As a Boston middle-schooler, I learned to identify the complexity of a well-written character, one exhibiting multiple facets. Rounded characters exhibit multiple facets; they are split between identities. Tom Brady’s retirement and quick unretirement in 2022, for example, revealed his struggle with the idea that he might need to become a father/husband more than a Quarterback. The gothic classic, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde demonstrated that sometimes split identities can lead to many people’s death. In contrast, “flat” characters can be fully understood at a surface level and have little impact on the plot. Our teachers discouraged the writing of flat characters, and yet many men have done just that to their female characters. Fanny Brice, as played by Barba Streisand in the 1968 film rendition of Funny Girl, is a complex character plagued by conflicting identities. Is she a woman or a professional performer? This binary existed for Brice in 1910, as society assumed it was simply impossible be both. One identity tugs against the other to drive the story’s plot. When her identity as a performer exudes, she constructs her life independent of the men around her. However, when she follows her desires as a woman, her life becomes wholly dependent on her husband, Nick Arnstein (played by Omar Sharif). Fanny Brice is a powerful performer on stage, but her immense success could not give her what she has always desired–to be as beautiful as a rose.
“Hello, gorgeous!” are the first words the audience hears Fanny exclaim. Speaking to herself in the mirror, Fanny tries to convince herself that she is pretty. Her backdoor entrance into a dressing room establishes her identity as a performer. Still, immediately, the focus of the audience shifts their attention towards her voice which compliments her own looks. Confirmation of her occupation as a performer, but not of her stardom, occur quickly when John, the stage manager, gives her a thirty-minute warning. Fanny thanks him and John asks about Mr. Arnstein – a character still unknown to the audience. Fanny does not know anything, and Emma walks in and asks the same question about Mr. Arnstein. At this point in the show, Fanny has not even been mentioned. She has referred to herself as “gorgeous”, but no one has named her.
The film names Mr. Arnstein twice, and people seem to want to know where he is. To the audience, he is a person of greater importance than this insecure, nameless character. The scene continues with Emma revealing that Ziegfeld, the show’s producer, is waiting for Fanny– demonstrating her significance to the show. Yet, as Emma says this, Fanny is in awe of the fact that she is worth waiting for: that she has value. Quickly, however, the next scene transports the audience back to a pre-star/pre-Nick era with Fanny’s mom and family friends in a modest kitchen on Henry Street. Family friends parroting that Fanny is not pretty enough for Broadway sets up an “ugly duckling” motif and explains her insecurity. As if their point was not emphasized enough, they break out into a song aptly titled “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty.” The friends continue to barrage Fanny, singing that as a non-pretty girl, she will never attain success. Fanny responds confidently that the world will be stunned at her performing abilities, disregarding the comments about her looks. Fanny has internalized her ugliness and bets on her talent to compensate for her looks. At this point, “Hello, gorgeous” is not a phrase that Fanny can even imagine. The journey of accepting her beauty parallels her rise to stardom, yet the desire to have something unattainable ultimately grabs and holds her attention.
Success is a matter of intrinsic ambition (if the American Dream is true) while beauty is in the eye of the beholder (does not depend on the American Dream). Fanny is rational and understands that talent is easier to attain than getting rid of her “skinny legs.” Her desire is palpable as she recognizes that the best way to showcase her abilities is to just get on stage. She auditions for the seemingly unimportant chorus girl position at a theatre run by Keeney, who eventually fires Fanny because of her looks. In this moment of rejection, Fanny understands that she is the only person who actually believes in her future. She quickly tries explaining the predicament in the way her Jewish New York heritage and my baking obsession know best: an analogy involving bagels and onion rolls. In her world, onion rolls are ubiquitous, and she implies that they are worse than the unknown Jewish delicacy– the Bagel. Fanny is a delicious bagel “on a plate full of onion rolls.”
Finding it impossible to succeed as the bagel, she pulls herself up by her bootstraps and bursts out into a song, “I’m the Greatest Star,” that displays her performance abilities through lyrics, her vocal range, comedic interludes, and the movement of her skinny legs. She starts off, not yet in song, displaying her “36 expressions” in their most juxtaposed manner. The producers easily ignore her, and she tries again to demonstrate her value as a bagel by outright singing, “’ ’Cause I’m the greatest star/ I am by far/ but no one knows it.” Unable to look at her anymore, Keeney walks her out, suggesting that beauty is more important than skill. It’s a simple message that has stood up well to the test of time.
Yet, Fanny won’t accept it. She rapidly shifts her tones and intonations like car gears as she the producer kicks her out, a seemingly final attempt to get a job. Standing outside, she begins to understand that she needs to hype herself up. The violin accompaniment shifts instantaneously from legato high notes to staccato low notes as she gathers herself-creating a sense of urgency for the audience. She powerfully jumps forward, pauses, and then steps forward and backwards signifying her breaking through the hesitation of rejection. At her first mention of her beauty–“Who’s an American Beauty Rose?–she searches for reasons to be confident. Running back inside, voice growing louder, the accompaniment of strings seems to reach the climax until she finds herself on the stage. The music pauses which allows Fanny to gather her thoughts and exhibit her beautiful voice without distractions. Fanny’s confidence on the stage allows the audience to see past her insecurities with her looks. She is jovial, and her movements and notes are fluid. The tone and rhythm repeatedly transform, demonstrating why she is the “Greatest Star.” Her performance ends with her collapsing in tears as she has given the theater one last shot to establish her identity as a performer, and “Bam!”
