Surprise! It’s not that bad. The prospect of Barbra Streisand wearing the hats of director, producer, star, and co-screenwriter, and not making a movie that was relentlessly overbearing and self-righteous, seemed slim indeed—to this admittedly biased reporter, anyway. The last time La Streisand wielded that kind of control (she was essentially, if not nominally, the auteur of that best-repressed 1976 A Star is Born) the results were shrill—in particular, her onscreen presence was more insufferable than ever. She appeared to seize the opportunity for unobstructed self-expression as a vehicle for venting her pet peeves about the press, the execs, the agents, and even her yammering hordes of fans.
That’s not what Yentl is about. It’s clearly a labor of love, and Streisand, perhaps sobered (one hesitates before using the word humbled) by the knowledge that there won’t be anybody else on which to blame this one, has displayed some restraint. On the level of performance, she still gives the Broadway musical-comedy line readings that are so wince-inducing. But she manages to tell the story coherently—if slowly—and she cannily lards the film with genuinely humorous sequences. So, the old girl-dressing-up-as-a-boy routine has laughs built into it; okay, but Streisand shows an intuition for knowing when to tap the comic vein (I’m thinking of the wordless love duets with Amy Irving’s misguided character, for instance). Less successful are the songs—which are sung by Streisand’s character exclusively, and which function as narration or interior monologue. Maybe if you like Streisand’s voice, you’ll like the songs. I wouldn’t know about that particular predilection. But the Michel Legrand-Marilyn & Alan Bergman tunes are a pretty bland lot.
And the songs necessarily pad out the running time, which is already long, and which, I’m afraid, seems long. The film’s denouement, for instance, takes up the last part of the movie and doesn’t seem as though it’s ever going to get fully explained; people keep repeating just what it is they’ll do in the much-altered future, etc. But if Streisand’s strengths as a director are not in the arena of rhythm, she does manage to capture a few moments—primarily people simply glancing at each other, thinking something about someone who probably, sadly, is not thinking the same thing about them. There’s a scene in which Yentl (Streisand), dressed up as a Yeshiva boy in order to gain an education (forbidden to women), is wrestling playfully with the older student (Mandy Patinkin) who has been her brotherly guide at school. She falls back on the ground, and there’s a close-up of her face against an obviously false patch of grass (we can assume from the Astroturf that they went to the special trouble of setting up this shot in a studio). As Patinkin looks down into her face, you can see that he’s starting to have some peculiar feelings about this beardless boy. Just then, we cut back to the close-up of Yentl, and just for a second you can see that the sunlight is starting to break over that face, and the false grass.
In ways that are not always explainable, a moment like this is very satisfying, and it can almost excuse the pokey expositional passages, the occasionally strident women’s lib asides, and the musical snoozes. But then I’m always more inclined to indulge artists when they’ve gambled everything on a single project, as Streisand has here. It would still be all right with me if she decided to retire from the screen, but a grudging “Mazeltov!” seems in order anyway.
First published in The Informer, December 1983
Perhaps this didn’t come through, but I’m not the biggest Streisand fan. Having seen A Star is Born at least three times in theaters for various high-school related reasons, I still have songs such as “Queen Bee” and “Hellacious Acres” pop up in my internal jukebox from time to time, and the experience has taken its toll. I doubt I will ever see this movie again, but it was a pleasant surprise, with actual warmth to it. Streisand has not retired from the screen.
“Hellacious Acres” on YouTube here.