Masquerading as a boy in Yentl, Barbra Streisand never quite looks male—nor does she look female. Her androgynous features serve to amplify the sexual confusion in the Isaac Bashevis Singer story of a young woman disguising herself, at the turn of the century, to go to a yeshiva to study the Talmud. Passionately uninterested in marriage, Yentl is an outcast in her Eastern European village; instead, a
love of learning consumes her. At night she closes the shutters to study the Talmud with her father (Nehemiah Persoff), and her eyes light up with the thrill of the forbidden. When her father dies, she is left alone in the world and she realizes that she can only be herself by pretending to be someone else. Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, Yentl is about the difficulty people have with simply being themselves.
Streisand produced, co-wrote and directed Yentl as a fable—with music—to seduce the audience into believing her transformation. The Eastern European settings of her fable enhance the fairy-
tale atmosphere; its emotional tone is as warm as an embrace, and the lighting has a soft, spiritual glow. There is no doubt that Streisand can direct: her choice of using the songs as interior monologues gives the movie a lulling rhythm, and the movement of her camera supplies the dancelike quality a musical should have. Michel Legrand’s songs all seem cut from the same cloth, and the lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman tread a treacherous line between cute and clever, but they are transcended when Streisand sings. Her
voice remains the finely spun cloth of sound it has always been, with the low register taking on a smoky, electric quality. Alone in the woods, when she lights a candle and sings to her dead father’s spirit, the sheer beauty of tone, decorated by a swirling camera, banishes all misgivings. The lighted candle, the stars that now “seem half as bright,” Streisand’s expressive face and caressing voice turn what could have been an embarrassment into something magical.
Streisand exercises extraordinary restraint in her own performance. Yentl, for all her chutzpah, is content to ob-
serve rather than participate. With that in mind, Streisand’s gestures and mannerisms are modest—almost covert—and suggest the interior life of a scholar. At the yeshiva she studies with a handsome scholar named Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin), with whom she falls hopelessly in love. When the parents of Hadass (Amy Irving) break her engagement to Avigdor, Yentl proves her devotion by marrying Hadass herself, so that Avigdor can still see his beloved. The events give rise to an alternately giddy and poignant comedy of confusion, including one of the most memorable wedding nights ever acted out on film.
In Yentl, Patinkin becomes something unique in the annals of movies— a Jewish scholar-sex symbol—simply through the unbearable longing in Streisand’s eyes. He brings Yentl’s dilemma to a fever pitch, making her realize that she is living a lie. Throughout her deception, Yentl has sacrificed one part of herself—her sexualityin order to satisfy her hunger for knowledge; finally she must face up to all of herself. Near the end, when she reveals herself to Avigdor, he asks if being a loving wife would not be enough for her, to which she replies, “I want more.” One of the most touching points in Yentl is that wanting only the best often means deciding to be alone.
Streisand has made a wonderful and particularly wise movie that enlightens as much as it entertains. Yentl is a hymn to a spirit striving to stretch itself as far as it can, and a warning against the temptations of evasion and duplicity. In its portrayal of the friendship between Avigdor and Yentl, it says that love sometimes has little to do with gender. Yentl does find fulfilment in friendship, and the finale, aboard a ship bound for the United States, is a natural continuation of the character’s desire to learn and grow. Both Streisand and the movie go out in high style.
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