With perverse irony, 20th Century Fox threw so many millions into the elephantine disaster of Hello, Dolly that movie musicals, about which it was hoped Barbra Streisand would revive, never fully recovered (until Cabaret and Chicago). There are other musicals more lacking of wit, grace and real music than Hello, Dolly but how many of them end up as vehicles for Barbra? Three more: the no-brainer On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, that drugged-up mess A Star is Born, and the appalling Funny Lady. If viewers have no trouble seeing the antique hopelessness of Dolly as a musical, did not Fox see it while in production? Apparently the name Gene Kelly was enough to prevent the executives from halting his 1940s traffic managing as redux of Meet Me in Saint Louis and The Harvey Girls. According to producer-adapter Ernest Lehman, Kelly utilized the threat of physical violence against him if he dared interfere. There was, of course, such confidence in Barbra, on the basis of Funny Girl, that nothing mattered except that she was in it. Barbra’s speedy New Yorker sass is infinitely more tolerable than Baby Jane Channing batting her lashes and croaking out inanities, but, on the other hand, by overpowering everyone Barbra becomes a wry gilded anachronism—a textbook case for being too good to be a matron, a dizzy matchmaker, an unconvincing love interest for craggy-faced Walter Matthau who, to put it mildly, not only doesn’t bring much to the party but ended it early when, in his long-running joke to induce better response from his co-stars, informed the diva that she “didn’t have the talent of a butterfly’s fart.” When selected over embalmed Channing, few outside of Broadway objected because most of us assumed the musical would be built around Barbra. This movie’s been constructed around her, all right, like a giant, pseudo-Baroque mausoleum and comes fully loaded with nerdy, sexless, sweetened up gargoyles like Michael Crawford and Marianne McAndrew—an unnerving cross pollination of Sally Ann Howes, Barbara Parkins and Joan Hackett—unwittingly sabotaging its structure. (Watching Ann-Margret’s test for the part you perceive this risky casting might have likely helped and not hurt.) Unlike the reviewers at the time who did somersaults to avoid panning Barbra, even winning a few consolation votes as best actress from the Kael brigade within the National Society of Film Critics, the public sensed the real problem: via the mirage of swelling ego Barbra allowed herself to be cast in a stale contraption. She “suggested” and was granted a bit of latitude here and Mae West there, inspired Irene Sharaff to create some splendid gowns accentuating a natural bustle, and she delivers the best version of “So Long, Dearie” we’ll probably ever hear. But in the almost manic performance, we wonder what it is she’s on that she can be this into all the creaking mediocrity. Might have been able to get past the stupefying miscasting and sets (Harmonia Gardens is like a football field-size steal from John De Cuir’s own deluxe banquet on Liz’s barge in Cleopatra), the rotting athleticism Michael Kidd passes off as choreography (the only one to survive is that giraffe Tommy Tune) and the ugliest ever costumes for a supporting cast, had there been more singing for Barbra. How did it come to be that a studio would pay five million for a puerile musical and not insist Jerry Herman write several new numbers for the movies’ greatest voice? He wrote one and gave her a leftover from Mame. So miscalculated is Dolly that the boob heads storyboarding and editing don’t bother to provide the decency to give her a full-throttle rendition of “Before the Parade Passes By,” during which the camera inexplicably zooms away from her as she’s revving up for the number’s finish. Even on the big screen you’d need binoculars to find her among those dumb blobs of marching bands. Singing the title song and reaching the lyrics “bridging the gap,” our thoughts may not be as generous as her Affirming Actions: the gravel-throated Louis Armstrong, the only honest performer in this garish junk yard, comes close to unintended condescension—a quota. Barbra was hired to give the decaying material her special brand of electricity; what she renders is power of a different kind—wattage derived out of desperation. There’s a certain justice to the panoramic church setting finale: Barbra officiates at a High Mass celebrating a near-total waste of talent. Some roadshow engagements but not in Chicago, where it opened at the UA Cinema 150 in Oak Brook and other outlets seven months after the N.Y. and L.A. prems. Filmed in TODD AO.
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Text COPYRIGHT © 2001 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.