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Remind Me

Behind the Camera on FUNNY GIRL

Thursday June, 28 2018 at 08:00 PM

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William Wyler, Herbert Ross and the cast of Funny Girl rehearsed for weeks during the summer of 1967 at Columbia Studios in Hollywood. Almost immediately Omar Sharif found himself at the center of a controversy that nearly got him replaced in the film. In June the Israeli-Egyptian Six Day War broke out, which according to William Wyler, "sent jitters through Hollywood's Jewish community." As Omar Sharif elaborates in his 1976 autobiography, "All the investments in the production were Jewish. The atmosphere of the studio was pro-Israeli and my co-star was Jewish. Most of the newspapers backed Israel. And I was an Egyptian."

Panic gripped the studio over the politics of the situation. Some people wanted Sharif removed from Funny Girl. Others thought that Sharif should issue a public statement condemning Egypt. Even Barbra Streisand's mother made her feelings against Sharif known. "My daughter isn't going to work with any Egyptian!" she said according to Sharif. Producer Ray Stark was ready to break Sharif's contract when William Wyler, who was also Jewish, stepped in as the voice of reason. "We're in America, the land of freedom," he said according to Sharif, "and you're ready to make yourselves guilty of the same things we're against? Not hiring an actor because he's Egyptian is outrageous. If Omar doesn't make the film, I don't make it either!" Sharif kept his job.

Just prior to shooting, Barbra Streisand took a short break in June to fly back East to perform her famous concert in New York's Central Park. In July, Funny Girl was ready to roll.

Everything was going smoothly until a publicity photo of Omar Sharif and Barbra Streisand kissing was released to the newspapers. With the emotions of the Six Day War still running high, the Egyptian press began a campaign to get Sharif's citizenship revoked over the kiss. The Egyptian headline read: "Omar Kisses Barbra, Egypt Angry." When asked to respond to the controversy, Barbra Streisand tried to make light of it. "Egypt angry!" she said. "You should hear what my Aunt Sarah said!"

The controversy eventually died down, but the chemistry between Streisand and Sharif did not. Though both were married at the time, the two began an affair while making Funny Girl that lasted for the duration of the production. "Barbra Streisand, who struck me as being ugly at first," said Sharif, "gradually cast her spell over me. I fell madly in love with her talent and her personality. The feeling was mutual for four months - the time it took to shoot the picture." With Streisand's husband Elliott Gould back in New York to take an acting job, the two were free to share romantic evenings and weekends together. Though their relationship didn't last, the affair would ultimately contribute to the breakup of Streisand's already shaky marriage to Gould. William Wyler, who knew about the affair, tried to channel their real-life chemistry into their performances.

Barbra Streisand may have gotten along with Omar Sharif, but there were many others involved with Funny Girl that she alienated with behavior that was often described as "controlling," "rude" and "demanding." There were reports that Streisand was chronically late and that she constantly kept everyone waiting. Some said that she would ask to re-shoot scenes that were already done and try to control every aspect of the production from the lighting design to what sort of shot was needed to who did her hair. No one could believe the audacity of this film neophyte. "Here was this young whippersnapper," said Assistant Director Jack Roe, "telling a very noted director how to do his job." The majority of the extended cast and crew reportedly found her aloof, self-absorbed and inconsiderate. "I thought she was rude during the whole shoot," said Roe. "I didn't like the way she treated people, from Wyler and (cinematographer Harry) Stradling all the way to her personal maid, Gracie." According to some, Harry Stradling threatened to walk off the picture unless Streisand stopped trying to dictate how he should photograph her. Screenwriter Isobel Lennart famously described working with Streisand as "a deflating ego-crushing experience."

Actress Anne Francis, who had a supporting role as aging Ziegfeld girl Georgia, became convinced that Streisand was responsible for having her screen time in Funny Girl cut way down. "She told Harry Stradling how to [photograph] her and Wyler how to direct," Francis said. "It was all like an experience out of Gaslight. There was an unreality about it...I had only one unpleasant meeting with Barbra during the entire five months of rehearsals and production. But the way I was treated, it was a nightmare. And my scenes were whittled from the very good ones and a lot of other ones, to two minutes of voice-over in a New Jersey railroad station." In Streisand's defense, Supervising Editor Robert Swink denied the allegation. "I know the Anne Francis role was cut down terribly," said Swink. "But Willie only did it for the sake of the picture. He had final cut. Streisand didn't."

Gossip spread quickly around the show business world that there was trouble on the set of Funny Girl and that Streisand was butting heads with William Wyler. Some said that Wyler was so intimidated by Streisand that he was letting her push him around while she ran the show herself. It was a charge that Wyler vehemently denied. Yes, Barbra was difficult, he said, but she worked hard and took her work seriously. "I kept hearing reports that Barbra quarreled with me on the picture," said Wyler. "But there was never any evidence of it...With me she worked desperately hard on her part. She kept trying to improve herself; she worried about how she looked; she would come on the set in the morning and ask if we could do a scene over again. She was totally dedicated. She trusted me, and I trusted her." Adding to that Wyler later said, "I'd much rather work with someone like Barbra, a perfectionist insisting on giving her best at all times and expecting it of everyone else, than a star who doesn't give a hoot." Supervising Editor Robert Swink agreed. "I felt they got along well. Streisand was easy for Willie to work with. He had no problem with her. She wasn't what I would call trouble."

