Film biographies have always been a tricky business. Subject to less than scrupulous adherence to the factual as opposed to an almost shameless gravitational pull toward the predictable formulaic Hollywood elements of high melodrama and low soap opera, the final product’s almost invisible comparison to genuine historic truth inescapably brings forth two fundamental responses: (1) if the subject biography was so uninteresting that it merited reinvention, what was the attraction to the subject in the first place, and (2) if the subject was so interesting, why tinker? Cinematic show business biographies are especially susceptible to this mass profusion of rampant fictionalization; more often than not embellishing a performer’s life with the same tired narrative arc- the search for success, achieving success, finding unhappiness and tragedy with success -that may dampen the audience hankies but diminishes the film into a redundant clone of dozens of previous biopics, but more importantly, tends to alter, in a damagingly diminishing fashion, the characteristics that distinguished and defined the subject personality as a legitimately significant, culturally iconoclastic person of note.
“Funny Girl”, William Wyler’s filmization of the successful Broadway musical of Broadway, film and radio star Fanny Brice is an exception to the above observations as it finds the occasion to actually abridge the usual biographical dramatic arc by eliminating the bulk of the first aspect of the show biz bio formula- the search for success -and in its own inimitable manner introduces a further monkey wrench into the representational maelstrom by adding the problem of a replacement image as the true image of a cultural icon. This is exactly what occurs with Wyler’s film in the presence of Barbra Streisand as the acclaimed Ziegfeld songstress, whose startling force of personality literally rides roughshod over any fading memory of Brice’s own vocal and comedic accomplishments and by extension excuses falsification in the service of glossy entertainment expediency; the rare case where an excess of talent may assist in undoing the intentions of a film. After all, why care about Brice when a formidable substitute is more than satisfactory? Frankly speaking, as a commercial for the varied and undeniable talents of Barbra Streisand the film is a rousing success (to a point), but as an artful and penetrating biography it is sadly lacking, substituting the insipid for the insightful.
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