films in BOLD will Air on TCM *  |   VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

Producer Ray Stark wanted to bring the story of comedienne Fanny Brice to the big screen since her death in 1951. He had always been fascinated by the story of the ordinary looking girl with the big talent who came from nothing to become one of show business' biggest stars. Stark had another unique interest in the project: he was married to Fanny Brice's only daughter, Frances.

Stark had commissioned an authorized biography to be written about his famous mother-in-law before she died in 1951. Brice was in the midst of dictating her memoirs to help with the book when she passed away. With her death, the rights to Brice's life story fell into Stark's hands. When he saw a draft of the biography that he had commissioned, however, he was not happy with it and reportedly bought the printers' plates for $50,000 in order to keep it from being published. Instead, he commissioned writer Ben Hecht to work on a screenplay depicting Brice's life. He also reportedly purchased the rights to other treatments and screenplays that other studios had in the works about Brice to ensure that his project reached the public first.

Not satisfied with Hecht's script, Stark had other writers take a stab at the Fanny Brice story. It reportedly went through at least 10 different versions before writer Isobel Lennart came up with a script she titled My Man, named after one of Brice's most famous signature songs.

Stark considered making the Fanny Brice project into a motion picture right away. Columbia even offered him $400,000 for the rights to My Man, but Stark turned them down. He knew that the project had great potential, but had come to believe that it stood a better chance for success if it began as a stage musical. "Books are the most personal form," said Stark at the time, "plays open up more, and films are worlds unto themselves. It seemed wise to open it halfway as a trial before going the whole way with a film and also to be able to view a 'dry run' for a film."

With music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill and a book by Isobel Lennart, the stage musical, re-titled Funny Girl, opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on March 26, 1964 starring a 22-year-old powerhouse talent from Brooklyn named Barbra Streisand. Streisand had already appeared on Broadway in a featured role as Miss Marmelstein in the 1962 production of I Can Get It for You Wholesale and had won two Grammy awards for her 1963 debut album The Barbra Streisand Album. Funny Girl had originally been slated for actress Anne Bancroft to star in, but composer Jule Styne had seen Streisand in I Can Get It For You Wholesale and was knocked out by her. Styne later admitted that after hearing Streisand, he wrote the score with her specifically in mind. While Streisand was singing a nightly gig at the Bon Soir, a Greenwich Village nightclub, Ray Stark went to see her and knew instantly that she was the perfect person to play Fanny Brice. The Funny Girl stage musical was a smash and made Barbra a Broadway star. She continued to appear in Funny Girl for over a year.

With the stage musical of Funny Girl a proven success, Ray Stark believed it was time to make the film version of it. The screenplay went through several revisions, with final credit going to original writer Isobel Lennart. Eight songs were dropped from the original Broadway score. Gone were "The Music That Makes Me Dance," "Cornet Man" and "I Want to Be Seen with You." In their place several new songs were added, including "Roller Skate Rag," "I'd Rather Be Blue Over You," and one of Fanny Brice's signature songs, "My Man."

For Ray Stark, it was a given that Barbra Streisand would reprise her role as Fanny Brice for the movie version of Funny Girl. "There was no question about who would do the movie," said Stark. "I just felt she was too much a part of Fanny, and Fanny was too much a part of Barbra to have it go to someone else." Some studio executives at Columbia, however, were not so sure. While it was clear that Streisand could command Broadway, movie audiences didn't know her. She had never acted in a feature film before, much less starred in one. Besides, she didn't have the traditionally beautiful looks of a movie star. Broadway was one thing, but how would Streisand look magnified forty feet wide? There was too much at stake. Columbia wanted Shirley MacLaine. Ray Stark balked. It would be Streisand, he said, or there would be no movie of Funny Girl. Finally, Columbia agreed.

Stark signed Barbra Streisand to a four picture deal with his company Rastar Productions. It was an unprecedented demonstration of faith in someone who had never made a single movie before. Streisand became the talk of Hollywood. Who was this girl? Could she really pull this off? Funny Girl would make or break Streisand's film career. Other Broadway greats like Ethel Merman and Mary Martin had tried to make the transition to the silver screen and failed. Streisand was determined to prove that she was a movie star. Her career had been slowly gaining momentum since she had appeared on Broadway by doing concerts, television specials and records. When her first film was finally released, Streisand didn't want it to be just good. She needed it to be great.

Stark had to find a director for Funny Girl. Streisand wanted someone strong who could command her respect and draw the best performance out of her. Mike Nichols, George Roy Hill, and Gene Kelly were all considered. Ultimately, however, Stark signed Sidney Lumet to direct Funny Girl. Lumet didn't last long on the production, however. Six months into preparations for the film, Lumet bowed out of the project, citing the ever vague "creative differences."

