Barbra Streisand's Yentl is my favorite movie ever. It has just been released for the first time on DVD as a two-disc "Director's Extended Edition."
When I am asked about my favorite movie and I give the answer of Yentl, more often than not people react with a giggle and "Oh, of course Yentl is your favorite movie. Gays love Barbra Streisand."
Heaven forbid there might be some personal resonance or artistic merit involved!
The one follow-up question I am never asked is, interestingly enough, the same question the character of Yentl asks throughout Streisand's film.
To hear my family tell it, I was interested in Barbra Streisand from the time I was three and learned to put records on my parents' turntable. For birthdays and holidays, everyone knew to get me whatever Barbra Streisand record I didn't have. If a Streisand movie was on TV past my bedtime, I had to be allowed to stay up and watch it.
At a certain point, my interest in Streisand became stronger because I'd read she was teased as a child. As I was teased pretty badly throughout grammar school, this spoke to me. I thought, "If she can be teased and become who she is, then so can I."
I was 13 years old in November of 1983 when the ABC News program 20/20 was going to devote an entire hour to Streisand and Yentl, which would be released nationally in December.
In today's overstuffed entertainment marketplace, such a program may not sound all that special or unique. However, in 1983, with only three networks and a couple of local stations, this was a big deal. At that time, Streisand was unequivocally the world's biggest and indeed, greatest, star. She rarely gave interviews.
Although I had the albums and seen the movies on TV, I'd never heard the woman speak as herself. This 20/20 special was an Event and Exciting, both with a capital E.
20/20 subtitled the special, "Papa, Watch Me Fly" as a great deal of Streisand's reasoning and drive to get Yentl made stems from the loss of her father when she was 15 months old. She never knew him.
During the interview, Streisand spoke of her brother taking her to the cemetery where her father is buried. She had never been there. Her brother snapped a photo as she put her arm around her father's tombstone and she considers it the only picture she has with her father. None were taken of the two of them while he was alive.
Streisand also related that in the Issac Bashevis Singer short story on which Yentl is based, Yentl has a dead brother named Anshel (actually, she was incorrect about the relation; in Singer's story, Anshel is referred to as a late uncle).
The character of Yentl disguises herself as a boy in order to study Talmud, which at the time of the story, was forbidden to women. As a boy, she takes the name Anshel.
When the photo with her father's tombstone was developed, her assistant noticed something. "Barbra," he said, "look at the name on the tombstone next to your father's." The man's name was Anchel. Although the spelling was off by one letter, Streisand took this as a "sign." She decided to muster the nerve not only to get the film made and star in it, but direct as well. The latter is something no one in Hollywood wanted her to do.
Videocassette recorders were just becoming vogue when this interview aired, so I re-watched the program several times over the next few weeks with many members of my family. One viewing was with my grandparents. When Streisand told the story of the name Anshel and what a rare name it is, my paternal grandmother turned to me and said, "You know, your father's middle name is Anshel."
This information gave me a rather profound "connection" to Streisand and Yentl. For years, people who knew I was a big fan would ask, "What would you say if you ever met Barbra Streisand?"
My answer was always, "I'd tell her my father's middle name is Anshel."
On December 10th, 1983, I saw Yentl for the first time. What I recall most is how my identification with the character of Yentl was solidified the moment we see her in disguise. She hails down a carriage in order to get a ride to the next town. The horse-driver takes Yentl's money, then charges off without letting her get in the wagon.
Later, Yentl (she has not yet assumed the name of Anshel) enters an inn filled with Yeshiva boys. A bully challenges Yentl to arm wrestling; money is involved and Yentl loses twice. Another man, Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin) sees what is happening and insists the bully give Yentl her money back.
Both of these moments echoed the times kids would steal my lunch money or challenge me to a fight. When Avigdor came to Yentl's rescue, I wished I'd had an Avigdor of my own to stick up for me like that.
Later, as Avigdor and Anshel become study partners and good friends, there is a scene where the two are walking by a river arguing Talmud. Avigdor becomes playful with Anshel, chasing him, rough-housing and eventually tackling Anshel to the ground. Amidst laughter there is a moment where the two stop and look at each other.
Of course, the audience knows Anshel is really a woman played by Barbra Streisand. Certainly Avigdor is responding to Anshel/Yentl's feminine energy. However, Avigdor does not know Anshel is a woman, so the homoerotic implications are quite charged.
Of course, Yentl falls in love with Avigdor, and by the time she sings (in voiceover) "Will Someone Ever Look At Me That Way?," I was completely in sync with Yentl's feelings. The brilliant Alan and Marilyn Bergman provided these lyrics:
"Do my eyes forget themselves
and do I ever look at him and smile in such a way that what I'm feeling shows?
