Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Barbra Streisand|
|Story by||Isaac Bashevis Singer|
|Edited by||Terry Rawlings|
|Distributed by||MGM/UA Entertainment Company|
Yentl is a 1983 American romantic musical drama film from United Artists (through MGM), and directed, co-written, co-produced, and starring Barbra Streisand based on the play of the same name by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer, itself based on Singer's short story "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy".
The dramatic story incorporates humor and music to relate the odyssey of an Ashkenazi Jewish girl in Poland who decides to dress and live like a man so that she can receive an education in Talmudic Law after her father dies. This cultural gender asymmetry that Yentl endures has been referenced in the medical community with the coining of the phrase Yentl Syndrome. The film's musical score and songs, composed by Michel Legrand, include the songs "Papa, Can You Hear Me?" and "The Way He Makes Me Feel", both sung by Streisand. The film received the Academy Award for Best Original Score and the Golden Globe Awards for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and Best Director for Streisand, making her the first woman to have won Best Director at the Golden Globes. Some circles consider Yentl one of the great musical films. There are detractors of the film as well, including Isaac Bashevis Singer, writer of "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy", who said, "I did not find artistic merit neither in the adaptation, nor in the directing."
Barbra Streisand portrays Yentl Mendel, a girl living in an Ashkenazi shtetl named Pechev in Poland in the early 20th century. Yentl's father, Rebbe Mendel (Nehemiah Persoff), secretly instructs her in the Talmud despite the proscription of such study by women according to the custom of her community.
After the death of her father, Yentl decides to dress like a man, take her late brother's name, Anshel, and enter a Jewish religious school. Upon entering the yeshiva, Yentl befriends a fellow student, Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin), and meets his fiancée, Hadass (Amy Irving). Things get complicated when Hadass's family cancels her wedding to Avigdor over fears that his family is tainted with insanity (his brother committed suicide), and decides that she should marry Anshel instead. Meanwhile, Hadass develops romantic feelings for Yentl (as Anshel), while Yentl herself is falling in love with Avigdor. After much turmoil, Avigdor and Hadass are reunited, while Yentl leaves Europe to go to the United States, where she hopes to lead a life with more freedom.
Yentl begins with the same premise as Singer's original story. Streisand's character finds herself born into the wrong gender, a woman with the "soul of a man". Her talent, curiosity and ambition are considered strictly masculine by her society and religious tradition. Unwilling to live with the drudgery of life as a woman, Yentl leaves her home and conceals her gender to be able to pursue the scholarly occupation of a Jewish man. In doing so, Yentl inadvertently embarks on a journey of self-discovery that will defy simple definition and transcend traditional notions of gender and sexual identity.
Yentl's defiance of social expectation and her reversal of traditional gender roles crosses deeply rooted religious boundaries, particularly once Yentl marries Hadass. Until this point, Yentl only adopts the appearance and occupation of a man, but now she lives as man in a more complete sense, as a husband, occupying the traditionally male role in her household. Her identity as a woman, not only socially and religiously, but also personally and sexually, is called into question, as she occupies this role and develops an intimate, loving connection with Hadass, complete with hinted sexual chemistry.
In Singer's story, this dual betrayal of nature and the divine plan dooms Yentl to a life of pain, alienation, and shameful dishonesty. After her marriage ends in disaster, Yentl remains trapped forever in her disguise, unable to find redemption from her rejection of a normal life—a take on the legend of the Wandering Jew.
In Streisand's film, Yentl's defiance of expectation and definition, a rejection of clear categories of gender and sexuality, is treated as a virtue. Though Yentl faces difficult choices in her attempt to live the life of her choosing, including sacrificing her love of Avigdor, she finds herself capable of following her dreams, of feeling different forms of love and intimacy with both genders, as well as emerging from confusion and ambiguity with a powerful, independent sense of self-worth. At the film's conclusion, Yentl takes this developed, ever-evolving self to America to seek new possibilities and opportunities for discovery. Singer criticized the film's ending as hopelessly unrealistic, but the ending serves more as an affirmation of Yentl's independence and relentless optimism than a historically fitting conclusion to the narrative.
