Let’s face it: sometimes Oscars go to deserving recipients, but for the wrong work. To cite just one example, does anyone really think Al Pacino deserved the Best Actor trophy for Scent of A Woman over Denzel Washington’s work in Malcolm X? (To be clear: I revere Mr. Pacino). I think many would agree that Pacino was being acknowledged for past performances for which he’d been nominated and for which he would have been a most deserving winner, but lost (i.e., Serpico, The Godfather Part II, and Dog Day Afternoon).
If anyone ever deserved the Oscar s/he won, it was Barbra Streisand for her performance as Ziegfeld Follies entertainer Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, released 45 years ago this fall. It was her film début. (She’d played the role on Broadway in 1964-65). Her performance was a tour de force on three levels: dramatic, comedic and vocal. Here’s Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times in October of 1968:
“She is magnificent…It is impossible to praise Miss Streisand too highly….She turns out, curiously enough, to be a born movie star. It was her voice that made her famous, and that’s fair enough. But it will be her face and her really splendid comic ability that make her a star. She has the best timing since Mae West….She doesn’t actually sing a song at all; she acts it. She does things with her hands and face that are simply individual; that’s the only way to describe them. They haven’t been done before. She sings, and you’re really happy you’re there.”
And here’s Pauline Kael in the The New Yorker: “Let’s dispose at once of the ugly-duckling myth. It has been commonly said that the musical Funny Girl was a comfort to people because it carried the message that you do not need to be pretty to succeed. That is nonsense: the “message” of Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl is that talent is beauty.”
Streisand has a handful of terrific musical numbers, but none more emotional than “My Man”, which ends the film. Fanny Brice has just said goodbye for good to her husband, Nicky Arnstein (played by Omar Sharif), a gambler and a rake who ended up in prison. She is heartbroken–despite his caddishness she truly loves him (a story as old as time)–but must now go out on stage and perform. The song she sings, “My Man”, was one of Brice’s popular numbers; her 1921 recording earned a Grammy Hall of Fame award in 1999. To me, though, the mood in that recording is rather maudlin and mawkish (listen below). Streisand’s offering is completely different: although she starts quietly, her delivery becomes defiant and resolute and, thus, much more powerful.
Here’s Kael again: “The end of the movie, in a long single take, is a bravura stroke, a gorgeous piece of showing off, that makes one intensely, brilliantly aware of the star as performer and of the star’s pride in herself as performer. The pride is justified.”
I agree. See what you think.
Oh my man I love him so
He’ll never know
All my life is just despair
But I don’t care
When he takes me in his arms
The world is bright, alright
What’s the difference if I say
I’ll go away
When I know I’ll come back
On my knees someday
Oh whatever my man is
I am his forever more
Trivia tidbit: “My Man” originated in France as “Mon Homme” (composed by Maurice Yvain, with lyrics by Albert Willemetz and Jacques Charles), and was the signature number of actress/singer Mistinguett (neé Jeanne Florentine Bourgeois). Brice popularized it here in the States in the 1920’s, and many others–Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, and Peggy Lee among them–have recorded their interpretations. Here’s Brice’s 1921 recording: