Funny Girls: Fanny Brice and Barbra Streisand

Jan. 12, 1969

Cover of Sun Times with Streisand

‘I’m the greatest star’ sings Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. She stormed Broadway in 1964 in the part of comedienne Fanny Brice (cover). Today, the highest-paid female singer in the world, she is the new Hollywood superstar. Her first film has its premiere in London on Wednesday. Now Britain can judge if for once the advance publicity is true

Photos by Steve Shapiro

* scans of this article were contributed to this site by Joe Petrollese, from his collection.

The Kosher Kid from Brooklyn by George Perry

William Wyler is 65. His career as a director reads like a history of the Hollywood talkie. Dead End, Wuthering Heights, The Letter, The Little Foxes, Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives, Roman Holiday, Ben Hur, The Big Country and The Collector are a few of his pictures. Last year he made his first musical, Funny Girl: “Barbra is the only reason I directed this film. I could not just think of Fanny Brice and ignore Barbra Streisand. She gave me what I wanted and more. She was very satisfying, very professional and absolutely tireless. I could work this girl round the clock with no complaint. Bette Davis had the same sort of eagerness and desire to get the best and never be satisfied with herself, or anyone else for that matter.”

Ray Stark produced Funny Girl as a stage show and has now made the film. His wife is the daughter of the real Fanny Brice and Nick Arnstein. He has a reputation for percipience and consequently owns a very large Beverly Hills swimming pool: “Barbra is a damn good actress. But being a good actress is not enough in films. The most important thing is a certain truth within that extends itself on to the big screen. That is where Barbra is quite unusual. She has a basic truth within herself that can stand the miserable analysis of being amplified 500 times on the big screen.”

Dan Striepeke is head of the make-up department at Twentieth Century-Fox where £8 million has been spent filming Hello Dolly. A million or so went on an enormous outdoor set of New York in 1890 which will earn its cost for years to come; “The thing about Miss Streisand that I like so much is the fact that she’s a very vital, very interesting, very much alive person. I think that probably outside Sir Laurence Olivier she’s the most prepared performer I have ever worked with.”

Were Hollywood to film the Barbra Streisand story the scriptwriters would die of shame. It’s the musical about the plain little waif from Brooklyn or Kokomo or Zanesville who convinces agents and producers that she’s the greatest thing since hot pastrami, becomes the toast of Broadway, marries her leading man and flies off to Hollywood, the world at her feet, and it has been made about 200 times already. There are no plot twists. The talent is monumental and unquestioned: she’s not an alcoholic, drug addict or nymphomaniac and she loves her husband. But success unalloyed is almost unendurable. Walter Matthau, her sardonic co-star in Hello Dolly, is reported to have snarled at her during one of their moments of disharmony: “You don’t have to be great all the time.”

Off set on Funny Girl

Left: off-set on Funny Girl.

She has plenty of enemies. Journalists who have been kept waiting have written harshly. There’s a market on late night TV shows for anti-Streisand anecdotes. Her stature and earning power induce feelings of malice and resentment in many circles. She scares people. She could be Madame Guillotine the way some speak of her. She doesn’t suffer fools. She doesn’t genuflect to people she doesn’t like. She despises the photographers and columnists who intrude into her private life for copy. The older publicity men draw on their green cigars and invoke misty-eyed reminiscences of Garbo and Dietrich, Negri and Swanson, of the mythical days when leopard-upholstered Pierce-Arrows cruised along Sunset, and Doug and Rudy sipped tequilas in the Polo Lounge. Barbra is the new superstar and is more often than not referred to baldly as Streisand, like Garbo, Bernhardt or Duse. In its heart Hollywood has always loved bitch-goddesses and they would like to think that at last they have now got a new one.

The risk Columbia took in starring her in an expensive film version of her stage musical was on whether her quality could survive the intimacy of a 70 mm close-up. A few years ago Warners baulked over Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady and used Audrey Hepburn instead. Then they kicked them- selves. In Central Park on a summer evening Barbra Streisand had held 135,000 people, most of whom would have needed powerful telescopes to see her face. Now she had to go to the other extreme.

