Now when most critics/jerks talk of guilty pleasures, they’re usually just patting themselves on the back for their oh so outré taste, lack of middlebrow kowtowing, and their astonishing, unprecedented ability to watch films like Earthquake, Nuns on the Run, or the oeuvre of Pia Zadora with above-it-all condescension. When forced to trot out the term “guilty pleasure,” as I have been on occasion, I’m actually so mortified by my own number-one choice that to even admit it would make my head explode with guilt. Would I lose friends? Am I falling just one smidge too far into a gay stereotype? Can I safely lay the blame at the feet of my parents, both Jewish, both musical theater followers, both baby boomers, and therefore both unapologetic Barbra Streisand fans? Yes, it’s with all due shame that I admit (and my Region 2 DVD, safely tucked away behind my Criterion and Woody Allen DVDs, can attest) that Yentl brings me extraordinarily guilty pleasure. (Second horrific admittance of the day: Someone make Miss Saigon: the Movie….seriously.)
In any case, rather than delve into the whys and hows, and instead of detailing the ludicrousness of the plot (after her father dies, Streisand’s Yentl dresses herself as a boy in 19th century Eastern Europe so that she can study Jewish theology, her one true passion), the shimmering gorgeousness of Michel Legrand’s songs (I have no guilt about that), and the insanely self-flattering, self-promotional, self-satisfying nature of Babs’ project, let’s keep things on the surface, shall we? Since Streisand is notoriously in control of every aspect of every corner of every fragment of her productions, there’s no doubt that for this, her 1983 directorial debut, she had final say about this poster design. And what do we see, when we look deep into the abstract recesses of this difficult to ascertain work? Oh yes, that’s right: it’s Barbra Streisand’s enormous head gravely staring up, taking over the entire frame, her famously exaggerated features (“hello gorgeous…well….kinda….well, not really”) and prominent cheekbones poking out of the shadows like some mythic gorgon. “Nothing’s impossible,” it reads in capped letters at the top; and indeed, it’s true, especially if you’re Barbra Streisand.
Of course, below this death mask is the most telling point of all: “A film with music.” By God, not a musical, in case you were thinking that…no, this was more than a decade into the post-Star!, post-Paint Your Wagon demise of the musical, so the parsing of words here is pretty transparent. Though, truthfully, this is no traditional musical: all forty-eight-or-so songs featured in the movie are sung, in soliloquy, either as elaborate internal voice over or as sheltered, hushed alone time, by Streisand; even though she cast Broadway belter Mandy Patinkin as her bushy-bearded love interest, she refused to allow him a single musical peep. You’ve come for the Streisand, and you get the Streisand. Truth in advertising.
Side note: Is there a Yentl resurgence going on? Just last night, during a preview screening of the upcoming Sundance-celebrated Son of Rambow, I noticed in the film a theater marquee (not proudly) displaying the title of Streisand’s film. I think it was meant as some sort of a punch line, as the theater had previously been showing the slightly more testosteroned First Blood. Regardless, I’ll take Streisand’s brave journey into boyhood over Stallone’s jungle warfare any day of the week; and trust me, Babs has got a far more piercing, infinitely more sustained scream, at the end of Yentl. She doesn’t need a machine gun to amplify it.