One of the new collections in The Criterion Channel is Three By Barbra Streisand. The channel calls her a triple threat, which makes me wonder what she does as an actress, director, and producer. Other actresses her age peaked later and are still working but not as much as her. Either way, her name is still in the lips of people who know a thing or two about film. She played determined characters. Her distinct look also makes me imagine alternate film history. Like what kind of roles she would have gotten had she been in her twenties right now. As a director, she has more competition, enduring fifteen years of delays to make Yentl.
It’s a miracle that Streisand became a female director in her forties during the 1980s. That she starred with two other main Jewish actors in a film with a running time longer than 2 hours. It’s also a miracle because she was the first woman to accomplish this within the post-studio system. She only directed three films but they’re enough to show her quirks. She plays smart characters with handsome love interests. And she makes both tropes seem less like wishful thinking than other directors would. Contemporaneous critics pointed out her lack of effort at suspending disbelief and her storybook sets in Yentl. Those are valid critiques, but she’s an efficient storyteller. She eventually thrusts her small town protagonist into a big Polish city’s insular Jewish quarter.
Adapting a story that Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote, Streisand points the camera at herself. She shows Yentl getting into uncomfortable environments, like the all male eatery where she meets Avigdor (Mandy Pantinkin). Avigdor also gets her into mix-ups by trying to set her up with Hadass (Amy Irving). Hadass, by the way, is a woman he can’t marry because of his family history. These environments bring Streisand’s subtlety as an actress, reacting and letting these ridiculous subplots play themselves out. Although as good as her writing is in her first acts, the middle sections might make some viewers nervous. There’s the core love story between Yentl and Avigdor. Outside of that, there’s a lack of certainty when she introduces a few moving parts.
The singing narration is also ridiculous but what do we expect in a film with a singer as a director? Anway, those parts, eventually, pay off, as well as showing a necessary female perspective. A male screenwriter and director would have made Hadass dumb and/or villainous. But Streisand chooses for her and Yentl to have as much agency as Avigdor does, if not more. She chooses to make Hadass into Yentl’s mirror image and student instead of making the former into competition. The sets here are also deeper than the storybook criticism against them, showing the class differences between the three characters. They make for a backdrop for these characters as they discover and contemplate their passions.
Watch three films by Barbra Streisand on the Criterion Channel. As per tradition, I started a collection I won’t finish so please do better than me.