She has lived with the part of Fanny Brice for five years, most of her career. When she was cast for the stage show she had one record album out and was nowhere in the same league as Anne Bancroft and Carol Burnett, other possibilities to play the part. Now it is hard to conceive anyone else doing it. In London, when she was pregnant, takings dropped from £2300 to £500 the nights she wasn’t on. Said Ray Stark: “I do not know where Fanny ends and Barbra begins. With both there is a tremendous earthiness, a great basic integrity in their work and their relationships. The same drive for success, the same physical characteristics, the same tremendous desire to learn.”

Streisand illustration by Jim Dine

Above: Barbra by Jim Dine

Fanny Brice was an East Side Jewish girl who by strength of personality rather than looks achieved star billing in Ziegfeld’s shows (“I wonder how a mother,” says her film momma, Kay Medford, “could call her boy Florenz ?”). She married a flashy gambling man and crook, Nicky Arnstein, ensuring trouble and heartbreak for herself. In the film he is played by the Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, a curious choice politically, although ethnically apt.

Barbra was born in Brooklyn in 1942, in Pulaski Street on the edge of the bad Bedford-Stuyvesant district. Her father, a schoolteacher, died when she was one year old and she doesn’t talk much about her stepfather. Her childhood was, she says, “horrible”. At school she got A’s for work, D’s for conduct. When she was 14 she took the IRT subway to Times Square for the first time and paid a carefully-saved $1.75 for a balcony ticket at The Diary of Anne Frank. From then there was no question of her becoming anything but an actress. She would smoke in the bathroom and do cigarette commercials to herself in the mirror. Out of school hours she got jobs as a theatre usherette on Broadway. At 16 she left Brooklyn for a small room of her own. Two days of doing the rounds of booking agents convinced her that it was degrading to get a career that way; there had to be somethingelse. She started singing. She was persuaded to go in for an amateur talent contest at a Greenwich Village nightclub. She didn’t realise it was a gay bar until she saw a line of homosexuals at the back. She insisted on being introduced as Barbara Streisand (she still had the middle ‘a’ then) from Smyrna, rather than Brooklyn. She got into the final and won it with Lullaby of Birdland, a song she has left well alone since. The prize was a $50 a week engagement and free meals. “I’ll still do anything for a free meal,” she says, “I got a great London Broil that time.” Almost immediately she was signed up by the Bon Soir, a well-known Village nightspot, described by Time magazine as the Copacabana of West Eighth Street. She sang her manic version of Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf and patrons dropped their cigars in their wine glasses. Her clothes were bizarre — everything bought at a thrift shop; the first time at the Bon Soir she was wearing a pair of buckled shoes so old that her feet burnt holes in the soles. A reputation for kookiness was enhanced by regular TV appearances on Mike Wallace’s PM East show. After a spell of nightclub singing she tried for a small part in a Broadway musical, I Can Get It For You Wholesale.

“I was there at that audition,” said Herbert Ross, responsible for the musical numbers in Funny Girl and now directing Goodbye Mr. Chips at Borehamwood. “In those old clothes she looked absolutely terrible. But when she started to sing we were all knocked out.” David Merrick wanted to fire her during the show’s unsatisfactory try-out in Philadelphia; but when it opened on Broadway her number, Miss Marmelstein, brought rapturous applause and New York critics voted her the Best Supporting Actress. Goddard Lieberson signed her for Columbia Records; each new album became a best seller. President Kennedy invited her to sing at the White House. Thrift shop clothes became chic and New York women began copying her wild Egyptian make-up and Babylonian hairstyles. Some are even alleged to have had their noses given a reverse bob to match the magnificent Streisand proboscis, or “American beauty nose”, as Funny Girl has it.

Overleaf: “His love makes me beautiful” — she stuffs a pillow under a wedding gown on a Ziegfeld opening night

Streisand in Funny Girl movie bride number

Meanwhile she had married Elliott Gould, the leading man in Wholesale, who had courted her when she was living in a tiny, stinking apartment over a Third Avenue fish shop, with a rat called Oscar in the kitchen. The marriage is now five years old and their son, Jason Emanuel, is two. Both parents dote on him and he is something of a prodigy, having a perfect musical ear and an amazing vocabulary.

