(On Cable TV, December 2018) I’m probably more bullish on the 1976 version of A Star is Born than most people, or even more than I should be. Oh, I can see the issues with the film—it doesn’t take a look at this tell-all article by the film’s own director Frank Pierson to realize the issues with the movie, whose unleashed self-worship of Barbra Streisand leads to an unbalanced whole. The good thing about Streisand (and then-husband producer Jon Peters)’s unbounded egocentrism is that the main female role is incredibly strong—and with Streisand being Streisand, it means that the vocal performance is as top-notch as the acting. (Alas, in a repeat of the 1954 version, her musical numbers drag on far longer than they should, overpowering the drama and cutting off the film’s energy at regular intervals.) Compared to her, you can see Kris Kristofferson’s role being kept in check by the producer’s need to showcase Barbra at every step. And yet, amazingly enough, he carries much of the film: his performance as an over-the-hill rocker is heartfelt, plunging us in the world of rock music and giving us a perfectly serviceable alternative to the Hollywood focus of previous versions. Being a film nerd, I do miss the movie-centric nature of the previous two movies—but the life of a rock star is exhilarating enough in its excesses that I don’t mind all that much. When you watch all versions of A Star is Born in rapid succession, the period feel of each instalment can become its own attraction, and so the trip back to 1970s music star mansion, big outdoor concerts and radio station appearances is quite a bit of fun. It all amounts to a flawed production, but one that remains fascinating in its own right.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) The best reason to see Funny Girl was and remains Barbra Streisand—for all of her diva reputation, here she is at the beginning of her career with the chance to play a few decades’ worth of a character through early success and later heartbreak. In taking on a star-making debut role loosely based on Fanny Brice’s life, Streisand gets to be funny and attractive, then increasingly embittered by a bad marriage even as her fame grows. Most of all, Streisand gets to sing in a musical that becomes a showcase for a broad range of talents, from light-hearted to dramatic. It’s quite a performance, and it should charm even though who have grown dubious of post-fame Streisand. The great Omar Sharif shows up in a key role as her no-good husband—the story here is rather standard, but Streisand’s performance elevates it. Funny Girl is also notable in that while it was made in the twilight years of the big Hollywood musical (and during the big upheaval that brought New Hollywood to the forefront), it doesn’t suffer all that much from the encroaching bitterness that killed off the genre in the 1970s—while the second half of the film is significantly less amusing than the first, the transition is accomplished gradually, and much of the first half is actually quite funny. William Wyler’s direction is fine—with some standout sequences such as the last scene of Act One. Still, this is Streisand’s show and she remains the single best reason to watch Funny Girl even today.
(On DVD, February 2018) I’m hit and miss on most musicals, but so far I’m three-for-three on Gene Kelly directed musicals (plus an honorary mention for On the Town) including the sometimes maligned Hello, Dolly! I’m not saying that it’s a perfect film or even on the level of Singin’ in the Rain: The romantic plot between the film’s two leads is unconvincing, some numbers are dull, Barbra Streisand is arguably too young for the role, the first half-hour is barely better than dull and the film doesn’t quite climax as it should (the biggest number happens long before the end). But when Hello, Dolly! gets going, it truly shines: Walter Matthau plays grouchy older men like nobody else before Tommy Lee Jones; Barbra Streisand is surprisingly attractive as a take-charge matchmaker suddenly looking for herself; the B-plot romantic pairing is quite likable; the period recreation is convincing and the film’s best numbers (the parade, the restaurant sequence) are as good as classic musicals ever get. As with other Kelly movies, it’s a musical that understands its own eccentric nature as a musical, embracing the surrealism of its plotting and the most ludicrous aspects of its execution. It’s awe-inspiring in the way ultra-large-budget movies can be: the parade sequence is eye-popping and the hijinks at the restaurant are a delight. Seeing Louis Armstrong pop up to croon his own take on Hello, Dolly! in his inimitable voice is a real treat. It doesn’t amount to a classic for the ages like other musicals, but Hello, Dolly! Is still a heck of a lot of fun even today, and it’s quite a bit better than what the contemporary critical consensus has determined.