On a Clear Day You Can See Forever: How Minnelli Worked with Streisand

Alan Jay Lerner’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, which premiered on Broadway in 1965, served as a star vehicle for Barbara Harris.   Like Goodbye, Charlie, it’s a tale of reincarnation, shifting back and forth between Restoration-era England and present-day New York.   The story concerns a love affair between a psychiatrist and a chain-smoker named Daisy Gamble, who discovers in therapy sessions that she is the reincarnation of a woman named Melinda Wells.


The stage production of On a Clear Day was criticized for its clumsy story.  The lead role called for a singing personality who could play a period role as well as her modern-day transformation.    While the hypnosis sessions called for an actress who was a cookie, the period tale called for an irresistible seductress.   Streisand seemed ideal for the dual role, though, despite meteoric rise to stage stardom, her big-screen appeal was not entirely proven yet.  Nonetheless, holding that Streisand was indispensable, Paramount delayed its plans for producing On a Clear Day until 1968, when Streisand became available after the London run of Funny Girl.  On a Clear Day will not be released until 1970, by which time Streisand had won a Best Actress Oscar for Funny Girl.

Like Gigi and My Fair Lady, On Clear Day revolves around a cynical, middle-aged professor awakened to the possibilities of love by his protégée.   However, On a Clear Day lacks the pedigree of either musical, which draws on prestigious source material, such as Collette’s witty novella in the case of Gigi, and George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion in My Fair Lady.

After the disappointment of not getting his favorite director to helm My Fair Lady, which George Cukor finally made, Lerner campaigned stronger than ever to get Minnelli for On a Clear Day. Lerner was cruelly reminded that Minnelli had not directed a movie in five years, and had not done a musical in a decade, since Belles Are Ringing, to be accurate, which was a disappointment.    Even so, at the end, Minnelli got the assignment.  Although Streisand was signed before him, Minnelli was excited at the prospects of working with such a mega-talent, having seen her on stage a number of times.


In their first conference, Minnelli suggested to Lerner to move up the story’s setting by a century, to the Napoleonic era, which he found to be more visually exciting.   With Minnelli’s encouragement, Lerner also embellished the story’s melodramatic elements, such as the erotic dalliances of Melinda Wells and her trial for treason and murder. 


To Minnelli’s delight, Cecil Beaton agreed to design the costumes.  After their successful

teaming on Gigi, Minnelli was looking forward to another happy collaboration with Lerner and Beaton.  Shooting began with grand publicity and fanfare on January 6, 1969, on what was scheduled to be an 82-day-shoot.


There were problems in casting the “romantic” shrink, Dr. Chabot, a sophisticated man who becomes distracted by Daisy’s somewhat schizoid behavior.   When Richard Harris, Frank Sinatra, and Gregory Peck all declined the role, Minnelli the Francophile turned to Yves Montand.  Montand’s track record with American movies was not successful: Cukor’s Let’s Make Love, opposite Marilyn Monroe, Sanctuary with Lee Remick, and My Geisha with Shirley MacLaine, all flops.  But Montand possessed the requisite debonair for the role and an undeniably strong screen charisma.  Minnelli hoped that Montand’s Gallic charm would spark a kind of “opposites attract,” considering Streisand’s more pragmatic, Jewish-Brooklynese personality.


Minnelli has kept in touch with Montand and his wife actress Simon Signoret whenever he was in Paris, or they visited L.A.   They all spent a memorable evening in 1960, when Signoret was up for Best Actress in the British drama, Room at the Top.   It was the first time that the French couple attended the ceremonies together. They told Minnelli how shocked they were by how “Hollywood ecstatically abandons itself to its traditional narcissistic orgy, and all eyes were riveted on the procession of limousines, the black and white tuxedos, the bare shoulders and the long-considered gowns.” 


Simone Signoret had stage fright, as did Montand—he was to be one of the evening’s performers; Minnelli had asked him to perform two songs.   Two cases of stage fright, and then stage fright for each other.  When Montand’s turn came, Bob Hope, the master of ceremonies, called on Fred Astaire, who then announced, “I have the great honor, the great pleasure to present to you a French singer called Yves Montand.”  Whereupon Montand launched into “Un Garçon dansait,” his imitation of none other than Fred Astaire, and after that the staple song, “A Paris.” 


Montant bowed and then rejoined Minnelli backstage.  Minnelli suggested he return to his seat in the auditorium.  “No, no,” said Montand, “the next Oscar is for Best Actress, and my wife is going to get it.”   Minnelli kept quiet, knowing that Signoret’s chances were not very good, not because of her performance, which was superb, but because of her left-of-center politics.    As this short exchange took place, Rock Hudson was unsealing the envelope.   A Life photographer caught Signoret at the precise moment her name was read out.   She has clapped her hands to her chest and was exhaling with such energy that her breast thrusts forward as she rose.   Joy struck her, and Signoret’s entire body reflected that feeling.


Afterward, Minnelli joined Montand and Signoret for the unbridled jubilation.  Along with the team of Ben Hur, which swept ten Oscars, Simone presided over a banquet at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.  Though never political, Minnelli felt that Signoret’s personal victory also represented a victory of Hollywood over itself.  By voting for Signoret, the industry had finally exorcised its witches.  Many of the evening’s most wildly applauded winners were victims of the blacklist.


Unfortunately, a great deal had happened in American culture between 1968 and 1970, when On a Clear Day was released.   Lerner made brief allusions to the prevailing students’ unrest, but overall, his script was archaic and stiff.    The only concession to the counter-cultural times was the addition of a new character, Daisy’s stepbrother, a semi-hippie with sideburns and a guitar, played by Jack Nicholson.


On this picture, Minnelli worked with a new art director, John DeCuir, and with veteran cinematographer Harry Stradling, with whom he had last collaborated on The Pirate.   A park in Los Angeles served as the rose garden for Streisand’s solo, “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here,” and the title song that opened and closed the film.   The interiors for both the flashbacks and contemporary stories were constructed on the Paramount lot.


The studio expected fireworks between Minnelli and Streisand, who already had developed a reputation as a temperamental and difficult actress—a diva.  But instead harmony prevailed from day one.  Unlike a tyrannical director like William Wyler, who didn’t tolerate any artistic input from Streisand in Funny Girl, Minnelli encouraged his star to talk and was totally open to her ideas.   Enraptured by Streisand, Minnelli made a special effort to make her shine in her solo songs, in the way he had serviced Lena Horne and Judy Garland in his old Metro movies.


Throughout the picture, Minnelli concentrates on Streisand, who was the kind of all-round performer with the apolomb he admired.   The film was a good showcase for Streisand.   As the contemporary shlemiel of a girl, Daisy, she does her Brooklyn-inflected shtick; as Melinda, she shows elegance and sophistication.


Critics though that her lyrics, “I’m out of date and outclassed by my past,” could be applied to the film itself.    Streisand’s exuberance notwithstanding, On Clear Day showed that Minnelli was out of touch with the times, both cinematically and socially.    The harsher critics labeled the film “On a Clear Day You Shouldn’t See This Ever.”   Minnelli’s clout with the Hollywood establishment was rapidly slipping. On A Clear Day, as Minnelli recorded, “made respectable money at the box-office but not enough to excite the bean counters.”


Despite the lukewarm reception of On Clear Day, Minnelli refused to concede that his career was over.  In the next few years, he tried hard to develop new projects at Paramount: a biopicture of Bessie Smith intended for Tina Turner (the movie was later made as Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross).   Minnelli also entertained a biopic of Zelda Fitzgerald, adapted from Nancy Milford’s book, with Liza in the lead.