Saturday, 18 July 2015

Yentl (1983)

The blurb at the back of the DVD says something like 'Barbra Streisand's passion for the production shows in every frame'

Having watched Yentl, I believe that Isaac Bashevis Singer, the writer responsible for Yentl The Yeshiva Boy, the short story and play on which this film is based, summed it up far better to my mind "When an actor is also the producer and the director and the writer he would have to be exceedingly wise to curb his appetites. I must say that Miss Streisand was exceedingly kind to herself. The result is that Miss Streisand is always present, while poor Yentl is absent"

Jack Rosenthal, the co-writer of this adaptation whom I am a big fan of, described working on the script alongside Streisand thus "Halfway through, I bit the thigh bone of a roast duck in a Chinese restaurant, smashing my molar to fragments inside my gum.That was the least painful part of the three weeks."

Needless to say Yentl, the end result, is its star. For better or worse. It's easy to understand why, Streisand had fallen in love with Singer's story and subsequent play and had campaigned to make a movie of it as early as 1968 despite growing concerns that she was too big a star, too old to play the role and too feminine to convince as a woman who adopts the guise of a man to become a scholar. As the years past her determination continued and she managed to solve these issues, firstly by choosing to make a musical from Singer's work thereby ensuring Yentl was a field she could be accepted in, secondly by altering Yentl's age from 16 to 26 (though she was in fact 40 when filming) and lastly it is said she fooled  producer Jon Peters by dressing up as a man. 

But her efforts meant much of Singer's original story and intentions were swept aside and changed, and not necessarily for the better. I don't for example buy the hopeful optimistic finale of the film, which sees Yentl travelling to America where she feels she can be anything as her female self, no longer hiding or lying. She may have set her film version in 1904, several years after the time the original play was set (1873) but it's worth remembering that the women of the USA didn't get the right to vote until 1920 and were still expected to know their place in the overbearing patriarchal society of the time. 

I much prefer the more downbeat conclusion to the original which sees Yentl essentially become the Wandering Jew character, enduring the gender crisis that sees her believe she is "neither one sex nor the other" and of having "the soul of a man in the body of a woman" leading her to remain, trapped forever, as her male alter ego Anshel. Streisand's film is not concerned with this ambiguity regarding gender, it prefers to take the interesting concept at its heart and play it straight down the line; Yentl becomes Anshel simply because she cannot study in her native Poland's Jewish faith as a woman. Her defiance of social expectation is solely that of a feminist argument - enjoyable and important enough though that clearly is - rather than a conversation on the nature of gender and those who feel societies response to it is too black and white. All the interesting things from Singer's original, the sexual chemistry and awakenings Yentl feels when she marries a woman, the beautiful Hadass the one time fiance of her friend and initial object of her affection Avigdor, is completely discarded leaving Amy Irving with little to do in the role of the duped bride. Surprisingly, Irving was nominated for an Oscar for her supporting role but I cannot see why. She remains one of those rare examples, a performer who was nominated for both an Oscar and a Razzie, and I must say the latter was a more suitable 'prize'. Indeed, quite why Yentl gained such appreciation from the academy - its piss poor music and lyrics earned the Oscar for Best Adaptation Score in '84 - is beyond me.

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