May 24, 2012

The holiday season will bring many prestige movies; films that compete not merely for immediate box-office receipts but also for honors. These films are released now so that they might win a few year-end critics’ awards, and qualify for next year’s Oscars.

Nuts is such a film. It’s the sort of courtroom drama that allows for large, attention-getting acting, and it carries a potent, serious message. Aside from these credentials, Nuts also happens to be a shrewdly crafted entertainment. That said, it is not, I think, a very good movie.

The matter at hand is a competency hearing to decide whether a defendant (Barbra Streisand) is sane enough to stand trial on a manslaughter charge. She, a high-class prostitute, has killed an abusive client (Leslie Nielsen, in flashbacks). Her wealthy parents (Karl Malden and Maureen Stapleton) prefer that their incorrigible daughter be sent to a nice rest home and wither away there for the rest of her life. They hire a smoothie prosecutor (Robert Webber) to ensure this result.

The defendant is curiously impassive to her fate. Contemptuous and angry, she socks her own attorney and is assigned a new court-appointed lawyer (Richard Dreyfuss).

Dreyfuss doesn’t think she’s crazy. Smart, hurt, strange, but not crazy. But she won’t even help him help her; she’s uncooperative and disruptive during the hearing. At one point in court he shouts, not without some grudging affection, “This is a woman even a father could hate!”

Dreyfuss’s excellent performance caps his comeback year, and will likely get him an Oscar nomination. He remains the good-humored point of audience identification, since the Streisand character is intransigent throughout.

Streisand will probably bag another Oscar nomination; she also produced the movie and wrote the music. She carries forth with the stridency that marks so much of her work. In Nuts, this is actually useful, however, since the defendant is supposed to be insufferable. But the movie tries to have it both ways: She’s officially unpleasant, but she can lob in some adorable zingers when required. Webber’s prosecutor, for instance, is putty in her hands.

I suspect Streisand may see this script, written by Tom Topor, Daryl Ponicsan, and Alvin Sargent from Topor’s play, as analogous to her own experiences. For years after Funny Girl, she was the brassy, kooky actor who annoyed people because she wanted her own way, and made no bones about saying so; then she was the would-be filmmaker who spent years battling the Hollywood gender barrier while making Yentl. It’s probable that the Hollywood system belittled her as “nuts.”

Martin Ritt (Norma Rae) directs with the professionalism of a veteran. He doesn’t need to be told that the courtroom form is automatically compelling, and much of the movie is enjoyable on the gavel-banging level. Ritt’s supporting cast reads like a New York reunion of the Actor’s Studio: Malden, Stapleton, Eli Wallach (as a psychiatrist), and James Whitmore (the judge, crusty as they come).

Nuts hits a number of provocative issues, and every so often seems ready to delve into really interesting territory. To my mind, it stays on the surface of those issues, which is why, despite its attractions, it’s ultimately a failure.

First published in the Herald, November 19, 1987

No Oscar nominations after all for this overlooked movie—I’m not sure whether that means it’s better or worse than I thought. Babs was getting pretty picky about her roles at this time, which made the autobiographical reading more likely to me. But what an old-school cast, and what a bizarre role for Leslie Nielsen just before he slipped into the world of slapstick comedy.



December 27, 2010

Mandy & Babs: Yentl

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.