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Viewer Guide: Yentl and Beast

April 14, 2021 | Richard Peña


Yentl (1983)

This week’s classic is Yentl, the 1983 musical drama directed by Barbra Streisand.

Based on the story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yentl had long been a passion project for Streisand, requiring some 15 years of development and false starts before finally reaching the screen. Streisand stars in the title role as a woman living somewhere in 1904 “eastern Europe” who’s now well beyond the traditional marrying age in a conservative Jewish shtetl. But Yentl’s passions lie elsewhere: in the study of the Talmud, the history of the Jewish religion that Yentl has been secretly learning under the reluctant tutelage of her father, Rebbe Mendel, played by Nehemiah Persoff. Yet such a decidedly unorthodox arrangement—literally—cannot go on indefinitely, and when her father suddenly passes away, Yentl has to confront the harsh reality of being an unmarried woman in a patriarchal society. Unable to face a life that will surely mean the end of her education, Yentl takes the radical step of masquerading as a young man, adopting her dead brother’s name “Anshel” and passing herself off as a Yeshiva student. Getting off to a bumpy start in the world of men, Yentl (as Anshel) finds herself (himself?) under the wing of Avigdor, a fellow Yeshiva student played by Mandy Patinkin, whose own passionate quest for knowledge—among other things—captures Yentl’s attention. But when Avigdor’s engagement to the beautiful Hadass, played by Amy Irving, is abruptly broken off, Yentl finds herself facing a more complicated “identity crisis” than she could have ever imagined.

The lush Oscar-winning score by Michel Legrand with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and features the Streisand signature songs “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” and “The Way He Makes Me Feel.”

Barbra Streisand’s interest in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “Yentl: The Yeshiva Boy” dates back to 1968, with the tale striking a personal chord with the newly minted movie star, who had lost her own father when she was just one year-old. Striving to make Yentl her next film after her Oscar-winning debut in Funny Girl, Streisand immediately encountered Hollywood rejection, with even Bashevis Singer objecting to her plans to produce, direct and star in the film. Streisand had originally envisioned the film as a non-musical drama, yet by the late-70s, the star had to concede she was too old to portray Singer’s 16 year-old heroine as written, deciding she would remain behind the camera as director—which ironically only gave the studios even more reason to say no. Reverting back to playing Yentl herself by adjusting the character’s age to 28, Streisand was convinced by her longtime friends Alan and Marilyn Bergman to musicalize the story with songs that functioned as interior monologs. Finally greenlit by United Artists, Yentl was a surprise box office hit that was greeted with mainly positive reviews and acclaim, especially for Streisand’s directing debut, garnering five Academy Award nominations including Best Supporting Actress for Amy Irving. Streisand, however, was passed over for Best Actress, and despite winning that year’s Golden Globe for Best Director, Streisand was snubbed by both the Directors Guild and the Motion Picture Academy in the same category, prompting outcries of blatant Hollywood’s sexism. With Streisand skipping the Oscar ceremony, the Bergmans’ and Michel Legrand took home the year’s award for Best Original Score.


Beast (2017)

Tonight’s indie is Beast, a 2017 psychological thriller written and directed by Michael Pearce.

Jessie Buckley stars as Moll, a young woman living on the British island of Jersey in the English Channel. Moll lives at home with her mother, played by Geraldine James, and helps out with caring for her father who’s struggling with dementia. With a job as a tour bus guide as well as singing in her mother’s choir, Moll seems to have a harmonious existence—except that her inner psychology is as stormy as the dramatic coastline. Now in her late 20s, Moll is more than ready to leave the insular world of Jersey, fed up with being treated like a child or a servant by her icily controlling mother, and is even upstaged at her own birthday party by her sister’s pregnancy announcement. Escaping to a local disco, Moll grabs a measure of momentary freedom, but when a potential hook-up starts to get rough, she’s rescued by a scruffy but dashing young stranger named Pascal, played by Johnny Flynn. Ignoring her mother’s disapproval, Moll’s headstrong flirtation with Pascal rapidly escalates into a passionate romance. But persistent TV news reports on the kidnapping and murder of three teenage girls form a dark cloud over Moll’s newfound bliss, which darkens further when Moll learns that Pascal has been involved in a prior assault. Sympathetically minded—and harboring her own unsettling secrets—Moll doesn’t want to believe Pascal could be the “beast” who’s been terrorizing the island, but how can she really be sure?

Writer-director Michael Pearce grew up on the British channel island of Jersey, and was partly inspired to write his script by the actual “Beast of Jersey” who terrorized the community in the 60s and 70s. With Beast marking her feature film debut, Jessye Buckley also received acclaim for her performance in Wild Rose, along with roles in the streaming series Chernobyl and Fargo. Co-star Johnny Flynn’s recent credits include the Young Albert Einstein installment of National Geographic’s “Genius” series, the 2018 multi-part adaptation of Vanity Fair and the latest movie version of Jane Austen’s Emma.

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