"Nothing is impossible!" So exclaims Yentl, the girl - check that, woman (check that, middle-aged woman) - who masquerades as a boy in turn-of-the-20th century Eastern Europe so she can expand her mind and embrace the religious teachings of the Talmud, a complex book of Jewish dogma. And throughout this uneven yet strangely fascinating gender-bending musical, one unmistakably hears Barbra Streisand shouting those same words as well. For just as Yentl crops her hair and puts on pants in a desperate attempt to quench her thirst for the knowledge the strict Jewish culture reserves only for males, Streisand too tries to crack through a glass ceiling and barge her way into the old boys club of Hollywood directing. Both women, through sheer strength of will and a stubbornness that's both enviable and annoying, succeed, yet 'Yentl' the movie - much like its titular heroine - seems conflicted, shifting uneasily between comedy, drama, and musical sequences. Part fairy tale, part love story, and part sexual farce, the film struggles to find its identity. The one undeniable certainty? 'Yentl,' like most Barbra Streisand productions, showcases the legendary talent - and ego - of its inimitable star.
With 'Yentl,' Streisand redefines the stale cliché "one-woman show" by acting, directing, singing, co-producing, co-writing, and appearing prominently in almost every frame of the movie. Such megalomania often backfires, but somehow Barbra pulls it off. While her overbearing presence may slightly sour our impression of her work and we may not agree with all her choices, it's impossible to dismiss her estimable talent in every department. Surprisingly, Streisand's weakest area here is her acting (a common hazard of directing oneself), but though she lacks pizzazz in front of the camera, she makes quite a statement behind it, crafting an impressive feature that's lush, lyrical, beautifully composed, and interesting to watch. At 41, Streisand was far too old to portray the 28-year-old spinster who embarks on a new life following her father's death - the character is actually a fresh-faced girl of 17 in Isaac Bashevis Singer's short story, but Barbra inflated her age to make her casting somewhat credible - but in the director's chair she's like a kid in a candy store, maximizing all the tools at her disposal, yet remaining true to her vision. Sure, 'Yentl' at times adopts too much of an epic feel, obliterating the charm and simplicity of Singer's original material, as Streisand becomes consumed by the larger themes of empowerment, feminism, individuality, and spiritual freedom that swirl about the tale. But who can blame her? At the time, 'Yentl' was Streisand's one shot to legitimize herself as a filmmaker, to prove the naysayers wrong and make a statement, and she seems hellbent on strutting her stuff. In the 70-odd years of motion picture history prior to 'Yentl,' only two women, Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino, directed Hollywood films, so this seemingly lightweight project instantly became a serious endeavor for Streisand, not a self-indulgent exercise in vanity. And she treats it, much like Yentl treats studying the Talmud, with unflappable energy and conviction.
Always admonished not to ask why by her stern but loving father (Nehemiah Persoff), Yentl fearlessly and passionately pursues the knowledge her gender denies her. "You're a woman, but I didn't teach you how to be one," her papa ruefully opines, and following his death, his daughter, who refuses to settle for an unfulfilling life, boldly rejects her femininity, disguises herself as a boy, and takes the name of her late brother, Anshel...all for the sole purpose of attending a Yeshiva and studying the Jewish book of law. Amazingly, her classmates, even the fiery, macho Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin), who becomes her best friend and intellectual sparring partner, instantly accept Anshel as a male. Anshel and Avigdor spend hours debating the Talmud, and their intimacy ignites sexual and emotional longings Yentl never believed she would experience. Avigdor, however, is actively courting the traditionally subservient and quite beautiful Hadass (Amy Irving), but after her parents deem him an inappropriate mate, Anshel becomes the favored candidate to marry her. Unwilling to unmask herself for fear of losing her education, Avigdor's respect, and her hard-fought place in the world, Yentl becomes Hadass's fiancé, but navigating the treacherous waters of matrimony while maintaining her charade becomes an ever more arduous and delicate task. "Am I a woman or a man, a devil or a demon?" Yentl sings. It's no wonder Hollywood humorists of the time dubbed this ethnic musical romp 'Tootsie on the Roof.'
The joke is a bit cruel, for at times 'Yentl' works quite well, but its bloated length drags the film down and undercuts its climax. The masquerade and even the comedy that accompanies it become tiresome over time, and as the story plods along, accepting Yentl as a boy becomes increasingly more difficult. Streisand makes no effort to change her vocal timbre to better assimilate into the male culture, so it's tough to believe anyone would accept her as a guy, and her ambiguous gender association throughout the movie makes her love scenes as both a man and woman uncomfortable. Of course, the role, by its very nature is a tenuous tightrope, but much of the time Streisand adopts a cavalier tone that doesn't ring true. Though she treats the underlying subtext that drives the character with sober respect, she doesn't try as hard to make the surface elements, upon which the story ultimately hinges, believable. Yentl/Anshel too often plays the fool, an odd part for someone so smart.
