Every summer, Judge Christopher Kulik disguises himself as a 14-year-old girl and attends band camp.
A cinematic labor of love on a grand scale, Barbra Streisand's Yentl has so many fans it's incredible…yet it also has the same amount of detractors. For 25 years, people have been loudly clamoring for this Holy Grail of All Things Barbra to get a proper DVD treatment, but the only love it got from MGM was a barebones, Region 2 disc. Well, now you all can relax, because MGM presents a two disc, director's extended edition with everything to satisfy the diva's devotees plus more. And more. And even more. However, is the movie really that good, or is it just a vanity project which deserves all the ridicule and mean jokes it has received?
Facts of the Case
The film is set in Eastern Europe (presumably Poland, which was then part of the Russian Empire) in 1904, and based on a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Angelic, beautiful Yentl (Streisand, The Mirror Has Two Faces) yearns to read as many books as she can get her hands on. One huge problem: Jewish women are forbidden by law to garner knowledge, but she won't listen. She gets books with the excuse they were for her genuinely kind Papa (Nehemiah Persoff, An American Tail), who is supportive of her desperate longings for education, but emphasizes motherhood should be the ultimate route.
When Papa dies, Yentl does the unthinkable: she chops her hair, pretends to be a teenage schoolboy (!), run off to attend the Yeshiva, and change her name to Anshel. Complications ensue when he meets the handsome Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin, The Princess Bride), who becomes her best friend. Naturally, she generates romantic feelings for him…until she discovers he's engaged to be married to the gorgeous Hadass (Amy Irving, Tuck Everlasting). Will Yentl compromise the union because of her love for Avigdor? Or will she be forced into a situation she can't comprehend for the sake of their friendship?
I'm sure Barbra fans reading this have their bows and arrows pointed squarely at me, ready to shoot if I condemn Yentl to high heaven. [Clears throat.] My dear readers, when I was about 15 years old I rented the film, watched it for the first time and…didn't like it at all. I found it dull, boring, seriously overbaked and even laughable at times. [Raises hands quickly.] Please, allow me to finish! Watching it again as a more open-minded and mature adult with a minor in Women's Studies and a genuine respect—if not love—for Ms. Streisand, my opinion is now considerably changed. Don't get me wrong; I still have quibbles with Yentl which I will confess later. For now, I will say I actually was hooked the majority of the way, recognizing the staggering passion and heart in which Barbara has infused into her dream project. I can't quite say Yentl reaches greatness, but it's pretty damn close.
I am by no means a die-hard fan of Streisand, but even if I was I'm sure I'd still note the flaws on display here. Streisand-haters can haze the diva all they want, but it's hard to deny her talent and how hard she works. She can make an audience weep, laugh, and be enchanted by her soaring singing voice. As an actress, I've enjoyed many of her films and performances, such as What's Up, Doc?, Up The Sandbox, The Prince Of Tides, and The Mirror Has Two Faces. Plus, I truly believe she deserved the Best Actress Oscar in 1987 as a prostitute who is on trial for manslaughter in Nuts, but her fellow diva Cher took home the honors instead while Barb wasn't even nominated. Did Yentl's vain aroma sour Academy voters? Many buy this theory, considering the fact she served (for the first time) as director, star, co-writer, and co-producer, and she hasn't even gotten a taste of Oscar gold again since. Incidentally enough, the only Oscar Yentl won was for Best Song Score, which Streisand had nothing to do with!
One must not judge Streisand so quickly. Her perseverance as an artist and entertainer in an industry virtually governed by men is something to keep in mind when it comes to her journey in getting Yentl to the screen. In fact, the ultimate theme of the story and film ("Nothing's impossible") can apply to Streisand's 15-year quest as well. Soon after she finished Funny Girl in 1968, she read Singer's story and was taken aback at the opening words about the girl's father. It made Streisand think of her own father (who died when she was 15 months old), and thus she was inspired to take it the screen and direct it…even though female directors were rare at the time. Producers and agents laughed at her, not only because of the non-Hollywood dynamics of the story, but also her insane idea of passing herself onscreen as a schoolboy and making it believable. Streisand herself will tell you she's always had feminist leanings, and while this was another aspect of the story she identified with, she didn't pound you over the head with it in the finished product.
