Funny Lady

The lady is a hag, or, HELL WIG
★★
☆☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1975
Director: 
Herbert Ross
Starring: 
Barbra Streisand, James Caan, Omar Sharif, Roddy McDowall
The Setup: 
Cash-in sequel to Funny Girl.
Discussion: 

So Funny Girl was considered pretty much the zenith of artistic achievement in my family home, with my mother and sisters having to tune in every time it was on, and the soundtrack a frequently-heard selection around the house. I didn't even know there was a sequel for a long while, and then hearing that it is considered a total stinker, of course I wanted to see it. A little research reveals that no one really wanted a sequel, but the producers sensed a bit more money to be wrung from the marketplace, and they had the quite unwilling Streisand under contractual obligation, and forced her under threat of law to do it. It is said that she walked out on the last day of shooting with a snappy "Paid in Full" to the producer who had to sue her to do it.

So we open with a flurry of images from the first film under the credits. They serve to underscore how light and charming Streisand was there, because she will soon emerge here as a bitter, passive-aggressive harpy. We join her on stage in this revue where she has settled since the Zeigfeld Follies has shut down, and the depression is keeping audiences from the theater. Nicky, Omar Sharif from the first film, has not shown up for the performance, but divorce papers are served in her dressing room. Roddy McDowall as Fanny's assistant Bobby is on hand to make sympathetic faces and tell her she's wonderful. Anyway, the show is closing and Fanny is penniless.

She and Bobby go out drinking, and end up at the club of Billy Rose, played by James Caan, and are wowed by his songs. She meets him, he sort-of charms her with his uncouth pushiness, and she agrees to be in his show and perform his songs. By now we can see that the Fanny of this film is going to be quite a bit less funny than before, and is viciously bitter and contemptuous and condescending to others. She is a nasty, aging diva who still demands to be the center of attention anywhere she goes, and everything is about HER and HER FEELINGS, a point of view the movie seems to support, making it a vicarious fantasy for those in the audience who wish to be imperious queens. Also, the sheer amount of cigarettes consumed in the first few minutes might be making you sick at home. Is there such a thing as televised secondhand smoke?

Anyway, Billy, who is characterized as a talented but aggressive blowhard in need of Fanny's civilizing touch, has planned a huge spectacular that ends up a massive fiasco in a sequence that is supposed to be comic, but is largely grating. And we find out that our impulsive Billy has borrowed money from the mob to finance it. This requires Fanny to step in and save the show with her uncanny ability to do everything just perfectly. During rehearsals she and Billy fall in love, and just as he's about to propose, Nicky shows up, but turns out to have married someone else. Fanny comes out to an empty stage and sings a bitter, ironic version of "How Lucky Can You Get?" that is the whole film's only successful number, and which is the only sequence that attains even a tiny bit of musical and emotional power. The rest of the songs are nice songs, but impotent as musical sequences.

So five months later Billy proposes. She accepts. The couple move instantly into emotional strife, having grating fights over nothing, with him being the hounded cad and her the haranguing hag. They scream at each other. They seethe in bitterness. Then a song is sung, and they make up. Then get ready to fight again. It's super fun. This goes on for quite a while, then suddenly we're to understand that they're both on tour and never see each other, causing Fanny to make several guilt-laden phone calls, appearing falsely chipper with an unmistakable edge of rage, and Billy to be the nagged hound dog. You might start to wonder what about the fun, romantic first film made them think we'd want to see this caustic, nasty one, but this belongs of a piece with Streisand's later works in which we're supposed to empathize with her as the beleaguered genius who is justifiably all-consumingly narcissistic, but brought down by the heartlessness and insensitivity of the world that surrounds her, which fails to understand her place among the pantheon of the Gods.

SPOILERS > > >
So Fanny makes one of her unscheduled appearances at Billy's rehearsals, finding herself only partially welcome, and sees this dancer of his show who is the new star, Eleanor Holm, and whom she suspects Billy is attracted to. Thus follows a scene of Fanny disrupting the rehearsals in a way that is supposed to be charming and comic in that "this nutty lady mucks everything up--but is SO ADORABLE!" way that worked in the first film, but here comes across as an aggravating and desperate ploy for attention. More reconciling, more strain of being apart, more fights, more passive-aggression, more guilt, and a whole ton of truly atrocious decor. This movie is supposed to be taking place in the 30s, but the decor and stylings of the shows have been processed through a very 70s sensibility. For example, would there REALLY be a black gospel choir [below] integrated into a song back in the 30s? You tell me.

Anyway, so Fanny runs into Nicky again, and he says now that neither of them have money problems, he'll be happy to dump his wife and run off with her. I say she should accept. Omar is HOT STUFF. She goes from smilingly bitter to "you son of a bitch" in seconds, and this is supposed to be the apex of the film, when she declares herself better than Nicky and were supposed to be right there with her, because in this movie everyone else's faults are cause for contemptuous dismissal, but all of Fanny's faults are just soooooo CUTE! This leads directly into a big musical number that is clearly meant to evoke the "Don't Rain On My Parade" sequence from the first film, only, in keeping with the unspoken theme of Fanny's all-devouring narcissism, is called "Let's Hear It For Me!" Sweetie, that's ALL we've been hearing.

The attempt at bubbly, triumphant energy comes to a flat thud when Fanny surprises Billy, and finds him in bed with Eleanor. She of course repairs to the train station to sulk, where Billy finds her (did he implant a tracking device?). She informs him that she told Nicky to go packing and now he won't be haunting her mind, so they should recommit to each other and make love, sweet love. But too late, he's going to run off with Eleanor. He says "To her, I'm Nick," one of the only effective lines of dialogue in the movie. They part.

THEN! First we catch a glimpse of the building that became the roller-disco of Xanadu. Barbra is wearing this Mommie Dearest hell wig, and somehow the nightmarish decor has reached an inescapable fever pitch. Turns out it's decades later--surprise!--and the only way we'd know this is that Barbra and Billy are wearing gray wigs, although their faces are still as young as ever. They meet to relive old times, though it's impossible to pay attention to what's happening because one can't take one's eyes off that WIG. Billy leaves and Barbra looks in the mirror, as we have a superimposed montage reliving the events of her life, as a title appears: "Sorry, we had no idea how to end our movie." Then it ends.
< < < SPOILERS END

Well yeah, that sucked. And not even in a fun way. The biggest problem is that there's just no point to it. There's no real story to tell, and what there is they are unable to make anything compelling of. They had a long relationship that didn't work out. The end. If Fanny is supposed to be hung up on Nicky the whole time, we get no palpable sense of that when Nicky's not on-screen. Streisand and Caan have almost zero chemistry, and we never get any sense of what they like about each other. McDowall just vanishes after a while. Worst of all is that, just like in real life, the funny, cute Streisand you loved from the first film is now a preening, narcissistic, caustic harpy, flinging contempt for everyone who is not her and doing little but smoking and mugging. There are sequences that, in retrospect, I realize were supposed to be funny and charming, but they're filled with such nasty undercurrents and the sense that we are to just adore Fanny regardless of what she does, making one not WANT to like her. And then it just goes on so long. Too long.

The songs are good, but are more suited to a nightclub or situation in which one can stop and listen to the lyrics--they aren't suited to build musical sequences around, and in retrospect almost none of them are memorable. So it's a bad movie, but not a fun one, because it's just so long and dreary and there's nothing outrageous enough about it to sustain amusement. Nope, it's just a crappy cash-in sequel in every way, a movie no one wanted to make and no one wanted to see. If you're the biggest Barbra fan ever you might want to see it, everyone else can continue to be unaware that it exists.

Should you watch it: 

Nah.