Coate: Can you discuss the casting of Streisand and Sharif in the lead roles?
Holston: Perhaps most noticeably with the final number, My Man, which can be watched over and over again, Streisand could sing up a storm and had no trouble at all being funny. Sharif was suitably handsome.
Kennedy: In Funny Girl, Streisand found a vehicle perfectly suited not only to her gifts as an actress and singer, but as an introduction to her as an instant movie star. She is less than ideal as any facsimile recreation of Fanny Brice, who excelled on stage, screen, and radio, but was never a star of Streisand’s rank. But does that matter to most anyone watching? The story of a poor and plain Jewish girl from the Lower East Side rising to headliner of the Ziegfeld Follies, and suffering heartache in her private life, might as well have been fiction.
Omar Sharif, as heartthrob gambler-swindler husband Nicky Arnstein, does not register as strongly as Streisand. Once I looked away from her blinding light and concentrated on him, however, I saw effective acting. It’s no stretch to see why Brice would fall so thoroughly for him. Hiding behind his great male beauty is tenderness, danger, and self-destruction. Under Wyler’s guidance, Sharif delivers it all.
Krämer: Once Streisand was cast as Fanny Brice for the stage version of Funny Girl, which became a huge success on Broadway, it seemed a foregone conclusion that she would also appear in the movie adaptation. And yet, Hollywood was wary to cast an actress who had never before appeared in a movie in such an expensive production. Also, there were continuing concerns about her looks. A lot of people acknowledged that, despite being declared ugly and being told on numerous occasions to get a nose job, Streisand had somehow managed to come across as beautiful to so many people, that she represented a new kind of beauty. But how could this work when her face was blown up on a huge movie screen? At the same time, her success as a performer on stage, records and television was so massive that she could not really be ignored either. And of course she was absolutely perfect for the role because, to a large extent, the story of Fanny Brice was her own story.
The casting of Omar Sharif, on the back of the success of Doctor Zhivago, created a number of problems. For one thing, he was an Egyptian playing an American Jew. For another thing, Egypt (as well as other Arab countries) and Israel went to war in 1967. For a while, it looked like he might have to be replaced, but then the war was quickly concluded and some people said that, in any case, Streisand and Sharif appearing together was a kind of gesture of peace, or something like that. I haven’t come across any negative comments about his non-Jewish background in the film’s reception.
Coate: How do you think the stage production and sequel compare to the ’68 movie?
Holston: Haven’t seen the stage production or Funny Lady.
Kennedy: I’ve never seen Funny Girl on stage, but I found 1975’s Funny Lady to miss the mark. It has a self-consciousness that plagues so many sequels. There’s a caution to it, and referencing of Funny Girl, rather than making something new and exciting. I don’t like Streisand in Funny Lady half as much as I do in Funny Girl. She became imperious and self-righteous, and I don’t know if that was her evolution as an actress, human being, and/or her interpretation of an older, wiser, angrier Brice. The title becomes a misnomer; she’s not funny anymore. But Streisand is in fine voice and well served with the songs How Lucky Can You Get? and Isn’t This Better.
Krämer: By all accounts, the stage production was constantly evolving, not least because Streisand gradually took control. So it is not easy to compare the film to “the” stage production. What is interesting, though, is that it was widely reported at the time — and confirmed by later reminiscences — that Streisand was battling veteran Hollywood director William Wyler and the rest of the production team for control of the movie as well. And she often seems to have gotten her way.
Compared to my fascination with Funny Girl, I feel rather lackluster about the sequel Funny Lady. It was a considerable hit at the box office. But I don’ think it was particularly special.
Coate: Where do you think Funny Girl ranks among roadshow musicals?
Holston: Funny Girl ranks in the upper echelon of roadshow musicals, of which there were about two dozen between 1955 (Oklahoma!) and 1972 (Man of La Mancha). In contrast to some, which had great scores but lacked pizzazz or had cheap sets (Finian’s Rainbow), it is one of the fully-realized entries. Ahead of it would be West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Oliver!, My Fair Lady, and Gigi. (Note that those movies were in the “naturalistic” mode, i.e., spontaneous singing and dancing, not stage musicals.)
