Director: Barbra Streisand
Stars: Barbra Streisand, Mandy Patinkin, Amy Irving
Available on DVD - order here
A meticulous labour of love from our beloved perfectionist, Yentl is, sadly, imperfect. Like Yentl herself, the movie is constantly in search of who and what it is, only finds itself thwarted by certain circumstances, and sails off the screen still asking if Papa can hear it, leaving us unsatisfied rather than uplifted.
Barbra summed up the story of Yentl most succinctly in her 1994 concert before launching into a spine-tingling medley of the film’s three strongest songs: “Yentl, as some of you know, is the story of a girl in Eastern Europe at the turn of the century when the world of study belonged only to men. But Yentl’s father, recognizing her thirst for knowledge, taught her secretly, and after his death, in order to continue her studies, she had no choice but to go out into the world disguised as a man. Yentl then meets a boy who she falls in love with but it turns out he’s already in love with another girl but they’re prevented from getting married. So, he asks Yentl who he thinks is a boy to marry the girl, so he can still see her. So, the girl and the girl get married and if you wanna see how Yentl gets away with the wedding night you have to rent the video.”
Though coyly taglined with “A Film With Music” Yentl is, essentially, an old-fashioned musical with a knockout score and several show stopping tunes and it’s the music that gives the film its strongest sense of life. Michael Legrand’s lush song score won an Oscar while two songs from the film (”Papa, Can You Hear Me?”, “The Way He Makes Me Feel”) which Legrand co-wrote with Alan & Marilyn Bergman) won Oscar nominations and have become Streisand standards. The beautifully candlelit-looking scene where Yentl wanders in the woods while singing “Papa” is exquisite, and though the staging of the closing scene is problematic with its unwelcome allusions to the ferry scene in Funny Girl, her delivery of the grandly climactic “A Piece of Sky” sees Streisand at her supersonic best.
Lighting, costumes and the Oscar-nominated set designs are exquisite and unlike other impersonal period dramas of the day such as A Passage To India or Fanny and Alexander there’s a richness of personal engagement evident in every scene. As with The Prince of Tides, candlelight oranges dominate the film’s palette and they’re complemented with chocolate browns, flesh tones and the rustic shades of donkey carts and ivory lace clothing. Yentl looks great, and for the most part, feels real.
The main problem is in the acting, and unfortunately that includes Barbra. A critical error was the casting of Mandy Patinkin as Avigdor. A fine singer-actor, he has all the credentials for the role, but his hirsute masculinity is death to Streisand’s visual believability as a male at his side. Six foot tall, Patinkin won a Tony Award in 1980 for playing Che Guevara in “Evita”, and the last thing a 5′5″ instantly-recongisable female needs is a hairy alpha-male towering over her as she tries to be convincing as a man. Taping her boobs down just isn’t enough, and Avigdor begins to look a bit dim as time goes on and he doesn’t twig to something that is ludicrously obvious to the audience. Also, apart from the story telling us so, there’s no apparent reason why Yentl falls in love with Avigdor as Streisand and Patinkin don’t seem to be tuned into each other at all. This behind the scenes clip shows that such problems were brewing during rehearsals:
As for Barbra: the role of Yentl, played by Streisand of all people, may have an earnest, non-gay non-queer reason for cross dressing, but she is as queer as a cat’s fart, and yet Barbra plays it straight. Streisand avoids the overt psycho-sexual thread of the material altogether and so scenes where she has to mask her desire for Avigdor, feign manliness and physical attraction to her wife fall flat. Camille Paglia observed that in the wedding night scene, Irving was “meltingly sexual” but that Streisand “pulled her punches”. As a director and an actress, she steers way too wide a berth around not only Yentl’s male side and the deeper themes of the material that they tease. When Streisand’s ballsy, masculine side is of most use, she keeps it in reserve and when her girly, doll-collecting feminine side is handy, it in turn finds itself banished.
And, while even the three-act morbidity of “Les Miserables” occasionally mixed it up with a comic up-tempo scene, or a bullet-blasting, thrilling conflict sequence, there’s nothing of the kind in Yentl, and even major Barbra Queens such as myself will sense creeping sedation as the film drifts across Yentl’s hopeless situation and her one setback after the next.
Perhaps this is why the finale of the films jolts so. Though there’s no faulting the music - “A Piece of Sky” is one of Streisand’s greatest recordings - as many critics noted, her belting it out from the stern of a ferry is such a direct visual quote from Funny Girl that it verges on plagiarism. Such an overdone Broadway finale had no place in what had been up to that point a delicate film, to a fault, and Streisand’s announcement to the world that she had cut free from her roots and was now a major film-making force were completely sunk by this complete reversion to her late-1960s arrival period and almost certainly struck her off most Oscar-voters’ Best Director lists.
This collapse back into Broadway at the end of Yentl is a triumph of the film’s well-intentioned confusion: after all their efforts to break into a forbidden world ruled by men, Yentl/Streisand balk at the final hurdle and grip tight to a piece of gigantic moving scenery as they dutifully deliver the big finale.