Funny Lady (1975) Directed by Herbert Ross
New York New York (by Scorsese) is one of my favorite movies because it tells the story of a creative couple in the period setting of musicals, big bands and elaborate hair-dos. I got a little excited then, in the first five minutes of watching Funny Lady, realizing that it might be a related film about similar subject matter. Unfortunately, despite being a 1970's film, it turned out to be a rather conservative and cheesy effort. It dealt out some promising strands of plot and lines, then taking things to nowhere interesting.
Barbra Streisand plays a successful musical star and a recording artist in the 1930's New York. She just has bad luck with men, who appear to only be interested in (her) money. Left by one of these gold diggers (Omar Sharif), she forms a working relationship with another (James Caan) and eventually, the relationship becomes more than a working one – it becomes a dysfunctional marriage. I have no clue why though, as there is obviously never infatuation, love, sex or any kind of chemistry between the two. The guy needs the rich lady to further his career. That's all.
The mid-1970s was a time of active feminist voices everywhere. It was a time when Hollywood produced some subversive cinema, even questioning the portrayal of women only as props and property. Erica Jong had a hit with her novel Fear of Flying already in 1973. In this context, Funny Lady is a poor and stuck-up movie offering a rusty vehicle to its superstar Streisand. Seeing her in almost anything else would have been more interesting than this.
Herbert Ross is somehow related to the naming of our blog. He directed Play It Again Sam, the Woody Allen movie that quotes from the Bogart/Bacall picture The Big Sleep where we picked our blog name. Unfortunately, Ross would have a rather unremarkable career post PIAS. Funny Lady shows the director as a yes-man to the stars, a safe pair of hands to guide the superstar vehicle: in this case, the whims and ego of Barbra Streisand. Streisand really was/is the last actress (save Lisa Minelli?) who could pull off the old-style Hollywood musical.
Funny Lady starts with promise. Although Astrid really didn't pick up on the period detail, it's one of Funny Lady's pluses for me and the movie evokes the 1930's depression era with fervor. There is also a chance that the movie will develop along the lines of Scorsese's amazing old-style musical homage New York, New York and inhabit the landscape of songwriter (James Caan) and muse (Streisand). It's sad to report that Funny Lady shies away from this at every opportunity. Instead it treads musical convention in every way with a series of uninspiring musical numbers that relate neither to plot nor charachter. It becomes very clear that this is all about Streisand and that amazing voice of hers.
Funny Lady is the sequel to Funny Girl (which I recall from my misspent youth) and does tell the real- life story of Fanny Brice (original Ziegfeld Follies girl). The first film has a certain zest, this sequel is a mess. But still, there are moments when Streisand's voice and presence carry the film and you'd hope that some substance would be given to her relationship with Caan (playing songwriter and producer Billy Rose). Caan seems to be reprising his role of Sonny in The Godfather, which considering Funny Lady is a lighthearted musical comedy, suggests he was slightly miscast. Streisand is good here but is let down by poor direction, a patchy script, flat directing and – worst for a musical – unmemorable songs. Lightweight in every sense.