Retro Review: Yentl (1983)
Yentl is a fairly entertaining musical about some fairly problematic topics. Barbra Streisand’s 15 year passion project manages to sing and act its way around them fairly well. Fairly.
In Deadpool 2, one of the recurring jokes is how Frozen stole the melody for one of its songs from Yentl, the 1983 Jewish musical. Well, we here at Deluxe Video Online have our fingers on the pulse, so I decided to review that classic movie… one month later. Having watched the film, I think the theft might have gone a little further. Yentl used songs and a strongly defined sense of time, place, and culture to tell a story of a determined woman making her way in the world. It’s a template that echoes forward to Disney’s animated musicals of the 80’s and 90’s. Elsa and Anna might have lifted a melody, but Belle, Ariel, and Mulan might have a little more to answer for.
Yentl Mendel (Barbra Streisand) is a strong willed, intellectually gifted Jewish woman in 1904 Poland. Which is quite, problematic, as Ashkenazi Jewish culture forbids women from intellectual pursuits. Her doting father teaches her to read and write in secret, but his death seemingly resigns Yentl to life as a homemaker. Defying her lot, Yentl disguises herself as a boy to run off and join a Yeshiva: a school dedicated to Jewish Scholarly life. There she meets the brash genius Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin). Soon she must weigh her love of knowledge against her budding feelings for him.
Labor of Love
The first aspect of note in Yentl is that the film almost never got made… several times. Streisand had wanted to make this movie for decades, but everyone told her no. It wasn’t a bankable story. She was too old to play the role. She could never pull off playing a woman in disguise as a boy. But Streisand stayed committed. She worked every connection she could, put her singing career on hold during its heyday, and even put her own salary on the chopping block should Yentl overrun its production budget. Finally, 15 years later, she got the green light.
The film then spent months in the top ten, made about 3 times its budget, and got nominated for a few Oscars. If the movie’s actual story wasn’t feminist enough for you, truth was stronger than fiction with Yentl.
Just Not My (Arche)Type
So how is the actual film? It’s… ok. Long gone are the days when a musical could survive without animated, cuddly protagonists or a guy dressed as Spider-Man nearly killing himself night in and night out, but Yentl manages to be fairly entertaining. Streisand can sing like noone’s business. She also directed the film as well, and the pastoral scenes and sweeping panoramas are above average. Lastly, Streisand found a worthy counterpart in Mandy Patinkin, a walking force of nature when it comes to charisma and screen presence.
Which is the highest compliment I can pay him… because he plays a schmuck. This is a tale of one woman walking into the lion’s den to chase her dreams; Avigdor is the alpha male of that pride. Patinkin plays both sides of Avigdor’s coin with gusto and honesty. He’s brilliant, charming, and full of energy; he’s also a chauvinist, a schemer, and narrow minded. It’s easy to see why Yentl is both awed and deeply disappointed in her best friend/erstwhile lover.
And Yentl doesn’t get off scot-free either. In pursuit of her dreams, she lies to everyone she claims to care for. She even puts a young woman named Hadass through hell. When Hadass’ engagement to Avigdor falls through, Yentl agrees to marry her so that Avigdor can feel better about Hadass’ future. Eventually Hadass recovers from her love of Avigdor and falls for Anshel (Yentl’s male disguise). She is then tormented by a husband that won’t requite her affections. The scenes are filmed with palpable tenderness, showing both Yentl and Hadass’ pain, but at the end of the day, Yentl’s selfishness hurts a woman who’s plight could very well have been her own.
That’s the major issue with Yentl: it’s a moving, inspiring story of one woman, and one woman only. Yentl doesn’t leave the world a better place: she just follows her dreams until the personal cost of them proves too high, at which point she moves on to greener pastures. It’s got tenderness, temerity, and style, but today’s audiences may find it self-centered and facile.
Breaking the Mold; Creating a New One
At the time, however, it was radical: Yentl was scandalous for thumbing its nose at gender norms as well as religious and societal restrictions. The author of the source material was furious that Yentl got a happy ending. In the book, she suffers for her temerity. Many at the time speculated about what the movie said about androgyny and whether it was promoting homosexuality. All the little points that niggle nowadays got swept aside by this epic tale of female empowerment.
It also turned heads when Yentl became both a commercial and critical success. One of those heads might very well have belonged to Mickey Mouse. Disney was running out of fairy tales to plunder, and audiences were tiring of male centered tales of damsels in distress. A successful musical about a strong female lead might be just the thing they were looking for. It is rather suspicious that pretty much right after Yentl we get a tonal shift from Disney’s animated musicals: tales of a noncomforist mermaid braving a whole new world, and a young woman standing up to male authority figures (no matter how beastly) were the next Disney films out of the gate.
Yentl may not be everyone’s singing, anthropomorphic cup of tea, but it was another step along the path to a wider world of stories. Yentl sings about stepping out of her small world to glimpse a grander sky, and the movie quite possibly opened that door a little bit wider for others. The daring “Yeshiva Boy” might not have changed much in her own world, but Barbra Streisand’s passion project ripples through the ages as an inspiration for both filmmakers… and song-stealers.