Omar Sharif and Barbra Streisand in the seduction scene from Funny Girl which sparked off a row in his native Egypt. Said Barbra: “You think Cairo was upset ? You should have seen the letter from my Aunt Rose!”

Omar Sharif kissing Barbra Streisand

In spite of every knowing forecast, the marriage has held together. Their life is divided between their Central Park West penthouse, sniffed with antiques, in New York, and their rented house in Beverly Hills. There is a tendency to expect Elliott Gould to be either Svengali, or Norman Maine, the husband in A Star is Born. He fits neither description. He has managed his part with dignity and restraint even though his own career has inevitably seemed less spectacular in comparison with that of his wife.

“During a Funny Girl rehearsal,” said Herb Ross, “Barbra got tired and said she wanted to go home. But Elliott pointed to the chorus and told her, ‘They’re getting three hundred for doing what they’re doing, you’re getting five hundred thousand. So get back up there and do it.’ And she did.”

Ray Stark, talking of the marriage, said: “They have a tremendous communication because he’s a very bright guy. They have a marvellous rapport. She has a very big respect for what Elliott thinks. On the creative level it’s a very healthy fusion.”

At Columbia, an old studio actually located in Hollywood itself, at Sunset and Gower, the day was in full swing. It was coffee break time where they were shooting the Bewitched TV series and Elizabeth Montgomery stood in the sunshine talking to a chimpanzee in a peaked cap, white loincloth and on roller skates. On Stage 7 Paul Mazursky was directing a new kind of super-witty marital comedy called Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. In the cast was Elliott Gould, who turned out to be a tall well-built man of 30 with a dark, intelligent face. Like his wife his origins are Brooklyn Jewish and although this is his second film he is very much a man of the theatre. Relieved that he was not expected to discuss his wife, he described how he was shortly off to New York to appear in a play by Murray Schisgal, and then hoped to do a film by Jean-Luc Godard. He has an engaging honesty, a characteristic they both share.

She is making her third film, this time at Paramount. It is another musical, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, and the director is Vincente Minnelli. Now she has a direct link with Judy Garland, who was once Mrs. Minnelli and appeared in some of his films, such as Meet Me In St Louis and The Pirate. After this she will make her first non-musical, The Owl and the Pussycat when she will play a gold-hearted Greenwich Village whore.

The way into Paramount is like the entrance to a chemical plant. The old baroque archway—the De Mille Gate—was one of the landmarks of Hollywood; now it has gone. Even the famous snow-capped mountain trademark has “A Gulf + Western Company” in huge letters beneath it, demonstrating that oil, not celluloid is where the money is nowadays. At Fox there is an oilwell on the lot, wedged right between the sound stages, ready to pump a little faster when financial embarrassments such as Dr. Doolittle occur.

The chintzy style of Miss Barbra Streisand’s dressing room suite at Paramount, with pink and white flower patterns and a yellow carpet, was surprisingly ordinary but the film was only in the rehearsal stage. Her Magnavox Color TV was tuned to Channel 40, an out-of-town Spanish-speaking UHF station. A water cooler surrounded by Dixie cups looked like a stray from a factory in the otherwise feminine setting. Somewhere a refrigerator stuffed with coffee ice cream and cans of Tab occasionally roused its motor. A jar of minute Indian nuts stood on her table and her inch-long fingernails were ideal utensils for slitting open the shells and extracting the meat. She was kempt and relaxed, in an amber wool wool trouser suit, blunt-nosed brogues and lots of long, thin gold chains looped round her neck. Smaller, softer, fairer and more feminine than her performing persona, she spoke in a fast New Yorkish way, still using Brooklyn inflections and sparse consonants—‘ciddy’ for ‘city’, ‘twenny- one’ and ‘did’n wanna do it’. A disconcerting mimic, her voice frequently switched from English county to Mae West or to the strange cockney used by Maggie Smith in Hot Millions. Her expressive hands stabbed the air as she spoke.

“I just played Fanny Brice as a part—I never studied her whole life. I felt that were we so instinctively alike that I didn’t have to work to get her, y’know. That by doing just a character in a play, a woman in a given situation and exploring that with my personal background, this would be contributing to her life and spirit, rather than a conscious effort. Now it’s fun to move on and sing other songs.

