As both director and diva, as the Von Sternberg to her own Dietrich, Barbra Streisand has made three moderately successful films — all now on video — by taking her image seriously and remaining true to her fans. The movies are old-fashioned love stories or quasi-musicals (heavy strings or Streisand erupting periodically in song) revolving around what the shrinks would call a core fantasy: Ethnic ugly duckling gets Gorgeous Wasp Guy (or Gal, in the case of Amy Irving’s pert goyisheh-like love object in Yentl).
Barbra is always Barbra, whether she’s playing a rabbi’s daughter who dresses as a boy to become a yeshiva student, the psychoanalyst Lowenstein who rescues the Southern windbag Wingo (Nick Nolte) in The Prince of Tides, or the Columbia lit prof in The Mirror Has Two Faces who embarks on a chaste ”union of souls” with a sex-hausted colleague (Jeff Bridges) who, after years of revolving-door affairs with dishy babes, places a personals ad specifying ”looks not important.”
In fact, Streisand’s looks — along with her voice — were always her biggest asset. When she came on the scene, she polarized tastes: While those accustomed to more conventional beauties weren’t enchanted, a huge number admired her because she didn’t de-ethnicize herself. In a business where people twist themselves out of shape to be universally acceptable, Streisand was antiassimilationist.
Strangely, though Mirror was blasted last fall for the egomania of its star (so what else is new?!), it contains more delicious self-irony than either of her other two films. When, in a cotton-candy-pink bridesmaid dress, she says to sister Mimi Rogers, ”I look like an over-the-hill Barbie doll,” it’s reminiscent of that incandescent moment in Funny Girl when Barbra, standing in front of the mirror, exclaims, ”Hello, Gorgeous!” Her tortured love-hate affair with the mirror is a given in her films — and in the paradox of her being a movie star at all.
Yentl, a ponderous adaptation of a clever story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, was nevertheless ahead of its time as a cross-dressing fable, a Jewish — with an overlay of feminist dogma. The early parts of the film, with Streisand scamping about as a shtetl tomboy, with everybody trying to shut her up (that’ll be the day!) are heavy going, not notably alleviated by her tendency to burst into song. But the gender-bending encounters of her yeshiva boy with Amy Irving and Mandy Patinkin are sweetly titillating. They constitute a playful interlude before her magisterial finale at the stern of a ship plowing its way to America, singing to her rabbi poppa while posing — Queen Christina in steerage, a star on her way to Hollywood via Brooklyn. B-