Throughout her complex interaction with Hadass and Avigdor, Yentl manages conflict with empathy and respect. Her difficult experiences expand, rather than trap her personality. She does not conform to expectations from her surroundings or from her audience, neither remaining merely a woman hiding in men's clothing nor revealing herself to be neutered or firmly homosexual. She refuses to accept a limited, traditional life, even when offered one in marriage to Avigdor. Rather, Yentl becomes a "real woman", thoroughly modern and encompassing "what society has defined as both masculine and feminine traits." In the end, her pain, her confusion and her loss never destroy her hope or resolve. She remains assertive and defiant, daring to find or to create room for new self-definition and new possibility, without seeking simple or complete resolution to ongoing challenges in her constant thirst for more.
Though Isaac Singer insists that Yentl does not have feminist undertones, many critics and viewers of the film consider Yentl to be a feminist role model. One reason is that she rebels against patriarchal Orthodox Jewish society by disguising herself as a man to do what she loves – study the Torah. Another reason is that although she finds herself in love with Avigdor, she has the strength to leave him behind, in exchange for a freer life in the US.
Streisand's interpretation of I.B. Singer's "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy" has philosophical implications as a Jewish-American film. Streisand changed Singer's specific ending, in which Yentl wanders off presumably to a different yeshiva to continue her studies and her cross-dressing. In the film interpretation of the story, Yentl moves on, but this time to the US. Viewers are led to believe that in the States she can have both study and womanhood. This idea symbolizes a refusal to conform to old-world Jewish standards and instead move "against the authority and authenticity of the Judaic past", which Streisand asserts has "propelled itself so far from the austerity of Talmudic study."
Often Jewish-American immigrants who struck out on their own were unable to dedicate the amount of time and energy into text study that their ancestors had. Their lives instead were characterized by an "individualism and experimentalism" that "Jewish immigrants and their descendants have so strikingly honored, reinforced, and revised." The differences between the written version of this story, which originated in Warsaw, and the American film interpretation thus symbolize a potential philosophical shift from the self-understanding of Eastern-European Jewry to Jewish-American self-understanding. It suggests America can potentially alter preexisting Jewish values.
Yentl blurs lines between male and female and its characters develop attractions that could be figured as homosexual, although the film upholds a heterosexual sensibility. Yentl's desire is exclusively for her study partner, Avigdor, while her marriage to a woman remains unconsummated and comic throughout the film. Because Yentl chooses to reveal herself as a woman to Avigdor in hopes of gaining his love, Yentl firmly establishes herself as a heterosexual female force in the film.
While Yentl does not take its characters outside the realm of heterosexuality, the film critically questions the "appropriateness of gender roles" as determined by society. Ultimately it argues that the society Yentl lived in does not allow equal opportunities for happiness for all people, especially women. In this way, it can be read as a heterosexual yet potentially feminist text.
- Barbra Streisand as Yentl Mendel
- Mandy Patinkin as Avigdor
- Amy Irving as Hadass Vishkower
- Nehemiah Persoff as Rebbe Mendel
- Steven Hill as Reb Alter Vishkower
- Allan Corduner as Shimmele
- Miriam Margolyes as Sarah
The production of Barbra Streisand's film Yentl was a long and arduous process that delayed the project for over a decade.