The biggest challenge the viewer has is accepting the 41-year-old Streisand as a 17-year-old boy. Fans will simply say "so what?" True, it takes a leap of faith to buy the gimmick without resorting to a barrage of jokes and accusations of the actress riffing on Woody Allen. This is one of many, many risks that Barbra takes in telling this fairly simple story riddled with some unpredictable twists. It was difficult for me to swallow, yet somehow I got over it and forgot about it soon after the transformation. Part of this is due to the actress' ability to win you over with her charm and grace. She almost is asking you to bear with her until the relationships between Anshel, Avigdor, and Hadass come into play. Thus, it's really Yentl's gender-bending decision that will make or break a viewer's decision to keep watching. There really is no middle ground; either you go with it or not, and this is the primary reason why critics and audiences are split into two camps. People either love Yentl or hate it, and there's very few in between.
The music is another tricky element to embrace. Yentl isn't exactly a musical—not a traditional musical anyway—even though it's been labeled as such. The film's tagline even says otherwise: A film with music. The songs are actually a series of soliloquies, but not unbroken as in, say, Evita, in which the characters were in musical harmony every single second. Streisand sings as if she's revealing her innermost feelings and thoughts, as if her heart was speaking instead of her mind. For the most part, it works, and the score by Michel LeGrand (Summer Of '42, The Thomas Crown Affair) is illuminating and overwhelmingly emotional. Many have complained of Streisand's "hogging" of all the songs, as they are all performed by her and Patinkin (who is a Tony-award winning singer) is never given an opportunity. I didn't mind this because the story is told completely from Yentl's point-of-view, and having a supporting character—even Avigdor—break into song would be radically shifting the perspective for no reason. This is Yentl's story, not his, and thus I support Streisand's decision all the way. What I also admire Barbra for is her restraint when she does sing; while she does attack the lyrics with romantic rapture, she doesn't treat them all as show-stopping numbers. (There is one exception, and I will address it later.)
At the end of the day, whether you love it or despise it, Yentl serves as a personal triumph for Barbra. The mammoth ambitions, the staggering scope and scale of the project must have been daunting as hell. Beautifully filmed on-location in Czechoslovakia by David Watkin (Out Of Africa), there wasn't a single dollar wasted on production values or historical accuracy. The money isn't what scared Hollywood, however, but the themes. After all, this is a movie about gender roles, woman's power, and its cross-dressing curve was treated with utter seriousness, not comically, as in Tootsie, which came out a year before. The fact that Streisand wanted to direct it scared the pants off studio heads even more, despite the fact she was mega-popular. In that sense, Yentl broke down some barriers, especially at a time when the Women's Movement was ripe with action and activism. Imperfections and negative criticisms aside, while I don't love the film I certainly applaud her for the monumental achievement.
So, what about the DVD you might be asking? Streisand, unhappy with the videocassette releases over the years, has confidently stepped up the plate and supervised a restoration of the film which should please both fans and purists. Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.66:1, Yentl looks positively, impeccably radiant in both the 134-minute theatrical version and the 137-minute director's cut. Due to the film's age, there is an expected softness, but colors are vivid and never bleed. Black levels are strong and solid. Flesh tones and light levels are natural and sharp. The only grain is notable in the three additional minutes on the director's cut and mostly in the form of some spotty print damage, nothing major. Legrand's score is given a super-sonic boost with the re-mastered 5.1 Surround track, with equal action from the bass and front/rear speakers. It's never overwhelming, but clear and consistent, with no inconvenient effects. Environmental sounds lightly dominate when there's no music which is more than palatable. The 2.0 Surround track is nice but naturally doesn't have the punch of the 5.1 track, although purists will prefer it; a French stereo track and Spanish mono track is available as well. Dialogue is easily heard throughout, although MGM has supplied English & Spanish subtitles, and closed captioning.
