Warner Bros. // 1972 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Treadway (Retired) // November 15th, 2003
An imaginative look at feminism's roots and the dilemma of trying to "have it all."
Ignored in 1972 by the public (who clearly preferred What's Up, Doc?) and largely forgotten today, Up the Sandbox deserves to be seen. Watching the film is a rewarding experience despite its misguided marketing and confusing structure.
Margaret Reynolds (Streisand) is an aspiring writer, housewife, and mother of two living in New York. Her husband, a professor taking time off to write the Great American Novel, tends to neglect her. Her overbearing mother keeps pleading with her to move to New Jersey. And she has just found out that she is pregnant again.
How does a woman cope with all these problems? Margaret plunges herself into one wild fantasy after another. But eventually she has to come to terms to reality...or does she?
I'm afraid the above description doesn't do justice to Up the Sandbox. It describes the bare bones of the plot, if you can call it that. The script by Paul Zindel (The Pigman, The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds) blurs the line between reality and fantasy so successfully that I was often confused as the film progressed. That is a good thing, by the way. I have no idea if this is faithful to the original Anne Richardson Rolphe novel, but I'm glad that Zindel was willing to take chances with his screenplay. He tackles daring material such as abortion, identity crises, women's rights, and even the idea of escaping from your troubles via a fantasy world. No doubt it will offend some people. It may be the first major studio film to deal with a woman coping with living in a male dominated world. Some may think the film is dated (the director does), but these issues are still timely.
Barbra Streisand says it best in her commentary track when she asks, "What is this film?" It is a good question. Despite the best efforts of National General Pictures and Warner Bros. to convince us, Up the Sandbox is not a comedy. It has very funny moments, such as Margaret's liaison with Fidel Castro and the ultimate revenge against a nagging mother. It is not quite a drama, despite Margaret's plight. The public often expects critics to come up with a label, but folks, I'm stumped. This film defies characterization.
Acting is where this film triumphs. Barbra Streisand gives an extraordinary performance considering the difficult material. She keeps her character rooted in reality, even during the fantasy sequences. My personal idea of what acting is all about is keeping it real in the moment. The actor should find truth in the character: it could be a line, a piece of clothing, a sense memory, anything. Then they build the characterization based upon what would be real for that person. Streisand does exactly that and makes us sympathize with Margaret, even during times of deep trouble. David Selby (Dark Shadows) has the usually throwaway role of the husband, but he doesn't treat it as a throwaway. He invests real feelings and textures into the role and holds his own quite nicely. Selby did consistently good work in TV and films, yet remains forgotten. It's a shame. The supporting cast is quite good. Some performances go over the top, but since these usually involve fantasy sequences, I have no complaints.
The film was directed by Irvin Kershner, famous for directing The Empire Strikes Back. At this point in time, he was fresh from the successful Loving (1971). That film brilliantly walked the thin line between comedy and drama. He was the perfect choice to direct Up the Sandbox, as juggling different tones in a single film is his greatest gift.
Up the Sandbox was not a box office hit in 1972. What's Up, Doc was the Streisand film of choice and admittedly, it is a better film than the one I'm reviewing. No doubt many people were confused by the dual reality/fantasy approach, but I praise and recommend Up the Sandbox regardless. It has enough courage to be daring and different, which is more than I can say about many contemporary films.
Released in tandem with Nuts, The Main Event, and the aforementioned What's Up, Doc?, Warner has brought Up the Sandbox to DVD in good form. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks surprisingly strong for a film that is 31 years old. The usual telltale signs of a classic movie are here (grain, specks, scratches, reel marks) in some scenes, but I can't complain about them too much. Colors look natural, no edge enhancement is to be found, and well, it just looks good!
A Dolby Digital 1.0 mono mix is provided and could be better. Kershner and his sound team experiment with the soundtrack, using different pieces of music, sound effects, and dialogue to cast the viewer into this thin line between fact and fantasy. A stereo mix would have been perfect to sort out the clutter.
The main assets of this disc are two excellent commentary tracks, one by director Irvin Kershner, the other by Ms. Streisand herself. Most people don't have the patience to sit through one commentary, never mind two, but I urge you to listen to both. Streisand's commentary is particularly good since as a producer and actor, she nurtured this project and brings a great deal of insight and information into both the production and the film itself. Kershner's commentary has some gaps, but every time he speaks, there's a wealth of information to be heard. He is amazingly frank at times. ("This is a dated film," he admits towards the end of the track.) It's a shame he didn't record a track for Loving, which in many ways is like this film.
A 1972 featurette is included. It's from the Robbins Nest "Moviemakers" series, which often air on Turner Classic Movies. It's your typical promotional piece, but interesting to hear then recent comments from Barbra and director Kershner. Well worth spending 10 minutes watching.
A theatrical trailer is included. Watch it and see just how clueless distributor National General Pictures was in marketing this offbeat film.
The MPAA rated Up the Sandbox R, for reasons only known to them. There is some nudity, but nothing that wouldn't be shown in National Geographic or on a PBS documentary. Profanity is kept to a refreshing limit. So I ask, why the R rating?
Up the Sandbox is not a typical Barbra Streisand film of that period. It's a film intended to make you think and maybe even take a stand. Some of you out there will not like it. I urge you to rent this disc and decide for yourself. I've discussed it enough and now it's your turn to take it in and digest.
Not guilty! Now bring on the next defendant!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1972
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by Barbra Streisand
* Commentary by Irvin Kershner
* "The Moviemakers" Featurette
* Theatrical Trailer
* Barbra Streisand Official Site