... 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.