The supply of bonus features is impressive. Aside from both versions of the film, Disc One also contains a 2-minute intro by Barb herself, followed by a commentary (on the director's cut only) with Streisand & co-producer Rusty Lemorande, and several deleted scenes, which clock in at 17 minutes. Streisand's commentaries tend to be quiet, inadequate affairs but she really goes all out here, finding something new to talk about with each and every scene. The only downside is that Lemorande barely gets a chance to contribute, but otherwise there is a mountain of information about Yentl and its making to digest here. Among other things, she goes over her inspirations, working with her co-stars, and shooting in several places around Europe. The deleted scenes begin with another Barbara intro—including some behind-the-scenes photographs—and all are viewable at least once.
For those who are more into featurettes, they will want to give Disc Two a whirl. After another Barb introduction (she does several in this set) is a "Director's Reel," which is a 7-minute look at Streisand's approach to directing and includes on-set footage with an occasional blooper. Next is a 30-minute "Rehearsal Process" program, which is essentially the rehearsal process when it came to the nine shooting days devoted to getting the singing right. The rehearsals are than compared to the feature to give the viewer an idea as to what ideas were pushed and what others were dumped. Much of the footage—culled from Barb's personal archives—is in black-and-white and some of it is rough. There are storyboard sequences for two deleted songs, which are accompanied by the tracks themselves. An 8mm concept film is provided which Streisand made to convince United Artists she could visually handle the directing gig; you can play it with or without narration. "My Wonderful Cast & Crew" is not an EPK-style piece, but rather a tribute with behind-the-scenes footage and photographs. Rounding the rest of the disc is some still galleries, as well as the teaser & theatrical trailers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While I indeed fell under Yentl's spell, I can't help but emphasize some real quibbles I had with the film:
1) Music Consistency: I liked the majority of the music and Streisand's handling of them in terms of letting them play out as thought rather than releasing them vocally. The thing is, she does do the latter at the very beginning, the very end, and several other points for no reason, and all it accomplishes is makes us aware she is singing. Is it too much to ask to stick to one method rather than going in different directions, especially in songs which contain both approaches?
2) Overlength: Filming on a sweeping scale is one thing, but two hours and fourteen minutes, not to mention an additional three minutes in the Director's Cut? This results in pacing problems; for example, it takes us the entire first half just to care about Avigdor's character…and at least another 25 minutes for us to at least get to know Hadass. Streisand could have easily done some trimming, making the film much tighter and quicker. Believe me, I'm all for taking time in storytelling; however, this story is fairly compact enough to be under two hours, period.
3) The Ending: Here again, less is more. The ending is much too bombastic and not to be believed. Explain to me why the final sequence is not only a distant cousin to Funny Girl, but why Streisand felt the need to go for a Big Number, which completely contradicts the way all the songs were performed before it? If only Barbra had maintained subtlety…
4) Where is everyone else?: Probably the biggest complaint most had about Streisand and her directorial debut was the tendency for the diva to hog the spotlight. For instance, why is Patinkin, a Tony-award winning singer never allowed to croon once? Answer: this is not Avigdor's story, it's Yentl, and it's told completely from her own point of view, as it should be. So, while Barbara doesn't hog the spotlight in terms of acting or filmmaking, she certainly does in the bonus features. Lemorande barely registers a word in the commentary, and no one else from the cast and crew get to speak. Why? Did Streisand opt not contact them? Maybe, maybe not; all I'm saying is their absence warrants questions. The wealth of bonus features is certainly impressive, but why does it have to be almost always about Streisand? (Four introductions alone, it makes you think.)
Among Yentl's many admirers is Steven Spielberg. He called it the "greatest directing debut since Citizen Kane." No, I'm not joking about this. Do I agree? No, but…here again, I can't deny this film serves as a personal, extraordinary triumph for Barbra Streisand. As a film, Yentl delivers big time on an emotional scale, and every single frame yield's the creator's dedication and passion for the material. To many, that's all that really matters. I never expected to say this, but count me in as one of those who believes that. Well done, Ms. Streisand, very well done!
Streisand and her alter ego are free to go, while MGM is found not guilty for
delivering a super-packed edition of this much-loved film. Court is
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