Funny Girl (1968)

Director: William Wyler
Screenwriter: Isobel Lennart
Adapted from: Funny Girl by Isobel Lennart, Jule Styne, Bob Merrill
Cast: Barbra Streisand, Omar Sharif, Kay Medford, Walter Pidgeon, Lee Allen, Anne Francis
Nominations: Picture, Actress – Barbra Streisand, Supporting Actress – Kay Medford, Cinematography, Editing, Score (musical), Song – “Funny Girl,” Sound
Wins: Actress – Barbra Streisand

The last few years have been filled with conversations about the lack of “strong female characters” in film.  This usually involves criticisms of women characters whose main goal is to get a boyfriend/husband, not having any discernible personality outside of their need to be in a relationship, and/or being a Mary Sue or Manic Pixie Dream Girl.  There is, of course, no denying that such thinly written characters exist in movies, but there are plenty of movies with deeper, more complex women characters, too (step outside the studios’ output and you’ll see a bevy of independent films with incredibly drawn women in all roles).  It also helps to delve back into film history: The Silent Era, the Golden Age of Hollywood, and New Hollywood saw hundreds of fantastic commercially successful and critically acclaimed films featuring admirable and inspiration female characters who anchor their films in powerful, unexpected ways.

One such film is Barbra Streisand’s cinematic debut, Funny Girl.  Her Fanny Brice is determined, independent, confident, and driven like so few characters in any medium.  In fact, most of the women in Funny Girl are more interesting than their male counterparts, with many of the gender roles getting reversed.  Eddie—the pianist Fanny meets at Keeney’s revue—is nothing more than a supportive friend; Nick Arnstein is basically one-dimensional arm candy who seems more concerned about appearing dependent upon his wife than finding honest work; and Ziegfeld is more of a presence than a character. 

Then again, when we consider that on Henry Street the women in Fanny’s life—her mother, Mrs. Strakosh and Mrs. Brice’s other friends, Sadie, and others—have their husbands mentioned or referred to (the “Mrs.” titles being the obvious reference), but those men are essentially ineffectual in their wives’ lives and especially Fanny’s.  Because of that, Fanny is comfortable with herself in a man’s world.  Sure, she may be insecure about her physical appearance, but she takes that in stride knowing she has plenty of other more interesting and more engaging qualities.  (Honestly, though, Barbra Streisand in her mid-20s is up there among the most beautiful actresses to grace the silver screen, so buying into her being short on looks is a tough suspension of disbelief.)  Anytime Fanny encounters a problem or obstacle, it’s rarely, if ever, because of her gender: it’s because she’s rebellious and free-spirited.  She was an iconoclast before it became in vogue to be one.

It wouldn’t be wrong to say Streisand’s performance in Funny Girl didn’t end up affecting the direction of her career.  At times, the line between who she is and who Fanny is is non-existent: Was Streisand influenced by the character of Fanny or was Streisand’s depiction of Fanny influenced by Streisand?  Whatever the case, there’s an indelible mark that both the actress and character have had in film.  Streisand’s campaign to open doors for women filmmakers, including establishing her own production company.  Other actresses-turned-directors/producers have followed down similar paths, thus preserving Streisand’s legacy as New Hollywood trailblazer. 

Sure, it would be great to see more varied female representation in mainstream studio films, but what’s key is to support the existing films already portraying such characters.  With recent pop culture occurrences like the Bechdel test and hashtag feminism helping to bring the issues closer to the forefront, we should expect more films from more female filmmakers coming to the multiplexes soon enough.  A film like Funny Girl—which was the highest-grossing film of 1968—can give us hope that seeing those inspiring women will again be a regular happening in films.