The Also-Rans Project – Funny Girl (Best Picture Also-Ran 1968)

FunnyGirlPoster.jpgDirected by William Wyler

Written by Isobel Lennart, based on the stage-musical by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill

Starring Barbara Streisand, Omar Sharif, Kay Medford and Walter Pidgeon

Twice there has been a tie at the Oscars in the acting categories.  That’s just two ties in nearly 90 years of awards, during which time there were four acting Oscars for all but 8 of those years.[1]  Or, less than 1% of the awards resulted in a tie.  And really, one of those ties wasn’t even a tie, but was close enough that under the rules at the time, it was considered a tie.

The first time happened in 1932, when Frederic March’s turn in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde pulled in one more vote than Wallace Beery did for his role in The Champ.  At the time the Academy figured close enough was good enough, and so both guys got an Oscar – one of the few times outside of presidential politics where a guy could lose and still win.  And Beery’s Oscar always makes me think of Barton Fink and the talk about the movie Barton is writing is just a Wally Beery picture.  As if those types of films didn’t win Oscars.

Anyway, the only reason we know that Best Actor 1932 was not an exact tie was because at that time, the Academy was free about sharing the vote totals.  It wasn’t until later that they changed that and kept the voting results secret.

The next, and so far, last time a tie happened, was 1968 and because the Academy changed the rules after 1932 to keep the votes secret, we know that when Barbara Streisand and Katharine Hepburn shared the Best Actress award for their respective roles in Funny Girl and The Lion In Winter, it was an exact tie.

The queer thing about this tie, though, isn’t that it happened, but only happened because of some good fortune.  You see, Funny Girl was Streisand’s screen debut.  Yes, she was a popular singer and Broadway actress, but this was her first appearance on film.  Which meant that, at the time of her nomination, she was not yet an Academy member.  Or shouldn’t have been.  Except…

Except prior to the Oscar voting they decided to admit her to the actors branch, giving her an Oscar vote for 1968.[2]  Since we can surmise she voted for herself that year – only Paul Metzler in Election is dumb enough to vote for the other guy – we can also surmise that, but-for her vote, she’d have lost to Hepburn by just one vote.  Which makes her one of the luckiest Oscar winners ever, if not the luckiest.

That said, if Barbara hadn’t won then, she might have won later, perhaps given a makeup Oscar for The Way We Were in 1974, which would have resulted in that years winner Ellen Burstyn (who was probably helped to the win for having earlier lost out to Cloris Leachman from The Last Picture Show) maybe getting her own make-up award later for Resurrection, or Requiem for a Dream, which would have then pushed aside either Sissy Spacek or Julia Roberts.

What’s interesting about Oscar ties is that when they happen it’s the one time we know for sure the winner received less than 50% of the vote.  We can surmise it in some years – like 1998 when Gwyneth Paltrow won – but won’t know for sure.  Anyway, in America we like to assume that if you win something, you were also the popular choice, and by that we mean the person who most others voted for – how else to explain popular-vote-loser Donald Trump acting like he’s President by a landslide?

But, with an Oscar tie we can be all-but certain the winners each received less-than half the vote.  After all, there just 100 votes,[3] and the other nominees each received just one between them – which is low and seems unlikely – that means the winners would each have to have received no more than 49 votes to tie.  That said, there’s nothing implied by noting the winner’s received less-than 50%.  It’s only put out there for posterity.  And even if I was casting aspersions, the two winners still got an Oscar, which is clearly like having the last laugh in this scenario.

Now, while Streisand’s first Oscar has a little taint to it as being the product of incredibly good luck, she did win a second Oscar as a co-writer for the song “Evergreen”, from the film A Star is Born.  No, she did not win that one because of a tie, but in the end she still had to share it with lyricist Paul Williams.[4]  Even when she wins, the Award is not completely her’s.

Fannybricebain.jpg

The real Fanny Brice

What’s It About

Dateline – Early part of the 20th century.  Location – New York City.

A young Jewish woman – Fanny Brice – is trying to make it as a theater actress, but because she doesn’t look the way the stars of the day usually did, she has trouble getting over.  That said, she’s a ballsy gal and won’t be denied.  And, despite ruffling some feathers, her talent as a comedienne, and singer, will not be denied.  Along the way she meets, and is romanced by, gambler Nicky Arnstein.  But even as her career flourishes, his does not, and their marriage eventually ends in a divorce.

