As far as queer culture touchstones and icons go, I somehow ended up missing the train when it came to Barbra Streisand. I briefly went through a Cher phase, I’ve listened intermittently to the work of Judy Garland, and I still admire Lady Gaga a great deal. I watch, with varying degrees of fascination and contempt, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and, of course, I worship at the Church of Sondheim. But Babs was always kind of elusive to me. With the exception of Hello, Dolly!, which I still adore, I’ve always been pretty apathetic about her. I had heard she was a “diva”, that very gendered insult, and only thought, “Eh, well, I’d be demanding too if I were as powerful as she.”
Perhaps unfairly, I assumed that her talents were limited to singing and acting. But, low and behold, we have Streisand’s 1983 directorial debut Yentl (which she also co-wrote and stars in), the story of a young woman living in a time where education was only for men. Streisand’s little feminist fable is a nice diss to traditional gender roles in society and, in particular, Jewish culture.
After the death of her scholar father, Yentl (Streisand) poses as a boy in order to continue her education. Sheering her earthy colored hair, donning traditional boys’ clothing, she takes the name of her late brother, Anshel, and makes her way. She is throughout the film a woman who refuses to apologize for being herself and wanting to learn.
From the first moment, the frames are as busy as one could imagine Streisand’s brain is; packed with information, people, and sounds. It’s as hectic as the story that Streisand and screenwriter Jack Rosenthal try to build around Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy”. Painted in golden lights, there’s an odd beauty to the cinematography, feeling aged and weirdly magical. Light shimmers and, with its melodramatic beats, it feels somewhat Sirkian in certain compositions. As far as the subversion of melodrama goes, to some degree it’s the stepping stone between All That Heaven Allows and Far From Heaven.
There’s a bit of a queer element to Yentl – yes, besides the fact that it’s Barbra Streisand and besides the fact that Streisand is posing as a man – which is hinted at early on in the film. Sharing a bed with Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin), who will become the object of her desire and study partner, he asks, “Do you ever have sinful thoughts?” It’s left purposefully ambiguous as to whether he is referring to sinful thoughts generally in a heterosexual sense or if he asks due to some latent attraction to Yentl, posing as Anshel.
Also notable is this blurring of the line between the masculine and feminine, almost challenging the binary itself. Anshel and Avigdor engage themselves in a debate regarding the creation of man, particularly the translation of a particular word and whether it means “side’ or “rib”. Anshel argues that men and women essentially have the same qualities, implying that there exists a spectrum between the masculine and feminine. They start to wrestle and tumble to the ground, wherein they both gaze into each other’s eyes. To which I say, “Yay homoeroticism!”
The relationship between the two, which is supposed to be fraternal, certainly gets tangled up and ignites questions about the inherent homoeroticism between male friendships. It’s been explored in cruder ways by others (I Love You, Man, Neighbors, it’s practically a genre unto itself), but the sincerity here, as well as the religious connotations, ring as particularly interesting.
More interesting is the conversation at the end, where, when Yentl reveals herself to be a woman, Avigdor demands, “I want you to be a real woman!” She replies, “But I am a real woman.” He shouts back, “Then act like one!”
What does that really mean, then? To go back to the regressive gender roles she was trying to fight and challenge? Yentl is not interested in being subservient or being told what to do by a man. She wants to be her own person, and rightfully so.
While Streisand and the film can certainly be lauded for tackling regressive gender roles, despite upholding heteronormativity, the film does stumble with its incorporation of music. Yentl works much better as a straight drama than it does as a musical, with several orchestrations intruding on scenes that one can only assume are critical to Yentl/Anshel’s character arc. When meeting Avigdor’s fiancée (Amy Irving), the anxiety that Yentl feels in the movie is intruded upon by “No Wonder”. While it’s not uncommon for songs to relay feelings and interior thoughts expositionally through their lyrics, it feels jarring given that Streisand isn’t singing on screen and the song obfuscates the actual conversations and interactions going on in that scene. The music is very literally the internal monologue, which doesn’t quite work.
Avigdor and Yentl are bathed in golden light from scene to scene, and one must commend the film for its earnestness. Streisand proves herself a very competent director in some respects, but there’s a latent fight going on between Streisand the Director/Visionary and Streisand the Musician, which is often frustrating.
But its examination of a young woman challenging the standards to which women are held is lovely, even great at times. And, of course, “Papa Can you Hear Me?” is killer. I never recognized Babs as such a strong feminist, but, silly me, I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Yentl is available on an exclusive, limited edition Blu-ray release from Screen Archives Entertainment.