When Barbra Streisand released YENTL in the summer of 1983, she was delivering a self-directed, old fashioned musical, deeply rooted in religious faith in which she spent half the film pretending to be a man.
No one's going to deny she had guts.
Blake Edwards' "Victor/Victoria" had been a huge hit the previous summer with Julie Andrews pretending to be a man whose pretending to be a woman, but that musical was hilarious and loaded with pratfalls.
YENTL has very little humor in it, but plenty of heart.
Set in 1904 in a tiny Eastern village, we meet Yentl (Streisand) who's prevented from reading anything but storybooks by the church. Her father (Nehemiah Persoff from "Twins") is a teacher, secretly sharing all his knowledge with her, but swearing her to secrecy.
The opening scenes pull you into the little town, with the first of the films songs "Where Is It Written" in the background as Yentl weaves through the townspeople. Streisand has often said that the movie isn't a musical, but "A Film with Music".
In some key sequences we see Streisand actually singing the songs, but most of them are just in the background, which will make my friends happy who detest seeing folks break into song mid-scene (like they'd ever watch "Yentl".)
The music by Michel Legrand (Ice Station Zebra) and lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman (The Way We Were, Tootsie) are modern classics and no one belts out ballads like "Papa, Can You Hear Me?" and "A Piece of Sky" quite like Streisand.
It wasn't the music sequences that I had a little trouble appreciating.
The entire middle of the film becomes quite a tedious exercise in Yentl pretending to be a college age boy (never very convincingly) and bonding with Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin in full blast, grating Mandy-mode) while Avigdor's girlfriend Hadass (a literally glowing Amy Irving) falls in love with Yentl, who she thinks is a boy.
It goes on a bit long.
BUT, there is no denying that Streisand's debut in the director's chair is beyond impressive. She stages many of the scenes in long, mobile takes, long before that became fashionable for directors like Sam Mendes.
The finale aboard a boat full of immigrants as it approaches the Statue of Liberty is a triumph. It's David Lean worthy. Steven Spielberg himself said "Yentl is the greatest debut of an American film director since Orson Welles and "Citizen Kane."
It's not hyperbole, this is a beautifully shot and carefully made movie.
She battled for ten years for to make the film and that passion for the fable, based on the stories of Issac Bashevis Singer, shines through.
For me, Streisand's next film in the Director's chair, a full 8 years later, was her best, "The Prince of Tides". It's one of my top ten films of all time, mostly due to her steady hand behind and in front of the camera.
You can see hints of that talent here, but "Tides" shows that hand from the opening frame to the last. It's sad that Streisand has not directed more films, she's brilliant in that chair.
More than tripling its budget at the box office, YENTL generated controversy at the time, when Streisand was not nominated for a Best Directing Oscar.
In the 40 years since it's release, YENTL has become one of the most highly regarded films in Streisand's legacy. For me, it earns a respectful B.