Kennedy: Funny Girl is pretty high on the list of excellent roadshow musicals. It suffers from a sluggish second half and some costume and hair choices too reminiscent of 1968, rather than Brice’s era of the ’30s and ’40s. Despite the all-consuming presence of Streisand, it has other assets. There’s an elder Walter Pidgeon playing an exasperated Flo Ziegfeld. There is everywhere the evidence of a loving, lavish treatment, effectively opened up so as not to slavishly echo the stage version. It well captures the razzle-dazzle of the big splashy Broadway transfer to film.
Two other highly anticipated roadshow musicals appeared that year: Star! and Oliver! Star! with Julie Andrews was an epic bomb. The box office successes of Oliver! and Funny Girl were contrary to the industry trends that would kill the roadshow by the early 1970s. Oliver! dominated the 1968 Academy Awards, beating fellow Best Picture nominee Funny Girl for the big prize. Funny Girl picked up one award — for Barbra Streisand as Best Actress. In a rare tie, she shared the honor with Katharine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter.
Krämer: I am not a great connoisseur of roadshow musicals. I have seen quite a few but I don’t have much of a personal investment in most of them. But Funny Girl means a lot to me.
Coate: What is the legacy of Funny Girl?
Holston: The legacy of Funny Girl is as a prime example of the musical roadshow, which had not long to go.
Kennedy: A good part of Funny Girl’s legacy and value is as a recreation of Streisand’s one-for-the-ages turn in the stage version, now preserved as long as we can watch movies. As a double whammy, it also captures the moment her movie stardom was born. From Funny Girl came these many years of songs, movies, and concerts. Streisand sings I’m the Greatest Star early in Funny Girl, with the lyric “but no one knows it.” Not anymore! She’s been laying claim to that assertion for fifty years.
Krämer: Well, I would say that, to some extent, Funny Girl, together with The Graduate paved the way for ethnic diversity, not at the margins of Hollywood, but at its very center, in its most successful and most highly acclaimed films — at least for a decade or so.
There is also something very resonant about the almost mythical stardom Barbra Streisand has achieved, and this film offers us one version of the story of her rise to fame. Her version of A Star is Born would be another. And, of course, the latest version of that particular movie has Ally (Lady Gaga) talking about the fact that she does not want to perform her songs because “almost every single person that I have come in contact with in the music industry has told me that my nose is too big and that I won’t make it.” This takes us right back to the opening scenes of Funny Girl, when, in the If a Girl Isn’t Pretty number, a teenage Fanny Brice is told the same thing by her mother’s friends, and her mother responds with the immortal lines: “Is a nose with deviation / such a crime against the nation?”
Coate: Thank you — Kim, Matthew, and Peter — for sharing your thoughts about Funny Girl on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.
The primary references for this project were regional newspaper coverage and trade reports published in Boxoffice, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. All figures and data included in this article pertain to the United States and Canada except where stated otherwise.
Selected images copyright/courtesy Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Roadshow ticket stubs and program from the collection of Robert Morrow.
- Gerald Mohr (“Branca”), 1914-1968
- Harry Stradling (Director of Photography), 1901-1970
- Isobel Lennart (Screenwriter), 1915-1971
- William Kiernan (Set Decorator), 1908-1973
- Robert Luthardt (Art Director), 1917-1977
- Kay Medford (“Rose Brice”), 1919-1980
- William Wyler (Director), 1902-1981
- Walter Pidgeon (“Florenz Ziegfeld”), 1987-1984
- Frank Faylen (“Keeney”), 1905-1985
- John Harmon (“Company Manager”), 1905-1985
- Gene Callahan (Production Designer), 1923-1990
- Irene Sharaff (Costume Designer), 1910-1993
- Jule Styne (Music), 1905-1994
- Gertrude Flynn (“Mrs. O’Malley”), 1909-1996
- Mae Questel (“Mrs. Strakosh”), 1908-1998
- Bob Merrill (Music), 1921-1998
- Penny Santon (“Mrs. Meeker”), 1916-1999
- Robert Swink (Editor), 1918-2000
- Walter Scharf (Music), 1910-2003
- Ray Stark (Producer), 1914-2004
- Ben Lane (Makeup Supervisor), 1912-2007
- Maury Winetrobe (Editor), 1922-2008
- Anne Francis (“Georgia James”), 1930-2011
- Omar Sharif (“Nick Arnstein”), 1932-2015
- Michael Coate