Sometimes I have the feeling everybody knows."
At that time, I did not have words for my feelings, but I knew I was more interested in men than women. As a young boy realizing my emotional romantic leanings, those Bergman lyrics were instantly intrinsic.
I was constantly afraid my feelings were obvious and that I would be punished for them. I thought that if I were ever to have a friend like Avigdor, I would find myself in the same position as Anshel/Yentl. I would have to hide my affection, and ultimately hide who I really was.
My second viewing of Yentl was accidental, yet an even more powerful memory. Another kid named Peter and I were dropped off at the Lincoln Village Theater in Chicago by Peter's father, who got us in to see a Rated R "T & A" flick called Hot Dog: The Movie. When Peter's father couldn't come pick us up right away after Hot Dog ended, Peter suggested we sneak in and see Yentl. Of course, I wasn't going to object!
We sat in the back of the theater and Peter kept cracking jokes. He had become quite loud about it, and I halfheartedly went along to "be cool." A man approached us and basically threatened us into piping down. In my head I was shouting, "It's not me, it's him! I love this movie!"
At the finale, when Yentl's disguise has ended and Streisand as Yentl performs the soaring "A Piece of Sky," I began to weep. I know this second viewing was when my soul's resonance with Yentl hit me in one fell swoop.
It was a combination of so many things. There was my empathy towards Barbra Streisand in terms of love for a father she never knew (the dedication at the end credits made me cry harder). There was the fact that the name she takes as a boy is a name my father shares. Earlier that year, I had my bar-mitzvah. It was a time when my identification as a Jew was at its height. Watching a film that treated students of Judaism with such love and affection could not have occurred at a better time.
Beyond that, there was my reaction to the tremendously moving and beautiful music by Michel Legrand and certainly, but not least, the allegorical quality of the story compared to my own inner life experience. I had a secret. Yentl did too. She found a way to be free of that secret. Would I?
For weeks that followed, the razzing I already endured at school was heightened because Peter told everyone, "Paul cried at the end of Yentl."
Over the years, my affection for Yentl only grew stronger. When it was shown on cable, I not only recorded it on videocassette, but stuck a small audio recorder up to the television speaker so I could listen to the movie at night when I couldn't watch TV without waking up my family. As a result, I know the sound of Yentl inside and out.
My early teenaged emotional reaction to Yentl became enhanced by my burgeoning study of film and more sophisticated understanding of how a movie gets made. When I would watch Yentl, I found myself studying the technical aspects intently.
I would marvel at how what the camera captured was so expertly timed to the music (in particular during the first occurrence of "No Wonder" and "Will Someone Ever Look At Me That Way?"). Terry Rawlings' editing and Ms. Streisand's staging is particularly exciting during the "Tomorrow Night" sequence. David Watkin's lighting choices are fascinating. I love that when books are opened, light bounces off of the pages, illuminating both the words and the character reading.
I found symbolism within Streisand's choices. One aspect she has confirmed before (and again for this DVD release) is the notion that each time the character of Yentl makes a significant step in her journey she "crosses over" a body of water.
One she has not confirmed is my notion that that the final sequence, "A Piece of Sky" was designed to be representative of Yentl's entire journey.
At the opening of the "A Piece of Sky," Yentl is off to "a place where she hears things are different." She is at the rear of a boat, alone and singing aloud, asking questions of her father. This section can be equated with the opening of the film until Yentl's father dies.
At the song's bridge, Yentl walks through the boat's interior. Streisand ceases to lip sync but her vocal continues, which is consistent with Streisand's choice to have the character of Yentl "sing out" only when she was alone. This "silent walk" correlates to the entire masquerade of Anshel, and Yentl's inability to reveal the truth to those around her.
Streisand discards the choice of interior monologue when Yentl is around others in the next shot, as Yentl emerges from darkness. For all these years, I thought Yentl went from one end of the boat to the other, but one of the extras on the new DVD makes it clear she is going from the lower deck to the upper deck. I love this because, spiritually speaking, it indicates Yentl has gone from a lower level to a higher level.
Yentl sings out in front of all the other emigres to America. The "secret" of Anshel is over. Yentl has told the truth and can express herself fully to the world. She is no longer concerned with hiding; everyone on that boat and in the heavens can hear her. She has come from darkness into light and air.
Here, Yentl stops questioning her father. ("Papa...I CAN hear you; Papa...I CAN see you; Papa....I CAN feel you....Papa....watch me FLY!). The mood is triumphant. There is no doubt she will still ask questions, but she no longer needs to question where her father is concerned.
Barbra Streisand's talent has proven itself to be limitless for coming up on 50 years. Nevertheless, I consider Yentl to be her ultimate artistic statement. Everything that she is capable of doing (directing, producing, writing, acting, singing, etc.) is in this film. Her artistry and intelligence are firing on all cylinders.
