US Release Date: 11-18-1983
Directed by: Barbra Streisand
- Barbra Streisand, as
- Mandy Patinkin, as
- Amy Irving, as
- Steven Hill, as
- Reb Alter Vishkower
- Allan Corduner, as
- David de Keyser as
- Rabbi Zalman
Mandy Patinkin and Barbra Streisand in Yentl.
Consider first that Barbra Streisand is in every scene except one. Consider also that she sings every song in this musical. She also directed and produced this movie. In other words, it greatly helps to be a Streisand fan when watching this, nearly, one woman show.
Yentl is a Jewish girl who secretly studies the Talmud. . Her single father allows her to read and study it in the privacy of their home, with the curtains closed. He believes God will understand but he is not so sure about the neighbors. At the turn of the century in Lithuania, Jewish women were not allowed to study religion. In one of the first scenes a peddler calls out "Religious books for men. Picture books for women." Upon the death of her father, Yentl cuts her hair and dresses as a man in order to attend an all male Yeshiva to study the Talmud.
Although well into her adult years, Yentl is still naive to the world and ways of men and because of this, many humorous events befall her. In one scene she has to share a bed with a classmate, Avigdor, who doesn't know she is a girl. She keeps falling out of the bed in an effort to keep their bodies from touching under the covers. In another scene she gets dragged along to a swimming hole where all the other Yeshiva students are going skinny-dipping.
Yentl soon finds herself falling in love with Avigdor, who is engaged to Hadass, a traditional girl who is more studied in domestic arts and flirtation than religion or philosophy. Things get even more complicated when Avigdor is forced out of his engagement to Hadass. Yentl, now called Anshel, steps in as the new groom in order to make Avigdor happy and stay close to him.
Although Anshel is able to fool Hadass on the wedding night, in a very humors scene, the stress of the charade becomes too much for the girl in disguise and she decides to tell Avigdor the truth. In the privacy of a hotel room, Yentl bares her soul as well as her breasts. For about 15 seconds, Yentl's dream is a reality. After some yelling, Avigdor accepts Yentl for what she is, and imagines a possible future together but then he explains how she will have to hide her studies. Yentl realizes she can never have the life she wants with Avigdor as he is as much a victim of his time as she is.
That scene is the best dramatic moment in the film. Streisand goes from being nervous to excited to disappointed to understanding in a matter of minutes. The movie contains several great scenes and moments but at 132 minutes there was room for trimming. After all, this movie is based on a short story, by Isaac Beshivas Singer.
The early moments with her father were nice enough, but they could have been covered much quicker. The song, "Where Is It Written?" should have been played over the opening credits, interspersed with an old Yenta making fun of Yentl's age and Yentl's father telling her to close the curtains. As soon as the song ends the movie could have opened on her father's funeral. Someone could have said they heard that old maid Yentl was secretly, and shamefully, studying Talmud. Then skip to her dressed as a man walking down the road. That alone would have cut at least 15 minutes. And all of the needed plot exposition would have still been explained.
There are plenty of songs in this movie and all are excellently appropriate. They all invoke the emotions and opinions of Yentl. Many of these songs, written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, are often quite philosophical. I think that this line from "A Piece Of Sky" is brilliant: "The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know." I once used it in a college philosophy paper.
Barbra Streisand put everything she had into making this movie and it shows. The details and the emotions of the film are all evident of that. However, Streisand forgot the old adage that less is sometimes more. She told in interviews that this film brought up much interest in her faith and her father. Perhaps she was too close to the material to keep it at an enjoyable length.
Barbra Streisand in Yentl.
The secret to enjoying this movie is to accept that everyone else believes Yentl to be Anshel. If you can’t buy Streisand as a boy then the entire movie is unwatchable. I agree with Eric that the beginning could have been trimmed. I also think the ending goes on too long. For me the middle portion of the movie is great. The love triangle between Avigdor, Hadass and Yentl/Anshel is brilliant and quite unique. You will wonder just how Yentl can possibly get herself out of the situation she is in.
Recently this movie was finally released on DVD. Streisand has included a director’s cut that has a few added scenes. While they are interesting they do not add to the overall movie. Streisand’s direction is quite impressive for a debut and she became the first woman to win a Golden Globe for directing a movie. She was also the first woman to produce, direct, star and co-write the screenplay for a feature film. All in a days work for this remarkable woman.
The cast all give decent performances, with Mandy Patinkin being the standout, but to be fair he is given the showiest role. He handles the drama well and has nice chemistry with Streisand as the boy Anshel. Amy Irving has less to do but manages to leave a nice impression with her more subtle role. Streisand gives one of her best performances here. Especially good is the scene where Anshel tells Avigdor her secret. It is an emotional tour-de-force.
The balance between comedy and drama is pretty well done. Although as Eric said it leans more to the drama. Much of the humor comes through in the songs. My favorites are “This is one of those moments” and “Tomorrow Night”. The final note that Streisand sings is held for 18 seconds at the top of her lungs. More than a quarter century later she has yet to make another musical and I don’t think she ever will. After all how can she top that?
She was too old for Yentl.
To quote In & Out, Barbra Streisand was too old for Yentl. I know that's not original, but her age, the age of nearly all the other actors in the movie, and the fact that she doesn't make a believable boy, all weaken this movie. I mean, how come no one ever notices that Anshel is a real dick for 3-5 days every 4 weeks?
Watching this movie all the way through for the first time in a long time, the thing that really struck me is, why didn't anyone think Anshel was gay? He notices the china, he's not interested in sex with his hot wife and he practically drools over his best friend. Sure this was 100 years ago, and people didn't talk about such things so openly, but it's not like homosexuals didn't exist.
However, as you say Patrick, if you just accept that everyone in the movie believes that Anshel is a man, this is a very enjoyable movie with some comedy, but much more drama. And as you both mentioned, the big reveal scene is well done and crammed with emotion.
What really makes this movie work though, is the songs. You mention "This is one of Those Moments", Patrick, which is my favorite as well, although "Piece of Sky" is the show-stopper, both literally and figuratively. One of the great things about the music from this movie is that it doesn't seem dated at all. If you don't know Streisand well, you might not be able to guess what year this movie was made.
Sure this movie could be trimmed up a bit, but I don't really find it to be overly long. The one part for me that seems to stretch is from Anshel and Hadass' wedding until the big reveal. For one thing, being married makes it even more unbelievable that Yentl can keep her secret, but also because we really just want to get on with things by that point.
Streisand's directing is quite good, especially for a first time director. She doesn't over direct the movie, as first-timers are apt to do. And there are some well-filmed scenes. I particularly like the way they cut together the scene of Anshel's wedding suit fitting with the actual wedding ceremony.
I also have a radical suggestion that Streisand purists would probably hate me for, and that is that she should have confined herself to just directing and singing in the movie and left the part of Yentl to someone else much younger and more believable. She could still have sung the songs in the same place, only they would have been the character of Yentl's thoughts instead of more literally her singing them as is shown.
I agree with you Eric only from a different angle perhaps. If Streisand had used less of herself in front of the camera, I think she could have improved the movie more overall.
Photos © Copyright Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1983)