Stark next approached legendary director William Wyler about taking over. Wyler had directed some of the best films to come out of Hollywood and had earned three Academy Awards for Best Director for his work on Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Ben-Hur (1959). Wyler not only had a proven track record of making excellent films, he also had a knack for demanding and getting great performances from talented actresses who had been labeled "difficult" such as Bette Davis and Margaret Sullavan. Four women (Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Audrey Hepburn, and Greer Garson) had won the Academy Award for Best Actress under his direction. He would be perfect to direct someone like Barbra Streisand. When Stark told Streisand that he was considering Wyler, she had never heard of him. When he gave her a list of Wyler's films and told her that he had won the Academy Award recently for directing Ben-Hur, she reportedly said, "Chariots! How is he with people, like women? Is he any good with actresses?"

At first, Wyler said no. He was interested in the project, but had never directed a musical before and at the age of 65, Wyler wasn't sure he could do it. Wyler also suffered from significant hearing loss which he thought could affect his judgment on a musical. According to Wyler's wife Margaret "Talli" Tallichet, his brother Robert pushed him to take the job. "Bob thought it was a terrific property," said Talli according to the 1995 book A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director William Wyler. "He just smelled it was going to be really something. He was very high on Barbra and the whole project."

In the end it was Barbra Streisand that convinced Wyler to do Funny Girl along with the challenge of doing the kind of film that he had never done before. "What captivated me was of course, Barbra," Wyler is quoted in his 1973 authorized biography by Axel Madsen, "and my principal concern was to present her under the best possible conditions as a new star and a new personality. She was terribly eager, like Bette Davis used to be, to do different and new things. She wanted everything to be the very best. The same as I do." He was also interested in helping establish her as the movie star she wanted to be. "I wouldn't have done the picture without her," he said. "She's an interesting performer and represented a challenge for me because she's never been in films, and she's not the usual glamour girl."

As for William Wyler's hearing loss that he feared would be a problem on Funny Girl, he decided to face that challenge head on, too. "If Beethoven could write his Eroica Symphony stone deaf," he reportedly told producer Ray Stark, "then William Wyler can do a musical." Wyler moved into an office on the Columbia Studios lot to work on Funny Girl and announced to the press, "When I've completed this one, I will be a man who has done everything in the making of all kinds of motion pictures."

First rate choreographer Herbert Ross was hired to stage the musical numbers in Funny Girl. Ross had worked with Barbra Streisand once before in the Broadway production of I Can Get It for You Wholesale, for which he also staged the musical numbers.

It took quite awhile to find the right leading man to play Nick Arnstein opposite Streisand. Funny Girl was clearly Streisand's show, and it wasn't easy to convince an established star to play second fiddle to a newcomer. Marlon Brando and Gregory Peck both turned it down. Sean Connery and James Garner were considered. According to composer Jule Styne, Frank Sinatra was interested in playing Arnstein if the role was expanded and some new songs were added for him. "I wanted Frank," said Styne. "What a powerhouse bill that would be. Streisand and Sinatra together...I called Ray Stark. Ray said Sinatra was too old, that they needed someone with more class. So who do they pick? Omar Sharif, who couldn't sing and was an Arab. You figure it out. That's Hollywood."

Omar Sharif had made his mark in Hollywood in films such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965). The dashing Egyptian actor was certainly handsome enough to play Arnstein, but no one ever thought of Sharif until William Wyler noticed him having lunch in the Columbia Studios commissary. As Sharif describes in his 1976 autobiography The Eternal Male: My Own Story, "They were getting ready to do Funny Girl and...were looking for a co-star. That wasn't such an easy assignment. The screenplay was built around Barbra. What actor would agree to play her straight man? Fanny Brice sang, cracked jokes, fascinated the audiences; Nick Arnstein...had to content himself with giving her cues and looking good in a tuxedo...Apparently it was no cinch to find an actor who could look relaxed in a tuxedo. I just happened to be one of those rare individuals, something that started people in the studio canteen joking: 'Why not Omar Sharif?'"

Streisand, who had some say in who would be her leading man, was charmed by Sharif. According to writer Arthur Laurents, "Ray Stark told me that Sharif came in, oozing continental charm. Then Omar bowed elegantly, kissed Barbra's hand, and told her, 'In America you are the woman I have most wanted to meet.' Naturally, he got the part."

Rounding out the cast was Anne Francis in a small role as an aging Ziegfeld girl, Kay Medford in a reprisal of her Broadway role as Fanny's mother Rose, and movie veteran Walter Pidgeon as the great Florenz Ziegfeld.

With husband Elliott Gould and six month-old baby son Jason in tow, the New York-based Streisand flew to California on May 2, 1967 to begin preparations for Funny Girl. It would be the defining role of her career.

by Andrea Passafiume