There was no Streisand project like Yentl before it (Funny Girl may come close) and she hasn't done anything like it since. Her follow-up films have their merits, but the closest she has come to something equally extraordinary and moving has only occurred when she revived music from Yentl during stunning sequences for her 1994 and 2000 concert tours. These sequences consistently garnered Streisand her loudest ovations, rendering unquestionable that no project has stirred Streisand's fans on the level of Yentl.
That is why I always found it strange that Yentl had not been released on DVD even in a bare-bones edition. The demand for it in her fan circle has been enormous.
As Yentl is the final film of Streisand's to be released on DVD, the best was saved for last. More care, effort and time has been taken in preparing this release by comparison to any other Streisand film currently available in the format and deservedly so.
Disc One features an option to watch the theatrical or extended cut of the movie, the latter of which reincorporates three scenes pulled from Streisand's archive. In the extended version, the first "new" scene does not appear until approximately an hour and a half has passed.
What is most interesting about two of the three reincorporated scenes are that neither features the character of Yentl. Until now, the only scene where Yentl was not an onscreen presence was towards the end, where we see Avigdor and Hadass reading a letter from her. It is interesting that Streisand chose to put these scenes back in, as it shifts the movie from being completely Yentl's perspective (albeit briefly).
In another section on Disc One, we are shown more cut moments. There are two other scenes I felt were actually more worthy of being reincorporated. One is where Anshel offers to sew the torn lapel of Avigdor's jacket (symbolizing the end of Avigdor's mourning over his dead brother). The second is where Yentl (as Anshel) is at school and distracted by her sadness for Avigdor, whose engagement to Hadass has just been broken.
Streisand's feature-length commentary with co-producer Rusty Lemorande is, for the most part, quite technical and puts great emphasis on Streisand's relationship with her crew. David Watkin's photography is commented upon the most and it is fascinating to learn how much of the film was shot with entirely natural light. A minor disappointment is that Streisand does not say much about working with her actors.
Disc Two features a most fascinating behind-the-scenes look called "Rehearsal Process," which allows Streisand fans and film students alike into her creative world. Five musical sequences from the film are featured in comparisons from rehearsal to final film, but the most interesting are those for "Where Is It Written?" and "Tomorrow Night."
The former is shot on black-and-white film and the latter with an early model home video camera. In both it is apparent Streisand had perfected the blocking and fluidity of the camera moves before she started actual production. The similarities to the final film are so close it is almost like having an alternate version.
It is particularly wonderful to see her singing and acting "Where Is It Written?" live on set with nothing but a piano.
Of course, the best part of this DVD is that whether the original cut or the extended cut we can watch the film in a crisp, color-corrected transfer that is just dynamite.
It's an oft told tale that Streisand was robbed of recognition by the Motion Picture Academy at the 1984 Oscars. From my vantage point, it's the biggest and most glaring snub in Oscar history. It is a shame that politics, and perhaps sexism, got in the way of the film (and Streisand personally) being recognized in more categories.
I agree with Roger Ebert who said (in 1987), "It seems that Streisand only received the grudging admiration of the industry and after years of [implying] that she knew more than the directors she was working for, she proved with this movie that maybe she did!"
One of the scandalously few Oscar nominations Yentl received was for Amy Irving's performance as Hadass. As I watched the DVD, I realized that every time I have watched the scene where Hadass tries to seduce Anshel, I have never paid attention to what Streisand was doing. Ms. Irving may be one of the few examples of an actress who stole a scene from Barbra Streisand. Her Oscar nomination was deserved.
Some have been critical of Streisand's performance as Anshel, and feel she is not very believable as a boy. I have always disagreed. She makes very specific acting choices when she is "Yentl" as opposed to "Anshel." The timbre of her voice changes; so does her body language. There may be a few moments here or there where lines get blurred, but overall I think Streisand as a very boyish young man is quite effective.
Yentl has it all: a great love story, moments of sweet comedy, moments of moving drama (Yentl's reveal to Avigdor is particularly powerful). It also boasts gorgeous music, sumptuous art direction and cinematography....
Above all, there is Barbra Streisand's heart, soul and vision pouring out through committed acting, beautiful singing and focused, flawless direction. It is her masterpiece, bar none.
By the way, in 2003, I wrote a letter to The Oprah Winfrey Show when I learned Streisand was going to appear.
That letter enabled me to speak with Barbra Streisand on camera and tell her....
"My father's middle name is Anshel."
For more information on Barbra Streisand's incredible career, and more on Yentl, please visit this website.
You can purchase Yentl: Director's Extended Edition via Amazon.com at this link: