By Koby Hrynkiewicz
With a true New York wit and a voice like buttah’, Barbra Streisand’s breakout performance in Director William Wyler’s Funny Girl remains one of the best performances in any film musical. Not only did her role as Broadway pioneer Fanny Brice give way to the iconic phrase “hello, gorgeous,” but also to an unprecedented tie for Best Actress alongside Hollywood titan Katherine Hepburn at the 1969 Academy Awards. With so much iconography emerging from this classic musical film’s titular comedic lady, I would expect that it also pay a certain reverence to the story of Fanny Brice — which it does, but only for the film’s first half. The film falls victim to the stereotype of the worrisome lover (then wife, in the film’s latter half) by placing Streisand’s character amid male-centric songs . While the film remains one of the most important musical performances ever made, numbers like “Don’t Rain on my Parade” render Streisand’s Fanny Brice a poorly-developed character whose desire for male validation surplants her identity as an unparalleled Broadway star.
Now, I am not questioning the legendary status of “Don’t Rain on my Parade,” which is arguably one of the most pervasive and iconic musical songs ever to emerge. However, it is important to interpret the song’s context within the film. The performance occurs near the midpoint of the film while Brice and the Follies complete their touring engagement in Baltimore. However, after a week-long love affair with the enigmatic Nick Arnstein, Fanny – in her typically Fanny way – spontaneously leaves the tour to follow Nick to Europe. Perhaps the most crucial detail within this scene is her co-stars’ attempts to persuade Fanny to stay, stating lines like “you’re making a fool of yourself” and “haven’t you any pride?” These moments lead Streisand to burst into “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” with the film’s director William Wyler compelling the audience to view the Follies as the conflict, despite the actuality of their efforts to support a fellow female castmate. As such, the outburst into “Parade” – detailing the ways in which Brice will not be swayed from living out her true passions – feels like a slap in the face to Fanny’s character development. Sure, she’s standing up for what she believes in, but this sudden need to justify her want for male validation feels awkward. Throughout the film, Wyler has oriented us to Fanny’s daring, won’t-take-no attitude, but in this moment – the film’s most iconic performance, may I add – reduces her personality to appeasing her desires for a man.
Bob Merrill’s lyrics, however, are strikingly empowering. Simply put, Fanny’s not letting anyone ruin her high – evident when she belts “I gotta fly once / I gotta try once” and “I’m gonna live and live now / Get what I want, I know how.” Only aided by the amazing range and emotion in Streisand’s vocal display, this song encapsulates a sense of go-getter aspiration and pursuit for Funny Girl’s protagonist. Yet, it is the full-bodied, reverberating crescendo of, “Hey, Mister Arnstein, here I am,” that ultimately reduces this empowerment anthem to a surface-level coo for the attention of a man. The fact that this singular lyric is the “highpoint” of the number indicates that this – the affections of a man she has been romantically involved with for only a few days – is the definitive motivator for her passions and aspirations. Throughout Act I, Fanny had been a shining beacon of pursuing her professional dreams, and has done so without once requiring the consultation of a male suitor. As such, this grandiose number ultimately waters down the vibrant aspirations Fanny pursues throughout the film’s former half.
What makes the “Mr. Arnstein” lyric all the more shallow is the fact that “Don’t Rain on My Parade” shares its melodic buildup and lyricism with “I’m the Greatest Star.” Unlike “Parade,” “Greatest Star” lets the audience see the go-getter mantra in a Fanny-centric way. In this previous number, Fanny pursues acknowledgment of her stage presence and raw talent. “I’m the Greatest Star” indicates Fanny’s celebration of herself through lyrics like “Some ain’t got it, not a lump / I’m a great big clump of talent,” unlike the way “Parade” reduces her personal ambitions to a measly, little crush. The “Hey Mr. Keeney, here I am” lyric feels more powerful here, because Fanny knows she’s good enough on her own. Her call for Keeney is a sign of her boldness rather than a meager cry for validation. As such, the juxtaposition between the “Hey Mr. [insert surname here]” lyrics just hurts the authenticity of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. The emphasis and dynamism Wyler placed on the “Parade” number rather than “Greatest Star” asks audiences to see Fanny’s pursuit for male validation as superior to her pursuit for talent recognition and the fulfillment of her dreams.
As for the choreographic performance of “Don’t Rain on my Parade,” there is not much notable movement, but rather a series of long shots following Fanny as she makes her way back to New York and subsequently into Arnstein’s room on the ship. Many of these shots depict Streisand running frantically with her luggage and employing a multitude of transportation means to get to Nick. Within this supercut of Fanny’s unprompted return, I can’t help but notice how much this performance differs from the film’s prior numbers, those multitude of grandiose performances whether on the elegant Follies stage or wandering between street lights on Henry Street. This number feels small in comparison. Given what we know about Fanny Brice thus far – whether it be through Merrill’s audacious lyrics or Streisand’s zest-filled performance – small is not an appropriate adjective for describing this character. In most shots – specifically the train window shot and the shot of the taxi arriving to the seaport– viewers can hardly even make out Streisand’s bodily and facial characteristics. Wyler’s use of a supercut assumedly attempts to empower the audience alongside Fanny while she undergoes this triumphant return to her “love,” but I cannot help but feel a disconnect through this distanced orientation. For being such a bold and booming act closer, “Parade” undoes the nerve and excitement of earlier performances like “Roller Skate Rag” and “His Love Makes Me Beautiful.” Unfortunately, the lack of grandiose choreography or cinematography only prolongs the song’s vapidity.
With all that being said: I love Barbra Streisand, and I personally think she should have edged out Katherine Hepburn for that Best Actress win. I can’t even count the times I passed a mirror on the way out the door and thought to myself “hello, gorgeous.” Funny Girl is – whether you like or not – a piece of cultural iconography. However, it is important to acknowledge the inherent flaws present in this adaptation of Fanny Brice’s revolutionary role in the formation of modern musical theater culture: Brice is a standing column of inspiration, not only for women, but for first-generation Jewish individuals, and her role in the theater industry should be immortalized with total reverence and respect. Despite the powerhouse performance of Barbra Streisand in this film, the unfortunate hyper-fixation on her romantic obstacles takes away from the wondrous qualities which should have been the focus of this biopic.