Few artists of the 20th century have been as universal in their appeal or as eclectic and diverse in their talents as Barbra Streisand. None who have risen through the ranks in the 21st can even hope to begin to compare. Streisand’s meteoric arc and enduring legacy is, perhaps, even more unique and staggering when one considers the singular deficit holding her back; chiefly, her unconventional looks, capped off by a prominent profile that would make even Toucan Sam blush. In an industry where female stars were – and are – expected to wear the mantle of sultry glamor as comfortably as an old pair of favorite slippers, Streisand’s striking features were undeniably a culture shock. Without a doubt, she almost single-handedly changed our perceptions of ‘star quality’. And Streisand certainly has that - in spades. No other star has managed to tap into the art of her dreams, the exploration of her own inimitable brand of femininity (a thematic quest in all her later movies) with such spellbinding versatility, transmitting her most intimate thoughts to an audience with blistering sincerity. Streisand didn’t simply ‘explore’ the various possibilities of her craft: she conquered them with skittish voracity, determined to succeed in spite of the odds. Alas, in tandem, she has oft been championed and vilified for these efforts.
Barbra Streisand is demonstrative. But then, all truly great artists are; especially those hell bent on ‘proving something’ to the world. Can we really blame her for such blind-sided determination? Better still, should we? What is considered mere ‘get up and go’ if Streisand had been born with testicles has been distilled into the ‘bitch factor’ where she is concerned. The vitriol heaped upon this highly private person because of her public persona has made Streisand the subject of unfair scrutiny; hard to work with or for, unbelievably temperamental, demanding to a fault, and, generally, the sort of person you’d rather not be around, unless of course, the outcome to all her meticulous fussing is…well, perfection itself. Streisand’s track record, appearing in movies of the highest quality, some in which she has worn two hats, as both its star and director, is uncanny. She’s hit the bull’s eye with all the precision of an expert marksman; unapologetically taking pride and recognition for her record of kills at the box office while loyal fans continue to applaud her tenacity as well as her achievements.
Streisand, who effortlessly migrated from an explosive debut as a recording artist, to a prominently featured TV personality and then, with glycerin ease, became one of the last truly great all-time musical movie stars, before stepping behind the camera as an as accomplished director/producer, has proven she can do it all, do it at least as well as her contemporaries, and often, far better than any of them might have expected she could. Sour grapes to the critics who continue to nitpick at her methods and bash her reputation like a piñata. But Streisand reigns with guts while basking in the glory she has wrought, seemingly thumbing her nose at her detractors and laughing all the way to the bank. She’s her own person and largely, a spellbinding enigma by her own design.
The aura of la Babs as the consummate diva has endured, chiefly because of her awesome discipline. In hindsight, the tagline to Yentl (1983) seems to succinctly summarize Streisand’s own creed: ‘Nothing’s impossible.’ Partly to satisfy her need for absolute control and partly to procure better projects in which to morph and reinvent her star persona in the public’s estimation – leaving the milieu of the lighthearted musical comedy behind, Streisand made the aggressive, and then, wholly unconventional decision to move into the director’s chair with Yentl; this, at a time when there hadn’t been another high profile woman in the driver’s seat since Dorothy Arzner and certainly never one who ostentatiously deigned to work both sides of the camera. The film is very loosely based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story, ‘Yentl: the Yeshiva Boy’; a woman desiring more for herself in a restrictive culture and at a time (the year is 1904) when the fairer sex was expected to remain decorous and placid; mere accessories ordained to a man’s life. Streisand once glibly joked that the film’s thematic cross-dressing bro/romance was ‘very nineties’ and arguably, very much ahead of its time. To some extent, Yentl never quite achieves its primary objective; to tell an elemental story of its own socially restrictive and repressive times for women. The screenplay co-written by Streisand and Jack Rosenthal relies, perhaps just a tad too heavily, on Streisand’s star quality (and Michel Legrand’s very melodic, though decidedly contemporary musical score) to bolster and buoy the narrative simplicities – or rather, its complications.
David Watkin’s cinematography is gorgeous, and Streisand is undeniably at the pinnacle of her powers; if not directorially, then decidedly as both a movie star and singer. When she emotes, ‘Papa, Can You Hear Me’ or belts out the penultimate declaration of her own transformation with the heart-shattering powerhouse, ‘A Piece of Sky’ she pierces the hypocrisies of the story with such magisterial and sweeping bravura, transcending the limitations of the material and giving us the sort of razzamatazz we’ve come to anticipate in a Streisand vehicle, it is quite simply impossible not to fall under Streisand’s spell; to be entranced and teleported into this alternative universe Streisand has so fastidiously constructed. In hindsight, Yentl is very much a transitional piece for Streisand, thematically exploring her life-long obsession about the definition of female beauty. It’s a musical too, but one unencumbered by the big and splashy production numbers of yore. The songs are mostly going on in Yentl’s head, or emoted with a scorching sense of grounded clarity in moments when Streisand’s conflicted heroine is completely isolated on the screen.
Yentl (Streisand) disguises herself as a male student after the death of her father, Reb Mendel (Nehemiah Persoff); resolute to secure a better understanding of what the world outside her own cloistered community has to offer. She enters an all-male Yiddish seminary determined to broaden her horizons, but winds up falling madly in love with fellow student, Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin) instead. He, of course, knows nothing of Yentl’s intensions and is very much in love with Hadass (Amy Irving). As both Avigdor and Hadass believe Yentl’s disguise as the prepubescent Anschel, Avigdor confides the male point of view about life and women to Anschel and Hadass, sensing a more intuitive nature brewing from within, begins to alter her course of affections for Yentl. Whoops! This, of course, obscures her once seemingly uncomplicated betrothal to Avigdor. Holy pseudo-lesbianism, Batman! But, I digress.
The chief impediment to embracing Yentl as an intensely dramatic work of self-exploration is, ironically its incredibly moving and highly theatrical pop operatic score by Michel Legrand. Streisand seems to recognize the irreconcilability in these two worlds, keeping them awkwardly separate; the film’s thematic search for self incongruously distorted by Legrand’s poignant, though Broadway-esque, introspection. At age 28, Yentl is a spinster too old to marry, though her father continues to have his hopes. Mendel is a patient and benevolent patriarch. He coddles his daughter’s thirst for knowledge, teaching her life lessons from the Holy Scriptures, thus making her the intellectual equivalent of any man. This progressive concept does not bode well with the townsfolk. Hence, upon Mendel’s death, Yentl crops her hair, dresses in her father’s clothes and leaves home in search of a new destiny – one she intends to write for herself.
Almost instantly, Yentl finds solace in a nearby seminary where she is befriended by two scholars; Shimmele (Allan Corduner) and Avigdor. Both men believe Yentl as her rechristened self, Anschel. At first, Yentl revels in the luxuries afforded her in a man’s world. There is a certain sense of liberation at play, a belonging to the ideals she has always known as an educated woman, hopelessly anchored now to her masquerade in order to partake of the pleasures in these comraderies. Rather predictably, Yentl begins to have affections for Avigdor, who is engaged to marry Hadass, the wealthy daughter of Reb Alter Vishkower (Steven Hill). Unable to qualify or even share her true self with Avigdor, Yentl agrees to conspire with Avigdor in his plans to court Hadass after Reb Vishkower discovers Avigdor’s brother has committed suicide. By familial association, this has branded Avigdor a very bad prospect for Hadass to marry. From here the story only becomes more complex and convoluted as Avigdor plots to have Yentl marry Hadass; unaware of Hadass’ genuine affections for Yentl and, even more poignantly panged, Yentl’s own yearnings to possess him. Unable to consummate the marriage for obvious reasons, Yentl instead sets her mind upon a quest to re-educate Hadass; seemingly to make her a better wife for Anschel, but actually, to impart her own proto-feminist wisdom; thereby making Hadass a more complete and worthy companion for Avigdor. Believing Hadass and Avigdor will eventually find a way to be together, Yentl’s Svengali plan is thrown into a tailspin when she discovers their abstinence has made Hadass fall in love with her instead.
Encouraging a ‘man’s outing’ to get Avigdor away from Hadass, Yentl confesses her secret identity to the man she has desired for her own all along – and furthermore – professes love to him with catastrophic results. At first understandably incensed, Avigdor believes the bond he has shared with Yentl has transgressed against male friendship and is a betrayal of genuine male/female affections. However, after some consternation, Avigdor comes to his own revelation. He is in love with Yentl. Alas, her outlook on love – like life itself- has now blossomed beyond ‘just this piece of sky’. Yentl sends Avigdor back to Hadass, recognizing their similarities in traditions and taboos she has so fervently desired to more fully explore on her own, departing for an uncertain destiny in America instead.
Yentl is often stirring; a first act in Streisand’s ever-continuing tableau of self-exploration outside the traditional movie musical; of a woman’s place and an even more unconventional artist’s purpose in a medium increasingly making very few demands on women either in front of or behind its cameras. While Streisand’s career has migrated into more purposeful soul-searching in the intervening decades (with the occasional misfire too) Yentl stands at the crossroads between Streisand’s early career as a musical/comedy star and her present day evolution into that more fully aware and well-rounded personality she has become with the inevitable ripening of time and stubborn perseverance. In hindsight, there is a marginal awkwardness to the exercise; the movie stumbling in its attempts to straddle two sets of artistic principles at once – those belonging to the conventional Hollywood musical (herein, given over to more Broadway bombast than cinematic flair) and the introspective drama.
When Yentl had its theatrical release the critics were laudatory – in general. Yet, in hindsight, it’s the imperfections of the piece that seem to stand out. In retrospect, Yentl’s last act is badly conceived. Yentl insidiously manipulating Hadass into believing she cannot consummate their marriage until Hadass has rid her mind of impure thoughts about Avigdor reeks of some self-effacing and wicked manipulation; the supposed irony achieved by these machinations in the screenplay only underscoring what a cruel hoax Yentl has made of both her own affections toward Avigdor and the once meaningful relationship between Avigdor and Hadass. This might have endured without her meddling.
Departing from their lives in the penultimate moment does not expunge this fact. Given the social climate these three fractured individuals must now cohabitate within, will any of them ever find satisfaction with just a ‘piece of sky’? Even more brutal is the perplexity as to why Yentl – having desired Avigdor in secret for so long, and then confessing her undying love for him to him – should inexplicably spurn his genuine reciprocation of this love by sending him back to Hadass. Yentl’s role, as Hadass’ teacher is one thing; as her own – quite another; but using these two people she supposedly has come to care deeply for and about – and presumably, enough to respect – thought now exploited as mere guinea pigs in her own life ‘experiment’, borders on some grand and misguided proclivity for genuine heartlessness.
Such miscalculations are mercifully counterbalanced, if not obscured, by Michel Legrand’s first rate musical score, sung to perfection by Streisand. There is longing – a note of genuine sadness and, even more remarkably, a ray of hope threaded through Legrand’s luminous and illuminating songs. Roy Walker’s production design, Judy Moorcroft’s costuming and Tessa Davies’ set decoration all contribute to a very palpable middle European feel. Yet, there remains a distinct disconnect between the film’s period and these melodic introspections. This is impossible to overlook or excuse. Streisand is in her element most and best when, as our hero/heroine, she eschews the pretentiousness of the dramatic material, somewhat softened by her own tenure as a musical performer on the stage. Streisand is well versed in both the art of stagecraft and cinema, instinctually knowing what works in one medium as opposed to the other. Her balancing act between these two worlds is impressive to say the least. Too bad one can hardly – if ever - mistake Streisand - the performer - as the film’s inexperienced girl in her late twenties in search of herself. She is even less convincing as Yentl’s alter ego, Anschel.
Thus, the audience must be captivated by Streisand – the presence – to endure this masquerade. It is to Streisand’s credit that her own Teflon-coated personality is enough to carry the film to its mostly successful conclusion. Though we never buy into her act, we embrace her sincerity as an artist. This is quite enough to sustain our interests. It doesn’t make for the intangible and illusive believability in storytelling that the best movie-makers – including Streisand - are capable of, but it nevertheless provides a diversion against the impulse to dismiss Yentl outright or entirely as a badly mangled farce. In the final analysis, Yentl is hardly a perfect entertainment. It is, however, a film stamped with Streisand’s own incandescence and something of a celebration of the human spirit, longing to cast off the shackles of convention, if only to rejoice in its own free will for the briefest of flickers in time.
Let us rejoice. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is the pluperfect way to absorb the virtues of Yentl on home video at long last. After an overdue absence on DVD, MGM/Fox Home Entertainment gave us Yentl back in 2008. But it seems MGM has gone back to the drawing board to further remaster these elements for Blu-ray. Right off the bat, we’re treated to the newer ‘platinum’ Leo the Lion logo; always a signifier that what’s to follow is better still. The old DVD was merely middle of the road. This Blu-ray is superb. David Watkins’ sepia-evoking cinematography is sumptuously resurrected herein. Flesh tones are gorgeous and fine detail pops even during the dimly lit sequences. Grain has been accurately reproduced for a very film-like presentation. Wow and thank you! We get a new 5.1 DTS audio too; dated by the shortcomings inherent in the original audio but masterfully represented nonetheless.
We ought to point out two things: first, that all of the extras featured on this disc derive from MGM’s 2008 DVD release, and second, that Twilight Time (for the first time I can recall) has neglected to favor us with an isolated score track. Given Yentl’s musical pedigree, this is indeed a pity. We get two versions of Yentl: the original 1983 theatrical cut put out by United Artists and Streisand’s ‘re-envisioned’ director’s cut, barely ten minutes longer. Unfortunately, rather than restore this footage for the ‘director’s cut’ so that it seamlessly blends with the existing footage, MGM/Fox has merely dumped the rough cut segments into the finished film. The rough sequences are marred by excessive age-related artifacts and severe color fading. Personally, I don’t really see the point of including additional scenes without additional clean-up – particularly when original elements exist to do so. Worse, actually, is the rather slapdash way the extras have been featured; with sloppy snippets of Streisand waxing about the film, a brief intro to additional deleted scenes, deleted audio recordings of songs cut from the film, accompanied by storyboards and a truly bizarre ‘tribute’ to the cast and crew – basically, behind the scenes footage loosely strung together with an overlay of music from the film’s end credits. Bottom line: for the overall presentation of the actual movie, Yentl on Blu-ray comes highly recommended. The film has never looked or sounded better. As for overall presentation – this is hardly the 1080p disc of the year. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)