Thursday, February 5, 2009

Reverend’s Reviews: Nothing's Impossible ...

... Yentl is finally on DVD!

Giving in to fan demand that has existed basically since the advent of DVDs, Barbra Streisand has finally released her 1983 directorial debut. Very loosely based on Isaac Bashevis Singer's Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy, Babs' ambitious musical — er, "film with music" — has been given a ravishing transfer and extended director's cut treatment loaded with behind-the-scenes goodies.

Streisand's enormous success as a singer and actress in the 1960's and 70's as well as her perfectionist reputation generated massive press and industry attention during Yentl's production. Much of it was critical and provoked grave concerns on the part of United Artists/MGM, which was funding the film.

The most unusual "extra" in the Yentl DVD is a reproduced letter from 1982 addressed to the British press. Stating that it is "entirely unsolicited" by Streisand or anyone else, it speaks glowingly of the neophyte director's on-set conduct and is signed by the majority of the cast and crew (co-star Mandy Patinkin's signature is conspicuously absent).

Yentl also proved Streisand's naysayers wrong when it opened to largely rave reviews and great box office. Steven Spielberg, then the hottest director in the world thanks to his 1982 smash E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, called the film "the best directing debut since Citizen Kane!" In addition, Yentl was nominated for several Academy Awards and deservedly won the Oscar for its gorgeous song score by Michel Legrand and Alan & Marilyn Bergman. Upon viewing today, it remains a smartly written, meticulously well-directed and beautifully photographed production.

The storyline, about a Jewish woman in 19th-century eastern Europe who illegally studies the Talmud and disguises herself as a man in order to continue doing so after her father's death, held inherent interest for Jews and women as a "look how far we've come" history lesson. What wasn't quite as expected was the film's appeal to GLBT viewers. We readily identified, however, with Yentl's "closeted" life as a scholar; her yearning for her father's approval of her unconventional, unmarried life; and her love for fellow "Yeshiva boy" Avigdor, which for all intents and purposes appears to be — thanks to her disguise — a homosexual relationship.

That Avigdor has the hots for Anchel (the male name Yentl adopts) and is himself conflicted about them only heightens the homosexual tension. In one of the film's most memorable scenes, a naked Patinkin tries to get Anchel/Yentl to go skinny-dipping with him. Protesting to the point of near-hysteria, Anchel/Yentl runs away from him. On a side note, Yentl is Patinkin's finest and sexiest big-screen hour (though fans of The Princess Bride might beg to differ).


The extended director's cut now on DVD is only two minutes longer than the theatrical version, but it includes a previously cut scene in which Anchel's wife, Hadass (a luminous, Oscar-nominated Amy Irving; whatever happened to her?), cites the biblical story of David and Jonathan. The two men are said in scripture to have shared "a love that surpassed that of men for women." Hadass bluntly asks Anchel, "Who do you love more": her or Avigdor?

Streisand provides separately several other deleted scenes. Most are inconsequential and wisely omitted, although a scene of Yentl and her father (the great Nehemiah Persoff) encountering an aggressive matchmaker is very funny and well-played.


Finally, the DVD includes storyboard sequences of two songs cut before production. One, "The Moon and I," has been previously heard as part of Streisand's Just for the Record...collection. The other, "Several Sins a Day," is a never-before-released, up-tempo piece boasting clever, guilt-wracked lyrics.

Curiously, Yentl's DVD release was barely announced in advance; I only learned about it two days beforehand. But if every gay man, Jewish person and progressive woman in the US were to buy Yentl on DVD, it could well end our economic recession. So get out there now and do it, not only for Babs, but for our country!

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

5 comments:

  1. Thank You for your insightful and thoughtful review of Yentl. The film is a glorious labor of love from Barbra. She is a very meticulous director and every detail in the film is truly amazing, she should be proud in so many ways. The DVD was a long time coming and is spectacular with awesome extras.

    However my one complaint is that the film is about 15-20 minutes too long. This is a small quibble considering that the film has so many great merits including the brilliant cinematography, inspired acting, superior art design and music.

    Somehow I feel that Mandy Patinkin never got over the fact that he did not have a chance to sing in this film. He rarely talks about the film or Barbra. From the beginning it was designed that only Yentl would sing as interior monologues or when alone. Mandy should thank Barbra for guiding him through an extraordinary acting performance, easily one of the best in his career.

    I also wish that Barbra would have continued to direct many more films that she did not star in. She is a born director but I guess she does not have the time, motivation or resilience to do so. Being Barbra Streisand must carry a ton a baggage.


    BTW, the wonderful Papa, Nehemiah Persoff would be startled to see that he is referred to as "late" in your article. Unless you meant he was late to the set....

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  2. finally on dvd? I've had my copy on dvd since 1997,it doesn't have any extras.just the movie and trailer so I will be getting the 2 disc to see all the extras.

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  3. Thank you so much, Bruce, for your feedback. I wonder, though, re: the film's running time, what would you cut??? I can't see more than a few minutes being trimmed without damaging the film's effectiveness.

    And I must apologize profusely re: my statement about Nehemiah Persoff. I could swear I heard/read several years ago he was no longer with us, but it was my error. My most sincere regrets go out to Mr. Persoff and his loved ones.

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  4. Thanks Reverend for that great response. Frankly, I don't know how or where Yentl could be cut by 15 minutes. The fault lies with me because I find most movies hard to sit through if they are over two hours, of course there are exceptions. Guess my patience is not great.

    Yentl is a feast for the eyes and ears for sure. Being a Barbra fan I remember living all the hoopla in Los Angeles when it was being made and when it opened in 1983.

    I was even at the Pacific Dome Theater in LA and saw it on its very last night playing. When we left the show they were taking down the posters and signs and they gave me a few very large keepsakes! Unfortunately, I later had to unload them when I moved.

    BTW You are very good at what you do, keep up the excellent work. Cheers!

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