Barbra Streisand always had complimentary things to say about her experience working with Wyler. "At the beginning, I guess, before we started the picture, we had the usual differences most people have," she said. "At that point, I think I knew more about Funny Girl than Mr. Wyler. I had played it a thousand times and had read all the revisions of all the scripts...But once we started...well, it couldn't have been a more creative relation...We tried different things and experimented and so forth. It was stimulating and fun and good things came out." She added later, "He was never threatened by my ideas. After [Funny Girl], I was thrown by any director who ever was [threatened] because Willie used to get a kick out of them. He'd use them, not use them, laugh at me, not laugh at me. I mean, he was a wonderful person to collaborate with."

In fact, Wyler's professional relationship with Barbra Streisand was such that he allowed her unprecedented access to his directing process, often letting her watch dailies with him to see how her performance was shaping up. Co-star Anne Francis found this aspect of the director-star relationship threatening. "Every day, Barbra would see the rushes," said Francis, "and the next day my part was cut or something else was cut. Barbra ran the whole show...She had the Ziegfeld girls' scenes changed - one day she told Wyler to move a girl standing next to her because she was too pretty, and the girl wound up in the background. Eventually, the Ziegfeld girls' scenes were eliminated altogether."

Challenging as she was, several on the set also agreed that many of Streisand's instincts were good ones, and that she was often right about things. Her perfectionism, some believed, was merely the result of insecurity. If she was demanding of everyone around her, she was twice as demanding of herself. "She fusses over things," said Wyler, "she's terribly concerned about how she looks, with the photography, the camera, the makeup, the wardrobe, the way she moves, reads a line. She'd tell the cameraman that one of the lights was out – way up on the scaffold. If the light that was supposed to be on her was out, she saw it. She's not easy, but she's difficult in the best sense of the word – the same way I'm difficult." Herbert Ross, who staged the film's musical numbers, added to that. "We spent hours shooting her to test her in different lights, different makeups, different hairdos," he said. "I was with her the day she saw the first set of dailies. She was terrified – it was the first time she'd ever seen herself on film. Well, onscreen she looked a miracle. How could anyone have known that her skin was going to have that brilliant reflective surface, that she was going to look radiant – that was just a wonderful plus." Omar Sharif explained, "You have to understand, she's a kid from Brooklyn...She didn't just think she was plain – she thought she was ugly. So no wonder that insecurity...Those weren't rumors that she caused trouble during the filming of Funny Girl. There was trouble – in wardrobe, in makeup, and so on. But when the whole film sinks or swims on you, you're in trouble."

William Wyler always believed that most of the gossip about him not getting along with Streisand had been stirred up by producer Ray Stark in order to generate publicity for the film. In fact it was Stark himself who clashed more often with both Wyler and Streisand. "Ray Stark wanted to look over Willie's shoulder and find out what was going on," said Robert Swink. "He ordered this to be done and that to be done. Willie didn't work that way."

For the last scene in the film where Fanny sings "My Man" after she has been told goodbye by Nicky Arnstein, William Wyler did something unusual. Normally, actors in musicals lip-synched to pre-recorded music for their singing scenes. Streisand had tried to do that for "My Man", as she did with the other numbers in Funny Girl, but the scene, which was supposed to be emotional and heartbreaking, wasn't working. He and Streisand decided to have her sing live in order for her to truly be in the moment. During the scene, Wyler had Omar Sharif stand behind a nearby curtain and talk to Streisand between takes. Their affair was ending as the Funny Girl shoot came to an end, and Wyler knew that Sharif's presence would have an effect on her performance. "He wanted him around to help build up her sadness," said Robert Swink. "They must've done at least ten takes. Willie shot the thing live and recorded it live. It was pretty emotional for her."

Shooting wrapped on Funny Girl in the Fall of 1967. At the wrap party William Wyler gave Barbra Streisand a director's megaphone, according to William Wyler's 1973 authorized biography, "in mock recognition of her devotion to every aspect of filmmaking including directing." Streisand gave Wyler an 18th century gold watch inscribed "TO MAKE UP FOR LOST TIME." The two parted ways with a mutual respect. "I was very fortunate to have Willie as my first director," said Streisand. "What was amazing is that when he showed me the first cut of the movie, I would say ninety-five percent of the moments I had picked in my head was in there. It was extraordinary. He just knew when it was right. He used the right moments all the time."

Funny Girl premiered on September 19, 1968 at the Criterion Theater in New York. With everything that Barbra Streisand had riding on the film, she couldn't have asked for a more smashing debut. Funny Girl was a huge hit - the highest grossing film of 1968 - and the reviews were unanimous that Barbra Streisand was a superstar. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actress. On April 14, 1969 Barbra Streisand took home the Oscar® for her performance, tying with Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter (1968). Taking the stage in her now infamously see-through black Arnold Scaasi outfit, Streisand looked at the Oscar® and said, "Hello, Gorgeous!" mimicking her famous first line in Funny Girl. Streisand was indeed a movie star.

by Andrea Passafiume