No. 18: Yentl

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

I don’t mind telling you that Yentl was not a film I was looking forward to a great deal when I spotted it on this list. There’s really only one reason for my hesitation. It’s not because it’s a musical, as there are a number of musicals I would count among my favorite films of all time. It’s not because it’s a Jewish-themed musical either, firstly because I’m not a racist and secondly because easily my favorite musical of all time is Fiddler on the Roof. There’s just one reason – and her name is Barbra Streisand.

So let’s get this out of the way: I have come to realize over the years that there are in fact a number of actors and actresses (in fact, they are almost all actresses) for whom I have such personal distaste for one reason or another that it affects my ability to enjoy their work as actors, regardless of the material. It is my personal hang-up, I admit that, though I do think I’m not unique in having this kind of hang-up. As human beings, we are all naturally judgmental by our very nature and there are some people that just seem to rub us the wrong way, people we just don’t like. Barbra Streisand is one of these people for me. I don’t like her personality, I don’t like her voice (both singing and speaking) and I don’t like her face. There’s no explanation for it, I just don’t enjoy watching her perform. I realize I’m probably in the minority there, and clearly if this were 1983, I’d be even more of an outlier since this movie grossed an astonishing $40.2 million (the first on our countdown to pass the $40 million mark).

So as you can imagine, Yentl is pretty much a nightmare scenario for me. Not only does it star Barbra Streisand both singing and talking in every single scene of the film but she’s also the director and co-screenwriter. Yentl is a Streisand overdose and I was fully prepared to hate every minute of it.

The premise of Yentl, for those who don’t know, sounds a bit like a classic comedy setup. A young Eastern European Jewish girl named Yentl (Streisand) wishes to study the Talmud, inspired by her loving and open-minded father who teaches her despite the fact that it’s forbidden (at least culturally) for women to study sacred texts. After her father dies, Yentl disguises herself as a boy and sets off to join a yeshiva, a Jewish religious school. Her disguise works perfectly, so well that she eventually finds herself married to a woman in order to help out a male friend, who Yentl is actually secretly in love with.

It’s sounds complicated crammed into a single paragraph but the truth is that the plot itself is very clever, unpredictable and totally sensible, if you can get past the fact that Barbra Streisand in no way whatsoever looks like a 17-year-old boy, or a 17-year-old girl for that matter. But fine, a conceit I’m willing to make. There are moments, particularly involving Yentl and her simple-minded but good-hearted wife Hadass (Amy Irving), where I was truly engrossed in the story, not only because I wanted to find out what would happen next but because I legitimately cared what happened to these characters. The screenplay develops the three lead characters, Yentl, Hadass and Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin) with surprising depth and emotional complexity, a trait that’s very uncommon for musicals.

That’s not the only thing that makes Yentl an unusual musical film. For one, a sense of humor is usually vital for any successful musical. It’s a genre that asks the most of the audience when it comes to suspension of disbelief and many musical filmmakers feel the least they can do is acknowledge to you that they understand how ludicrous the very premise of a musical is. Yentl doesn’t work that way. It’s a film that takes itself, its characters and its plot very seriously. There’s no winking, no dry humor whatsoever, even in the lyrics of the songs. Every word of the screenplay is sincere and while that makes this film a bit more difficult to digest sometimes, it’s also that serious tone that helps sell the emotional stakes of the film to us.

Am I starting to sound pretty positive about this film? I guess so. In the end, I walked away from Yentl feeling that while I still didn’t enjoy watching Streisand, this was probably the best I can possibly feel about a movie that features her in every frame. She doesn’t give a bad performance at all, though like I said it’s very difficult to buy her as a successful transvestite. As for her direction and writing contributions, I have to give her credit. This is a film that is not only great looking, capturing the rich details of turn of the century Eastern Europe, but also features some truly thoughtful and well-written dialogue.

Mandy Patinkin is simply fantastic here as Avigdor, a real joy to watch. He’s got a rare combination of sincere intensity and extreme likability, two things that don’t go together very often. He comes off as a sort of dramatically capable version of Seth Rogen, a VERY poor description but it’s the best I can do to describe just how likable he really is on screen. Patinkin is a classic example of a stage actor who proves themselves to be incredibly capable as a film actor as well and it’s a shame he didn’t do more work on the silver screen (the only other major hit Patinkin starred in was 1987’s romantic/fantasy/comedy classic The Princess Bride where he played the memorable Inigo Montoya).

I have yet to discuss the film’s only Oscar-nominated performance from Amy Irving, who plays the naive but kind-hearted Hadass who almost tragically begins to fall in love with Yentl simply because she’s never been shown such kindness by a man in her life. Irving’s nomination is a little odd considering it’s a very understated role but I imagine the respect from the Academy came largely from the difficult task Irving took on of convincing us she truly felt strong romantic connections with both Streisand and Patinkin. Irving was a bit of a newcomer in 1983 but began doing a lot of highly praised work shortly following Yentl (to be fair, it probably didn’t hurt her career that she married Steven Spielberg in 1985).

The relationship between Yentl and Hadass is a very complex one and probably deliberately dances around the issue of homo-eroticism but ultimately it’s about the love between two very kind women that come from very different backgrounds. Hadass and Yentl do love each other, just in different ways and the way Yentl works her way through this situation is perhaps the most compelling plot element in the film. The emotional stakes are high and only a very clever screenplay can get out of this situation in a believable way.

In the end, I can’t disagree with any of the enormously positive critical opinions about Yentl. It’s a well-written, well-directed film and while I don’t like watching Barbra Streisand, I can honestly say my distaste for her didn’t impede me from appreciating the film. The music is not particularly to my taste as I found most of the songs (two of which were nominated for Oscars) to be very similar sounding and not really fitting with the flavor of the film’s Eastern European Jewish setting. For a musical though, Yentl is fairly light on music, particularly since Streisand is the only member of the cast that sings in the film at all and most of the singing is done as internal monologues. Yentl is both well-made and emotionally complex but for me, as a lover of light-hearted musicals and a non-lover of Barbra Streisand, it’s a film that I walk away from impressed but not feeling the need to re-watch.

Amazingly, there are almost no clips of Yentl available on Youtube for me to share with you, which is why I waited until the end to share this one. This is not an edited, finished scene from the film but rather some raw footage from a particularly climactic confrontation between Yentl and Avigdor. I found this clip pretty fascinating to watch, firstly because of Patinkin’s intensity from take to take but also because it shows Streisand’s very unique style of directing a scene that she’s simultaneously acting in. It’s particularly impressive when you note that she’s not only focusing on perhaps her most difficult scene as an actress in the film but also directing Patinkin’s strongest emotional moment AND focusing on a monitor under the camera to ensure that both actors were properly framed. Pretty impressive stuff here.

Next Up: Roy Scheider and Malcolm McDowell star in the helicopter-heavy action flick Blue Thunder.