“I like Vincente Minnelli already. I either like people immediately or I dislike ’em immediately. There are really no surprises. That’s something I found out. I always thought that when you come here these directors will tell ya what to do and they’ll inspire you and they’ll make you cry to get it on film, y’know, but that’s only in the movies. It doesn’t exist. Nobody can tell ya. That’s why I have great respect for movie actors. But in the end I dislike actors — it’s a part of me I dislike, too. There really aren’t many directors who can inspire the actor to get into the personal subconscious of the part and make something important happen.

“But I love Willie Wyler and we got on great and we see each other socially. He’s not eloquent. He’ll sit there and he won’t know when it’s quite right. He’s not like a director who says ‘Print!’ and that’s it and on to the next. He’ll print five, six of them even when the first one was right. But he always knows in the end, d’ya know what I mean, and will always pick the right piece. And that’s really what counts, because I guess that’s what makes him a better director than most. I think he’s tremendous but he’s not what I thought a director would be like. But that’s right. When I was doing the play I felt Garson Kanin wasn’t directing me and I used to complain to the producer, ‘He doesn’t tell me what to do.’ But he was doing me the biggest favour. He was smart enough to leave me alone. He saw that I was finding things by myself. He didn’t impose his preconceptions. That was marvellous. I know what I have to do but I know that someone has to be there to edit or to guide.

“When I look at a film, my own work, I’m very objective. I see it from the photographer’s point of view —I’m interested in photography, in composition, I’m interested in the total concept of something. I’m not just interested in my lines, and my part, because that would be terribly boring. On the other hand I wouldn’t wanna have to tell people what to do, that would be too frustrating. That requires tact and stuff like that I don’t have time for. But I do see things. My instinct, like with music, tells me the rhythm is wrong. That’s why y’have to work with people who respect your opinion. Now Vincente is terrific that way. Even before he saw Funny Girl. I guess he must have liked my work or something. He didn’t come in as the old-time director of many hits and you’re-just-a-little-girl with one picture, two pictures. He’s so open and he trusts so my instinct.

“It was very difficult doing Dolly because they never saw me. They only heard about me. There were all these ridiculous stories and people tend to believe them, as I believe the things that I read. It’s the power of the printed word.

“I’m very vulnerable. I suppose that’s why people respond to my work, as a consequence of my vulnerability. It shows. I never assume anything. I don’t assume that I’m terrific. I don’t assume that I’m a star. To me these things are only titles. They’re only images, they have no flesh and blood. It’s all so silly, y’know. So that I haven’t adjusted, and I probably never will, to the hard facts. And I hope I never do. Because it will affect my work. I know when my work is good or bad.

“I must say that I saw Funny Girl, and I’d seen every foot of the film day-by-day but still it is the same picture and you can’t do miracles, there’s only so much shot, y’know, and it just seemed to me, I must say, okay. It was all right, it had a couple of nice moments, I thought.

“I hate going to get awards. Most awards, y’know, they don’t give you unless you go and get them, didja know that? It’s terribly discouraging. Two awards already, I’ve turned down, they won’t give me because I won’t come to the affair where they give it out, y’know. If they’re given with this in mind they don’t matter at all because as you realise, I’m the one they want to give it to this year, but because I’m not gonna go and get it they give it to somebody else so that history knows that other person got it but they don’t know the other story, that they only got it on the second choice because they’ d show up and get it.

“I’m frightened to death on the stage. I’m frightened by an audience. I’m not an exhibitionist, I’m not an extrovert. People who know me know me as a very practical, down-to-earth person. I don’t have any crazy manias. Any big temperaments are beyond me. In fact, that’s one of my problems— I really should stick up for more things where my work is concerned.

“But I can sleep at night, in terms of my own work, because I only know one way and that is my truth. I can only be hurt by my own truth and by other people’s interpretation of it. I’m in a terrible condition because I’m very lazy. I never work at my craft. Anything I do is right off the top of my head, like my English accent. I only do what’s easy for me. I act because it’s easy. I don’t do exercises, I don’t swim. But I work hard. I apply myself at the moment. I’ll never go home and work at it. I do everything at the moment. That’s the truth, that’s my moment. That’s the way I work.”

That’s Barbra Streisand.


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