Though a less grandiose approach would more aptly serve what is, in essence, a simple tale, Streisand chooses not only to beef up and exaggerate the plot, but also transform the material into a major musical, and the merit of such a decision remains questionable. First and foremost, why is Streisand the only one who sings? Aside from the conceit of such a move, it's also an insult to the musically gifted Patinkin, who only a couple of years before won a Best Actor Tony Award for 'Evita.' We keep waiting for Patinkin's big solo and expect him to duet at least once with Streisand, but such moments never come. Keeping Mandy mum is almost criminal and perpetuates the notion of Streisand as a self-centered diva who's loath to relinquish the spotlight or allow others the opportunity to upstage her.
And then there's the score by composer Michel Legrand and lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, which spawned the popular 'Papa, Can You Hear Me?' - an especially poignant tune for Streisand, whose father died before she turned 2 - and 'The Way He Makes Me Feel.' As the movie progresses, it becomes quite apparent all the melodies sound suspiciously alike, which lessens their impact and adds more unnecessary bulk to the narrative. Though Streisand films the numbers intelligently (whenever Yentl is in the presence of others, the vocals are dubbed over the action; when Yentl is alone and able to express herself without fear of exposure, she sings to herself), she falters in the finale, shamelessly ripping off the iconic tugboat coda of her own 'Don't Rain on My Parade' from 'Funny Girl,' which lends the story a false showbiz finish. Unless we are to believe the newly independent Yentl emigrates to America, settles in Brooklyn, becomes a Yiddish comic, and evolves into Fanny Brice, then the ending of 'Yentl' is a cop-out that almost nullifies all of Barbra's previous great work.
While their surface differences are monumental, it's tough not to compare 'Yentl' to 'Tootsie,' because the two films deal with similar issues and were released only a scant year apart. Sorry, Barbra fans, but 'Tootsie' clearly remains the better overall picture - more perceptive, insightful, cohesive, and palatable than its disjointed ethnic cousin. But Streisand's direction, amazingly enough, outclasses that of Sydney Pollack. Though 'Yentl' often falters, Streisand's elegant execution keeps it afloat and makes it a personal triumph. She extracts excellent performances from Patinkin and Irving (who received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination), and possesses an enviable sense of space, light, mood, and composition. Nothing will eclipse Streisand's peerless voice, but 'Yentl' gives the accomplished singer a different kind of voice, one that's a little rough around the edges, but still strikingly expressive, powerful, and most of all, brimming with passion.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Yentl' arrives on Blu-ray in a limited to 3,000 edition packaged in a standard case. Typical of Twilight Time releases, tucked inside the front cover is an eight-page booklet featuring several photos, an insightful (if overly laudatory, even gushy) essay by Julie Kirgo, and an amusing reproduction of a letter praising Streisand's talent and temperament signed by dozens of cast and crew members. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Not a nick or scratch sullies this pristine 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 presentation from Twilight Time, which showcases Streisand's formidable directorial skills and the lush cinematography of David Watkin, who two years later would win an Oscar for photographing 'Out of Africa.' An amber glow and touch of extra brightness often flood the frame, emphasizing the story's fairy tale aspects, while a faint layer of grain maintains the feel of celluloid, supplies essential texture, and enhances the movie's period flavor. Stunning clarity allows us to drink in every detail in both the foreground and background, and excellent contrast heightens the perception of depth. Close-ups are especially sharp; every hair of Patinkin's beard and tousled mane is distinguishable, but on the downside, Streisand's complexion looks so smooth and creamy, it becomes even more difficult to believe she could ever pass for a boy. Rich, inky black levels lend the image welcome weight, whites are crisp, and fleshtones appear natural and stable throughout. The color palette, however, remains somewhat muted. The verdant greens of the countryside look appropriately lush, but blues are a tad pale, and few other hues are employed. No banding, noise, or crush could be detected, and any digital doctoring escapes notice. 'Yentl' may have narrative problems, but it's a visually sumptuous production, and this transfer is a treat for the eyes.
Both DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 tracks are included on the disc. The 5.1 mix supplies clear and resonant sound, although several instances of distortion occasionally creep into the musical numbers during lower register passages. A bit of a level boost enhances the fidelity and tonal depth of the songs, and Michel Legrand's lush orchestrations fill the room with ease. While some noticeable stereo separation across the front channels nicely widens the soundscape, surround activity is quite limited and mostly confined to the musical sequences. Sonic accents are crisp and distinct, and subtle ambient effects lend the track welcome atmosphere. All the dialogue and song lyrics are easily comprehendible, and no age-related imperfections, such as hiss, pops, and crackles, rear their ugly heads. Though this isn't a perfect track, the mix injects 'Yentl' with an aural vitality and resonance previous home video editions have lacked, and highlights the power and purity of Streisand's enviable instrument. (Quite surprisingly, one of Twilight Time's signature features - an isolated score track - is not included on this release, a puzzling deletion considering the score won an Oscar and Streisand is a musical icon.)
All the extras from the 2009 DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release. It's quite a bounty for Barbra fans, with much of the material coming from Streisand's personal archives. Though the affectation quotient runs rather high in the introductory segments (Barbra is always, well...Barbra), most of the supplements shed light on the filmmaking process and highlight Streisand in her role as egomaniac...I mean, director.
Audio Commentary - Streisand sits down with co-producer Rusty Lemorande for a thoughtful, engaging, and not completely self-serving commentary that really gets underneath the film's skin. Not surprisingly, Barbra dominates the conversation (Lemorande's contributions are sporadic, to say the very least!), but her remarks are candid and cogent, shedding light on her directorial choices, her perspective regarding the musical numbers, and how she views film as music, with its various tempos and rhythms. At its core, Streisand believes 'Yentl' is "a celebration of women and their capacities," and talks at length about the project's genesis and 14-year gestation, the prejudice she had to fight to get the movie made, and the intimate collaborations with her crew that allowed her vision to be realized. She also discusses her affection for natural light, penchant for long takes, and purposeful avoidance of Jewish stereotypes when she cast the film. She even admits she's a lousy lip-syncer (an assessment any true Streisand fan will corroborate). Throughout it all, Barbra's affection for 'Yentl' remains unvarnished, and her deep commitment to the project and meticulous attention to detail always shine through. Any fan of 'Yentl' or Streisand will find this track worthwhile and often enlightening.
Introduction to the Film by Barbra Streisand (HD, 2 minutes) - Streisand reflects briefly on making the movie, and strangely observes it's easier to both direct and act than it is to simply direct.
Director's Extended Cut of the Film - An extra four minutes of footage is included, but none of the bits add anything critical to the story. Streisand laments in her introduction that time and budget constraints required her to trim some cherished moments, and a few of them are reinstated here.
Deleted Scenes (HD, 17 minutes) - Eleven excised sequences are included, many of which would have added extra atmosphere and texture to the story. There's even a scene in which - shockingly - Streisand doesn't appear...which is probably why she cut it.
Introduction to the Special Features by Barbra Streisand (HD, 3 minutes) - More musings about the film from La Streisand.
The Director's Reel Featurette (SD, 7 minutes) - Here Streisand talks about her directorial style and the method that fuels her choices. Various clips show her in action, and it's fascinating to watch Barbra break character in the middle of a take to direct her actors and cameraman, then jump back in and resume her performance without disrupting the scene's flow. Such constant micromanagement must have severely tested the patience and concentration of her fellow actors - and seems to diminish her own portrayal - but somehow Streisand made it all work.
The Rehearsal Process with Material from Barbra's Archives (SD, 30 minutes) - This rough footage allows us to witness Streisand acting out four musical numbers ('Where Is It Written,' 'No Wonder,' 'Tomorrow Night,' and 'Will Someone Ever Look at Me This Way') aided by friends and associates, including lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman. A couple of the rehearsals are intercut with the number's finished film version, showing how little Streisand's vision changed during the lengthy period between conception and shooting.
Featurette: "My Wonderful Cast and Crew" (SD, 7 minutes) - This lyrical montage identifies almost everyone who worked on the film, and just might have been the end credit sequence Streisand wished she could have included. Comprised of a multitude of behind-the-scenes clips of Streisand directing, the piece ends with a humorous take on Patinkin's nude scene, featuring outtakes of the actor frolicking in the buff.
Deleted Song Storyboard Sequences (SD, 8 minutes) - Two songs - 'The Moon and I' and 'Several Sins a Day' - were cut before filming began, but these storyboards provide a glimpse of how they might have appeared on screen. The first song is good, the second one is not.
Barbra's 8mm Concept Film with Optional Narration (SD, 9 minutes) - Though she claims this rudimentary reel tells the story of 'Yentl' in less than 10 minutes (and was designed as a pitch film to help sell the idea to studio executives), it's really little more than a travelogue, featuring shots of Barbra wandering through various picturesque Czechoslovakian locations, many of which would end up in the finished film.
Still Galleries (HD) - A total of 193 images spread across four galleries provide a comprehensive photographic document of the making of 'Yentl.' The Production section tells the film's entire story in a series of 63 stills, while Behind the Scenes contains 71 photos showing Streisand at work behind and in front of the camera. (We also catch a glimpse of Warren Beatty dropping by the set, and Patinkin's newborn baby paying a visit as well.) Portraits features 38 pictures of various cast members (but mostly Streisand) in color, sepia, and black-and-white, and Recording Studio is comprised of 19 shots of Streisand working with composer and conductor Michel Legrand.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview pretty much tells the whole story, so be sure you don't watch it prior to viewing the movie.
Teaser (HD, 1 minute) - Basically a more concise version of the trailer.
More than 30 years after its initial release, 'Yentl' remains a polarizing film, and just like its director, star, co-writer, and co-producer, it either captivates or alienates its audience. Barbra Streisand, in her directorial debut, proves she has the vision, drive, and talent to make major motion pictures, and though the gender-bending narrative, repetitious score, and excessive length of 'Yentl' conspire to drag it down, Streisand somehow manages to keep the film aloft. You may not like it, but you can't deny it's an impressive achievement. Twilight Time's Blu-ray presentation does the picture proud, with a stellar video transfer, good audio, and all the Barbra-laden supplements that graced the previous DVD. The Streisand faithful will certainly want to grab a copy of this limited edition release. For everyone else, 'Yentl' is an interesting curio that's definitely worth a look.