A scene from ‘Funny Girl.’ (Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures)
It’s a paradox that the Hollywood system, which spent decades erasing anything that seemed remotely “queer” from its product, could also be responsible for one of the most essential movies in the queer film canon – but it was.
It could be considered even more remarkable this could have happened with a movie utterly devoid of explicit (or even implied) queer content – and still, it did.
Of course, the movie we’re talking about – “Funny Girl,” which celebrates the 55th anniversary of its release on Sept. 19 – did feature Barbra Streisand, but while the multi-hyphenate megastar may have had her share of queer fans before the film was made, it was her stunning big screen reprisal of the Broadway role she had originated that was arguably responsible for turning her into a queer icon in the first place.
Revisiting the film today, it’s impossible not to recognize the absolute, world-shifting power of Streisand’s performance. In playing real-life Ziegfeld star Fanny Brice onstage she had found the perfect match of performer to material; like Brice, she was a talented “ugly duckling” with Jewish immigrant roots and a determination to achieve her dreams, and the obvious parallels in their backgrounds — combined with her remarkable gifts as a singer and actress, of course — brought enough authority and authenticity to her performance to literally make her an overnight Broadway sensation. In translating that performance to the screen four years later, she became a superstar, already well on her way toward a groundbreaking future as one of the most powerful women in the entertainment industry.
Still, a generation of gay men didn’t embrace Streisand, or her debut screen performance, simply because she seemed almost supernaturally talented, nor did they do so out of solidarity with a feminist cause; as with most queer cultural touchstones of generations past, “Funny Girl” became iconic to the gay community not so much because of what it (or its star) presented on the surface, but because of an unmistakably universal subtext about the struggle of being an outsider in a world that devalues going against the grain. The experience of Fanny Brice, as an “unbeautiful” performer in a sea of classically lovely showgirls, was – in the mind’s eye, at least – not too far removed from that of countless queer people who yearned to shine without having to pretend to be something else; combined with the unstoppable force of Streisand’s charisma, her story became not just relatable, but empowering. Already well-accustomed to identifying vicariously through “straight” narratives in the movies, gay men could easily make the leap to seeing themselves reflected in this one, and thanks in no small part to the irrepressible persona of its leading lady, they liked what they saw.
There are other elements that strike queer chords, too, such as the undeniable appeal of the movie’s plot, a show-biz melodrama about a doomed backstage love affair that bears only marginal similarities to the real-life story of Brice’s relationship with gambler Nicky Arnstein; he’s a suave “bad boy,” and their attraction simmers with the kind of “forbidden” chemistry that comes when we feel the spark of passion with somebody we’re not supposed to. That makes it irresistible, of course, and it doesn’t hurt that Arnstein is played by the impossibly attractive Omar Sharif, who had already embodied a subtextual queer romance onscreen opposite Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia.” Besides that, the story’s theatrical setting naturally evokes rumination on the challenge of making “the show go on” even when our private worlds are falling apart, which had perhaps even more resonance with gay people accustomed to “keeping up appearances” in their closeted lives in 1968 than it does today.
But all these threads can be found in countless movies, going back to the earliest days of the art form, and though some of them may have earned a place on the list of queer-favorite classics, few are held up as high as this one – and while the Streisand magic is part of the reason why, it was the man behind the camera who captured it on film.
By the time he directed “Funny Girl,” William Wyler was a Hollywood legend. He rose to prominence making westerns in the silent era and went on to hone his mastery of filmcraft in a career that covered almost every genre; he had helmed three Oscar-winning Best Pictures, earned eleven nominations for Best Director, and was renowned for his ability to coax career-topping performances from his actors. Indeed, many of them won or were nominated for their own Oscars for appearing in his films – including Audrey Hepburn, who won for her film debut, his 1953 rom-com “Roman Holiday.” What he hadn’t done, yet, was make a musical – and though hearing loss made him doubt his ability to direct one, he recognized Streisand’s raw potential and was excited by the chance to guide another talented performer to stardom. He took the job.
The decades of accumulated experience he brought to it are evident in every frame of the film. The imagery is artfully shot, flawlessly composed, and endlessly beautiful to look at; awash in a mix of soft pastels and vivid pop colors, it seamlessly merges old Hollywood with new, blending long-practiced styles and techniques with the intuitive vibrance of contemporary filmmaking – something particularly notable in the handling of the musical numbers, which vary from the elaborately stagebound Busby Berkely-inspired Ziegfeld Follies numbers to the expansively cinematic (and still-breathtaking) helicopter shot of Streisand singing on a moving train in “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” Perhaps more important than any of his visual stylings, his instincts for character-driven storytelling allow him to combine the nostalgia of the golden age with the more permissive sophistication that had begun to dominate movies as the old studio system faded into the past – something that Streisand, exuding a more candid combination of vulnerability and sensuality than the screen stars of Wyler’s heyday were allowed, helped to make thrillingly palpable.
It was a fortuitous moment for both director and star, who – both noted for their obsessive perfectionism – reportedly clashed often on the set but established a deep and lasting respect and friendship for each other. Like former Wyler stars Bette Davis and Laurence Olivier, Streisand credited the director for teaching her how to act on film, and while she would go on to deliver other powerhouse performances, she arguably never topped this one. Indeed, she won the Oscar for it, just as Wyler had hoped – and he picked up his own twelfth Best Director nod, a record number of nominations which still stands today.
So, when you celebrate the 55th anniversary of “Funny Girl” by watching it again for the umpteenth time, perhaps it’s worth paying a little special attention to the love and craftsmanship that William Wyler put into it. It might be a vehicle for a breakout star who owns every second of it, but it’s also an impeccably made piece of cinema, which is why it remains iconic for queer audiences even in an era when direct queer representation has supplanted vicarious “coded” depictions of queer experience.
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