Fanny attempts to construct her life and success independently of what people around her say. Luckily, Eddie sees her and offers her a small role. Obviously, with Fanny’s ambition, she accepts. Ecstatic at the thought of being hired, she forgets her bagel status. Forgotten for a whole few seconds as we see her look ridiculous attempting to roller skate. Yet now, her ugliness isn’t her looks, it’s her clumsiness, and the audience loves her performance. It’s ridiculous enough to look purposeful and comical. With her comedic performative abilities, whether intentional or not, Fanny Brice solidifies her role on the stage and crafts her identity as a performer.
Love is empowering. Love is beautiful. However, what makes love absolutely mesmerizing for Fanny is that someone will love her even with her looks. Her ugliness is ingrained so deeply that as she attains stardom at the highest level, she must separate her role as a performer from feeling pretty. As a superstar, she could do whatever she wanted, and the crowd would eat it up (Remember, she is a delicious bagel). This only works because she is so innately funny–and she knows it. However, she doesn’t know how beautiful she is. The validation of others is the only way to certify the level of prettiness she desires. For a handsome and wealthy man to come and give her everything she feels like she is missing is simply life-altering. When she first meets Nick, she cannot help herself but blurt out, “Gorgeous!” calling to mind the first line of the play. They eventual marry, and Fanny works on convincing herself that she is as “gorgeous” as Nick. Yet, she always wonders if she is worthy of his love–does she have value? During their initial conversation, Nick drops that he thinks Fanny is a star while dallying with some beautiful girls in the background. In one conversation, Nick has given her the validation that she’s always wanted: Stardom, beauty, and romance. No wonder she fell in love.
Fanny thoroughly idealizes this first pseudo-romantic interaction, so it’s unsurprising that she pursues it. A single compliment was not enough to remove the ingrained feeling of inadequateness, which the audience sees when Fanny alters her beautiful bridal performance by stuffing a pillow under her dress for comedic effect. Premarital pregnancy was not favorable in the public’s eye in 1911. Yet, society understood very well how unfavorable it is, and so it is absolutely hilarious to the crowd. It’s important to note that Fanny’s inability to convince herself to sing a line about being beautiful indicates how deeply seeded her feelings are. Yet, Fanny’s stunt is pivotal as it leads Nick to sing directly about how he finds her attractive, potentially uprooting her feelings of shortcoming.
Nick’s song is fascinating as he does not call her beautiful but implies so by singing, “I want to be seen with you.” Analogous to the slow kneading required for a pristine bagel, Nick begins a series of flirtatious teases that draws Fanny and the audience closer to imagining a possible relationship. He comes to her neighborhood party and is cordial but leaves as soon as the idea of intimacy comes up. Eventually, he holds her chin, kisses her, and then quickly leaves and does not call back. They meet again by ridiculous chance, and he invites her for a private dinner. Nick calls her beautiful for the first at this extravagant private dinner, first by mentioning that her outfit looks “wonderful with [her] eyes” and then by outright saying “you look beautiful.” These compliments are accompanied by a sexual tension that makes Fanny feel awkward. They get into a screaming match and order dinner, and by then- the tension is sky high, and they break out into a song that sets up the nature of their relationship. “You are woman… You are smaller, so I can be taller!” Now not referencing her beauty or talent, but her gender, Fanny becomes uncomfortable and literally gets up and moves away. Yet he persists, “our friendship leaves something to be desired… you are woman, I am man/Let’s kiss.” She shivers, fans herself, saved only by the waiter’s knocking. Visibly uncomfortable, she loses all the power she’s earned on the stage. Through her verse, she attempts to convince herself, “Should I do the things he’ll tell me to?/ In this Pickle, what would Sadie do?” Sadie would do what the man wants to do as she is only his wife. As Nick has given Fanny a sense of beauty, Fanny finds herself wanting to be his Sadie more so than a Ziegfeld girl.
Fanny commands the stage and the performance on Broadway. Even the mighty Ziegfeld listens to Fanny. Through her identity as a performer, Fanny achieves everything she sets out to do as a performer. However, what she cannot get as a performer, is what she desires as a woman who has been scarred by insults about her appearance her whole life. With the career organized and successful, what is left to achieve is to be called beautiful by her husband. Nick provides that and allows her to flourish as his wife as she wants to. Although, years of mistreatment by her family and the industry push Fanny to constantly seek external validation about her beauty. This perpetual search leads Fanny to agree to leave the theatre if need be. At the end of the day, “you can’t take an audience home with you,” and Fanny establishes her agency with the decisions she wants to make. She is the producer, the stage manager, and the main character of her own life.