Related imageBarbara Streisand

In other entries in this series, this section would normally be called – How Was It?  As in, how was the film?  This time, though, it’s just called Barbara Streisand for the simple fact that Funny Girl the movie is one in the same with Barbara Streisand the actress – you can’t think about one, without thinking about the other.  So rather than play some game where the film is treated as something other than it is, we’ll just get it straight up front – the film is the actress and vice-versa.

Funny Girl was Streisand’s screen debut, but that didn’t mean she came out of nowhere.  As a singer she was already hot-shit, having won the Grammy Awards for Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Female Vocal Performance in 1963.  In fact, she won the Best Female Vocal Performance in 1964 and 1965 as well, finally losing it in 1966, even as she carried a nom for it that year.[5]

She was also a Broadway success, nominated for two Tony Awards for her work on Broadway in the musicals I Can Get It For You Wholesale, and Funny Girl.
Last, she won an Emmy in 1965 for her TV special, My Name is Barbara.

So, coming into Funny Girl, she was hardly an unknown, and so Funny Girl seems less about star-making as about helping an already-big star level-up.

But while you can’t really think of Funny Girl and Barbara Streisand in an indivisible way, it is clear the quality of the two things diverge, even as the pair of them are wrapped up in one another.

Let’s not mince words – Streisand deserved the Oscar for her performance for no other reason than she’s a confident performer who grabbed the spotlight with both hands and wasn’t about to let go.  Certainly, she was not conventionally beautiful – I don’t mean that as a slight on Jewish women, because that’s the point the movie makes – but what she doesn’t have in physical beauty, she has in talent, charm, charisma and verve.  She can sing, she can kinda dance, she can be vulnerable, she can be moving.  Obviously, Funny Girl was meant to show the world that Streisand was a complete performer.  And it worked.  Which is why we still know her today.

That all said, as marvelous as she is, even she can’t quite hold the film together and keep it from sagging.   She also can’t overcome the fact that the film is too long by a half-hour and, by the end, loses focus.

The good of the movie is the first 80 minutes or so – this is the rising part of the story.  Where through moxie, and force-of-will, Brice makes herself into a massive star.  Along the way she meets a very charming man – Omar Sharif’s Nicky Arnstein – who she marries and has a family with.  In a way, the first 80 minutes of the film are the equivalent of the parts of the superhero movies that are about getting the gang together.

In other words – the best part.

But about 80 minutes in, when Brice is hitting her peak, the story starts unraveling, shifting the focus away from achieving fame, or living with it, to turning its attentions to Arnstein.  It is there the movie turns pedestrian, and if we’re honest, a little insulting.  After all, while the movie is Brice’s story, it can’t stop itself marginalizing her for the last 60 minutes and trying to define her by her husband.  Instead of focusing on her and what she can do, it forces her to be the reactionary to her husband.  Because, of course, a woman can never be her own person – there always has to be a man around to give her life meaning and value.

Ah, you gotta love the traditional gender roles.[6]

Here’s the one thing we need to remember about all this: Streisand is so good in the film she makes the otherwise-intolerable last hour of it tolerable.  Barely.  And while that might sound like damning the film with faint praise, it’s actually a bigger accomplishment that you might imagine.

Anyway, while the film is basically Streisand’s vehicle, there are other parts to enjoy.  Sharif is actually good in the film, even as he is an Egyptian playing an American who speaks with an Egyptian accent.  And Walter Pidgeon, as Flo Ziegfeld, does enough to make you remember that at one time he starred in back-to-back Best Picture Winners, Mrs. Miniver and How Green Was My Valley.

Image result for omar sharif funny girlOmar Sharif’s Singing

I’m not surprised Sharif’s acting was fine in the movie – in the 60’s he seemed to specialize in playing a slightly mysterious, debonair charmer.  Which is what he is here.  The film calls for him to smolder, be charming and handsome, which are skills right in his wheelhouse.

What’s surprising about his performance, though, is his signing.

In an era when many women often found themselves dubbed by another singer, like Marni Nixon – particularly Natalie Wood in West Side Story – many men were not.  That’s how you wound up with Rex Harrison doing his own ‘singing’ in My Fair Lady and Dr. Doolittle.  It’s also why Sharif does his own singing here.

But while Harrison merely talks on pitch – that’s what they called it then – Sharif actually sings.  Sure, he doesn’t have the vocal power of Streisand – who does? – but he also doesn’t embarrass himself.  Perhaps if he had more training as a singer he’d learn how to put some power into his vocals, but even if he doesn’t, he still gets the job done.

Damned With Faint Praise

Funny Girl was the last hurrah for director William Wyler.  Yes, he’d still make one more film before retiring, but Funny Girl was the last he’d make that got attention from the Oscars.  And Funny Girl is a unique film in his filmography for one reason – it was his only musical.   Given that, the question then is: was Wyler a good choice as a director for a musical?

Nobody can deny Wyler’s ability to shepherd expansive epics through production – after all, this is the man who made The Big Country and Ben-Hur.  Nor can it be denied he had an uncanny ability to get great performances from his casts – this was a man who directed his actors to 36 Oscar nominations, with 14 wins.  Clearly, the man knew his way around a performance.

That all said, he doesn’t seem to have much grasp of what a musical needs, especially one in the late-1960s.  Nor does he have any sort of style that would make you think to try him as a musical director.  Yes, despite winning 3 Oscars as Best Director, nobody would ever call Wyler a visual stylist.  Sure, he was good General to his troops, but hardly the most creative of them – if he was a General, he was a plodding General.  Which is probably why when folks talk about the ‘auteurs’, you don’t typically hear Wyler’s name.  Which also is probably why the musical numbers in Funny Girl are a bit bland and a little unenergetic.

In the end, that’s probably the one auteurist hallmark of Wyler’s direction – he’s an above-average craftsman, who’s visual style comes from his DP’s, but who was also dynamite with his actors.

To be fair, as much as his direction fails to inspire, the long sequence built around the number “Rain on My Parade” is really quite exciting.   In contrast to the other numbers in the film, this one is not sung in one spot, on a soundstage.  Rather, it scores the pursuit Brice makes of Arnstein, from a train depot, to a boat, and across the countryside.  But more than scoring it, Streisand sings bits of the song throughout, tying the sequence together from one location to another.  In a movie filled with merely-competent musical numbers, this was the one that stood out.  And it stood out for being completely unlike the rest of them in the best way.

Rosemarys baby poster.jpgBetter Than Best?

Best Picture 1968 was Oliver Reed’s adaptation of the musical Oliver!  Like Wyler, Reed had no real background in musicals.  That said, Reed at least seemed to have a greater feel for his material than Wilder and, while he doesn’t have Streisand in his cast, he does have Oliver Reed and Ron Moody, who do a damn fine job was Bill and Fagin.  Plus, Reed’s more visually-sound than Wyler ever was, bringing a sharpness to Oliver!’s bleak bits, which is consistent end-to-end, where as Funny Girl peters out.  So no, Funny Girl is not Better than Best.

That all said, in a year that featured such excellent films as Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Franklin Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes, the true Best Picture of 1968 was Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.

[1] In total, there have been six ties.  There’s the two in the acting branch, in 1932 and 1968.  There was also a tie for Best Documentary Short in 1949 for A Chance to Live and So Much for So Little. In 1986, Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got and Down and Out in America both won for Best Documentary. In 1994 the Live Action Short Oscar went to both Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Trevor.  Last, in 2012 Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall shared the Best Sound Editing Award.

 

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Please Read/Buy…

See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.

Also, don’t be afraid to have a look at the thing that inspired this, The Best Picture Project.  Or, you could buy the revised, updated version of that project in book form:  E-Book or Paperback.

To be a pal and buy my books, jump over here and here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

_______________

 

[2] See Reel Winners: Movie Award Trivia, By Richard Crouse, pg 95.

[3] There are surely more, but this is for the sake of argument.

[4] Incidentally, Paul Williams wrote the music for one of the greatest Christmas films ever – Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas.

[5] In fact, she was nominated for Album of the year in 1963, 1964, 1965 and 1966.

[6] I’ll just say this: we men can be the worst.

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