There are only a very few actresses in the Academy Awards history who have won for musical roles and all of them are onscreen debuts – Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins, Liza Minnelli in Cabaret and Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. Albeit Streisand technically occupied half of the 1968 podium with Katherine Hepburn in Lion in the Winter (it’s the only Best Actress tie, hitherto), her musical-comedic role of Fanny Brice, a street urchin of lower East Side who turned into a vaudevillian Ziegfield star, is a rare moment for the musical genre where the movie star legitimately nails down the central character, both carrying the entire show and often at the expense of other supporting characters. It’s a magnificent, limelight-stealing, show-conquering performance, and Streisand, with all her performing abilities and sheer vocal prowess, overshadows almost everything in this film, the entire cast, the costumes, the leading man and even the direction itself. She makes Omar Sharif, who plays the dashing entrepreneur-cum-gambler Nick Arnstein, look dull, turns the whole dazzling Ziegfield extravaganza a little less sparklier. It is, without a doubt, one of the best musical performances Hollywood has ever seen, rubbing elbows with Minnelli’s stunning Sally Bowles in Cabaret.
But take Streisand out of Funny Girl, and we have an often laboriously melodramatic film, formulaic, straying into a conventional pattern of a low-life dreamer who is given the chance to show off her schtick and then meets the man of her dreams in the process, gets married and finds out that marriage is not as jolly as the folks in her town claim to be. So there are lots of suffering, lots of singing about suffering – but thankfully, Fanny Brice is a comic character creation, finding the humour in the most clichéd of moments and when some scenes turn into a rote path, Streisand always have the bon mots and the gift of perfect comic timing. And nothing in Streisand not to love here. She does not only sing, but she acts every song, means every line, whether it be a melodious, sentimental number “People”, a goofy roller-skate gag “I’d Rather Be Blue Over You” or a showstopping belter “Don’t Rain On My Parade”. And director William Wyler had rightly guided her to that Oscar trophy (after all, this is a luminous director who had waltzed with forty stars into an Oscar acting win), his camera capturing Streisand’s unique facial features and many of the film’s eloquent camera sweeps, may it be as complex as craning vertiginously over a ballet sequence or as simply restrained as following Streisand’s figure in an alley, a dramatic character entrance, to the final closing shot of her fading into black stage backdrop.
This is Streisand’s central, magnificent show through and through, eclipsing anything and anyone in Funny Girl. It’s a musical/comic masterstroke, elevating an otherwise formulaic film about a star’s rise-and-shine, William Wyler’s first and only musical in his entire formidable filmography.