Funny Girl (1968): Wyler’s Biopic of Fanny Brice, Starring Barbra Streisand in Oscar-Winning Role

Barbra Streisand established herself as a major Broadway star in the stage musical “Funny Girl,” for which she won a Tony Award nomination, and she went on to become a movie star after the play was made into a movie by William Wyler, in 1968.

Director Herbert Ross, who later directed Streisand in the (disappointing) sequel to “Funny Girl,” “Funny Lady”, held that Streisand was extremely lucky to make her film debut in “Funny Girl”: “Having had the advantages of playing Fanny Brice for two years on Broadway, Streisand knew her role inside out. It was the perfect part for Streisand, ideally suited to her range as an actress and singer.”

Sreisand plays Fanny Brice, the Jewish “ugly duckling” in early nineteenth century New York City, driven, like many working-class girls at the time, to be a star, and get out of the Lower East Side ghetto.

Brice’s big break comes when she meets the handsome, charming but irresponsible gambler Nicky Arnstein (Omar Sharif, who got a lot of publicity due to the fact that he was Egyptian and Stresiand Jewish). Nonetheless. Arnstein introduces Brice to the influential impresario Florenz Ziegfeld (Walter Pidgeon), who hires hers for his show, “Follies.”

The rest is historyand Hollywood showbiz formula, with the usual rise to fame, setbacks in personal life, tumultuous marriage, comeback, and lots of suffering. Nonetheless, Streisand rises above the format and its stereotypes, proving that she is a mega-star, as Fanny Brice and as herself.

I wish William Wyler did a better job of staging the production numbers and show more humor, but this was his first musical, and it shows. Too bad that George Cukor (“Star Is Born”) or Vincente Minnelli (“American in Paris,” “Gigi”) were not hired for the job

Strisand joined a group of Best Actresses who have won the Oscar for an acclaimed stage role with which they were intimately connected, including Judy Holliday (“Born Yesterday”), Shirley Booth (“Come Back, Little Sheba”), and Anne Bancroft (“The Miracle Worker”).

In general, musicals have not been generous to their performers as far as acting Oscars are concerned. In 80 years, only a few players, mostly women, have won an Oscar for a musical role. Luise Rainer was the first to win Best Actress for a musical, as Ziegfeld’s first wife, Anna Held, in “The Great Ziegfeld.” The next musical winner was Julie Andrews, almost three decades later, as the magical governess in “Mary Poppins.” Two winners have appeared in musical biographies: Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl,” and Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” One of the most brilliant performances in a musical was delivered by Liza Minnelli in “Cabaret,” as Sally Bowles, the ambitious, sexually ambiguous nightclub singer in preNazi Germany.

Oscar Nominations: 8

Picture, produced by Ray Stark

Actress: Barbra Streisand

Supporting Actress: Kay Medford

Cinematography: Harry Stradling

Score of a Musical Film (Original or Adapted): Walter Scharf

Film Editing: Robert Swink, Maury Winetrobe, William Sands

Song: “Funny Girl,” music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill

Oscar Awards: 1

Actress (Tie with Katharine Hepburn)

Oscar Context

In 1968, “Oliver!” was not the only musical vying for the Best Picture Oscar. The other nominee was William Wyler’s screen adaptation of the Broadway hit, “Funny Girl.”

These musicals competed with two historical dramas, “The Lion in Winter” and Zeffirelli’s rendition of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The fifth nominee featured Paul Newman directorial debut in the intimate drama, “Rachel, Rachel, starring his wife-actress Joanne Woodward.

“Oliver” emerged as the big winner, and “Funny Lady,” though nominated for 8 Oscars, won only one, Best Actress for Barbra Streisand. In an unprecedented move, that happened only once in the Academy’s history, a tie was declared in the Best Actress category between Streisand and Katharine Hepburn, who won her third Oscar for “The Lion in Winter.”

There has been only one tie in the Best Actor category, in 1931-32, when Wallace Beery (“The Champ”) and Frederic March (“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”) both won the Best Actor Oscar.