Viewer Guide: Funny Girl and The Driftless Area

May 8, 2020 | Richard Peña


Funny Girl (1968)

This week’s classic is Funny Girl, the 1968 movie adaptation of the hit Broadway musical starring Barbra Streisand and Omar Sharif, directed by William Wyler.

Dramatizing the early career of beloved Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice, the film version of Funny Girl was the grand finale of Barbra Streisand’s meteoric rise to superstardom in the 1960s, capturing the Streisand phenomenon at peak perfection. Featuring music and lyrics by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill and a book by Isobel Lennart, the project had long gestated with producer Ray Stark, who also happened to be Fanny Brice’s son-in-law. Although given a lavish period treatment, Funny Girl is at heart an intimate romance sketching a fictionalized account of Brice’s troubled marriage to gambler Nick Arnstein, played by Omar Sharif. On a parallel track, the movie also charts Brice’s unlikely rise as a Ziegfeld star: as the ladies of Fanny’s neighborhood don’t hesitate to tell her, “if a girl isn’t pretty like a Miss Atlantic City” there wasn’t much reason to expect Brice would ever make it into Ziegfeld’s fabled Follies revue of legendary beauties. But Fanny knows she’s “a bagel on a plate full of onion rolls,” and is determined to show the world she has talents that make her much more than just another pretty face. Of course, there is the incomparable pleasure of savoring Streisand’s voice in its prime, gloriously on display in such Broadway standards as “I’m the Greatest Star,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” as well as her timeless signature song, “People.”

An esteemed veteran of 68 films, Funny Girl’s director William Wyler had never taken on a musical before, and in fact the  production numbers were handled by director Herbert Ross. Also featured in supporting roles are Walter Pidgeon as Flo Ziegfeld, Anne Francis as a seen-it-all Ziegfeld Girl, Mae Questel as the neighborhood “Yenta” Mrs. Strakosh, and Kay Medford as Fanny’s mother, the only other cast member besides Streisand to reprise their roles from Broadway.

Something of a swan song to the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals, Funny Girl was also emblematic of the changing times of the 1960s. Never before had a Hollywood movie so openly celebrated a Jewish heroine in a mainstream studio film that had nothing to do with World War II. But Barbra Streisand’s road to triumph in Funny Girl had not been an easy one. Despite a show-stopping Broadway performance in I Can Get It for You Wholesale and many TV appearances, Streisand was not the automatic first choice to portray Fanny Brice, with other actors including Anne Bancroft, Eydie Gourmet and even Carol Burnett first proposed for the role. And even after Funny Girl composer Jule Styne began lobbying hard for Streisand after hearing her sing at the Bon Soir nightclub in Greenwich Village, the ultimate decision reportedly rested with Fran Stark—producer Ray Stark’s wife as well as Fanny Brice’s daughter.

When it came time for the film adaptation, Streisand was both an apt pupil and a born movie director, with strong opinions on every detail. After stars including Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Marlon Brando, Gregory Peck and Sean Connery were considered for the role of Nick, the casting of the Egyptian Omar Sharif during the heightened conflict of the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six Day War created a minor international incident. But Streisand was able to deflate the tension by quipping, “You think the Egyptians are angry? You should see the letter I got from my Aunt Rose!” For the movie, several songs were dropped from the original Broadway score and replaced by authentic Fanny Brice songs including “I’d Rather Be Blue,” “Second Hand Rose” and Brice’s signature ballad “My Man.” Styne and Merrill also composed the new title song “Funny Girl” especially for the film. Garnering eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Streisand tied for Best Actress with Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter.


The Driftless Area (2015)

This week’s indie is The Driftless Area, an offbeat romantic crime drama from 2015 based on the novel by Tom Drury and directed by Zachary Sluser.

Taking its title from the geographic intersection of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, “the Driftless Area” is an atypically mountainous region of the Midwest, so named because it somehow escaped the flattening spread of prehistoric glaciers. Clearly, something strange happened here, and as the film will show, strange things continue to happen there. This quirky four-corners landmark is home to the similarly quirky Pierre Hunter, a deadpan misfit played by Anton Yelchin, a bartender whose brief escape to attend college was cut short by the untimely death of his parents…as well as running out of money. Hitching a ride, he gets picked up by Shane, played by John Hawkes, who quickly reveals a mean, violent streak. After an altercation, Pierre is thrown out of Shane’s car, but moments later the sound of screeching tires and banging metal indicate that perhaps some divine retribution has played out against Shane. What Pierre finds in Shane’s car sets him and the story off in a direction that no one—least of all Pierre—was expecting. Soon after, a succession of eccentric characters enters Pierre’s life, starting with Stella, an occasional ski instructor played by Zooey Deschanel who seems, well, out of this world. Ciarán Hinds plays Shane’s partner in crime, along with Aubrey Plaza as their nonchalant accomplice. Alia Shawkat plays Pierre’s high school friend Carrie, and Frank Langella appears in a cameo role as a solitary older man who somehow seems aware of an unknowable grand plan.

Filmed on locations around Vancouver, The Driftless Area made its premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. The film is a good example of a contemporary tendency among American indies to mix and match genres within the same film: from film noir to romantic comedy to supernatural mystery and then back again. Anton Yelchin, who stars as Pierre, was born in Leningrad to Jewish parents who were figure skating stars of the Leningrad Ice Ballet. Although his parents qualified for the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, for reasons that were never made entirely clear they were denied participation by Soviet authorities. Immigrating to the United States with his parents as an infant in 1989, Yeltsin began his acting career as a child actor in various films and TV series, including Hearts In Atlantis and Curb Your Enthusiasm. But it was his recurring role as Starship Enterprise navigator Pavel Chekov in the 2009 big screen reboot of the Star Trek franchise that vaulted Yelchin into the upper ranks of a new generation of promising young Hollywood stars. Tragically, Yelchin was killed in a freak accident in 2016, after he had parked his Jeep Grand Cherokee on the steep driveway of his house and the vehicle rolled back over him due to a gearshift malfunction. After the Yelchin family filed a lawsuit, the case was confidentially settled out of court in 2018.

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