Streisand, Caan Making a Lady Out of “Funny Girl”

by Wayne Warga

June 2, 1974

“That was some entrance you made. You really know how to part the waters.”

“It ain't difficult in a bathtub.”

Billy Rose speaking, FannyBrice responding, or so we are to eventually believe. Actually it is James Caan and Barbra Streisand working their special lavishness on a tart, nicely touching and interesting script by Jay Presson Allen called “Funny Lady.”

Its been over six years since “Funny Girl,” Miss Streisand's Oscar-winning film debut, and now a sequel is in the works following Fanny Brice's life (clearly fictionalized) from the 1930s and her divorce from Nick Arnstein through her marriage to and divorce from Billy Rose and on into the early 1940s.

Ray Stark is producing and Herb Ross is directing, and one and all had severe misgivings about doing a sequel to “Funny Girl.” There had already been one script and it hadn't matched the intent of any of the principals.

Miss Allen was called in and, according to Ross, “within 10 weeks we had a very bright, literate and humorous script. She wrote it from a 15-page outline.”

Miss Streisand, whose sense of what is right for her as an actress is surprisingly unerring, agrees. “It's about a woman who finally loses some of her illusions. She grows up. Her acceptance of herself finally allows her to be attracted to and marry a man like Rose, a man very much like her. It's an interesting idea.”

“His wants were her wants in the original film,” Ross adds. “Here we have two people with overpowering ambition. The difference is that Fanny Brice laughed men into bed.”

Caan is basing his Rose on a “cross between Peter Falk and Don Rickles. The reason I'm doing a musical is that I've never done one. Besides, you can't fall on your ass on a picture like this.”

Carole Wells, an actress trained primarily in television, has the one other continuing female role in the picture, playing a big-bosomed dumb blonde showgirl who does, in fact, do pretty well for herself. “It's about two larger-than-life characters,” she says. “The personal story is the spine of the piece and that's what will make it work.” Making it work isn't always easy. The company shot 14 musical numbers in 16 days and, according to Ross, “everybody's got a sort of jet lag from bulldozing ahead.” To do the musical numbers the company moved from Columbia to MGM, the only studio in town with a sound stage complete with a theater backstage and proscenium, the same sound stage on which so many of MGM's theater-style musicals were shot. The company returned to Columbia to shoot the remainder of the picture prior to going on location.

This particular day the scene is a tacky, crowded boite in the Broadway area known as “Billy Rose's Backstage,” operated appropriately by Rose, who has his name prominently etched on the ashtrays and matchbooks. Into this club, in search of new songs, slum Barbra Streisand and Roddy McDowall (Brice's fey confidant Bobby) and within seconds Rose is on the make—personally and professionally.

There follows a sharp exchange of conversation, a kind of electrical short circuit in which Rose, no matter how put down he is, keeps coming back for more while Brice holds her own and Bobby remains aghast throughout. The atmosphere is—or rather should be—heavily charged.

Streisand is elegantly gowned by Ray Aghayan and Bob Mackie and has even polished her fingernails and left small half-moons at their base in the style of the period. The girl from “Funny Girl” has grown into a full, uncommonly bright and attractive woman.

Caan, much taller and a good deal better looking than Rose, is decked out in a tuxedo but somehow looks like an unkempt bunkhouse, a condition Streisand as Brice is quick to comment on.

A rehearsal is held which sounds more like a friendly contretemps than a confrontation between two driven, ambitious characters and Ross cautions them about being too amiable.

Perhaps because of jet lag from recording so many musical numbers so fast, or perhaps because it is a warm, sunny spring day, neither Caan nor Streisand is high on the idea of a confrontation, though they are most willing to try.

And try they do, but within minutes Caan has reminded everyone present they all but he have managed to blow a line or to otherwise ruin the shot.

A fourth, fifth and then sixth try is made and finally everything is going perfectly. Streisand, disdainfully smoking while Caan promotes, is solidly in character and remains so as a piece of tobacco gets stuck on the tip of her tongue. She carefully reaches up to pick it off just as Caan, in the passion of promotion, grabs her hand to emphasize his point—and shoves her hand into her mouth. The entire company—several dozen extras in the club, the crew and the various support people—explode into laughter and from then on neither Caan nor Streisand can look at one another without giggling.

“I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I'll get it this time,” she says.

“Time is money, time is money and no you won't,” Caan replies.

But she does get it and by the end of the long day, the scene is complete and Streisand is on her way home ruminating about the business of making pictures.

“It's hard, when you're feeling happy, to be asked to produce tears. To do that you have to go looking around inside you for something that hurts. 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.”

The budget of “Funny Lady” is said to be in excess of $5 million and the irony is that of all the actors and actresses on the ever-diminishing list of superstars, only the name of Streisand, the only female superstar, justifies such a large undertaking. The pressure to excel seems to grow right along with the ever-growing list of her successful pictures.


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