After reading Isaac Singer's story "Yentl: The Yeshiva Boy" in 1968, Barbra Streisand sought to make it her next film after her completion of the successful film Funny Girl. The screen rights were gained in 1969, with Streisand to be the star. In 1971, the Czechoslovakian director, Ivan Passer, was originally hired by First Artists to direct the film, which was screenplayed by Singer and retitled Masquerade, but due to his belief that Streisand's age and high celebrity status would detract from the film, backed out. In 1973, Streisand read Singer's story to her then-boyfriend, producer Jon Peters, to gain further support for the film. However, like Passer, he was convinced that Streisand was too old and feminine to convincingly play the part the film would demand. By 1976, after completing the film A Star Is Born, Streisand became convinced that she was, in fact, too old to play the part in Yentl, and would take up the film as director. Due to her idealizations of being both the star and director, studios continued to draw back from funding the film, with fear that a rookie director would be unable to responsibly handle a multi-million dollar project. Additionally, Streisand reported that studios claimed the film was "not commercial" because it was "too ethnic". In 1978, Yentl was conceived to be a musical, as opposed to the original idea of being a drama, by Streisand's friends Alan and Marilyn Bergman. It was hoped that a musical starring Barbra Streisand would be accepted and better received by a studio.
Jon Peters attempted to persuade Streisand to drop the project and perform at Wembley Stadium in London instead, for an offer of $1 million. She refused the offer as well as the $2 million follow-up to reconsider. Another offer by Peters, which was to be in excess of $10 million for Streisand to perform in Las Vegas, was also promptly turned down in favor of pursuing the Yentl project. Her attitude regarding her age quickly changed after she disguised herself as a man, temporarily confusing Peters into thinking that a stranger had broken into the house. Peters, now convinced of her ability to play a male, agreed to sign a three-year production contract with Orion Pictures in March 1978. To combat the age she was to play in the film, she changed Yentl from being 16 to 26.
According to various sources, Streisand became increasingly inspired and determined to bring Yentl into production when, in the summer of 1979, she and her brother Sheldon (Streisand) visited their father's grave at Mount Hebron Cemetery for the first time in 30 years. For the sake of making memory of the occasion, Streisand had her brother take a photo of her standing next to her father's tombstone. The photo revealed that Emmanual Streisand's grave was directly next to that of a man named Anshel (the false name of the protagonist of Yentl). Intrigued, Barbra asked Sheldon to contact a psychic to perform a seance, convinced that her father was beckoning her from beyond the grave to complete the film.
In 1979, Streisand finally made an agreement with Orion Pictures to direct and star in Yentl. She was working with a script by Ted Allen at the time, but discarded a majority of it, keeping the musical segments. The film was to be co-produced by Barbra's friends and associates: Joan Marshall Ashby and Jon Peters. To prepare for the film, Streisand exhaustively researched the many aspects of Judaism, ceremonies, relentless studying of the Torah, and consulted numerous rabbis, one being Rabbi Lapin, whom Streisand appointed as the main consultant for the film.
Orion Pictures made the announcement that it had agreed to produce Yentl as Barbra Streisand's directorial debut in the late summer of 1980. Traveling to Prague with a Super-8 camera and song lyrics, Streisand scouted out film locations while also shooting film of herself walking through the city in costume with early recordings of Yentl's soundtrack being played in the background. However, not long after her return, Heaven's Gate, a Michael Cimino picture produced by United Artists, lost $35 million at the box office, bringing Orion to cancel all films that exceeded a $10 million cost in order to preserve itself. Yentl, which was priced at $14 million, was cancelled. The film was turned down again and again until Jon Peters, Peter Gruber, and Neil Bogart formed PolyGram Pictures and agreed to produce the film. However, due to creative differences and personal disputes between Streisand and Peters, Yentl was dropped once again.
15 years after its original conception and 20 script variations later, Yentl's production finally began on April 14, 1982 in the Lee International Studios of London after United Artists merged with MGM and gained the new leadership of Freddie Fields and David Begelman—Streisand's former agent from the late sixties. Yentl was greenlighted as Streisand's directoral debut at a budget of $14.5 million. Shooting concluded in October 1982, which was to be followed by Streisand requiring ten weeks to dub the soundtrack. In the end, the film went $1.5 million over budget, which Streisand paid for with her salary, as stated in the contract with UA.
Roger Ebert gave the film three and 1/2 stars of four stars "'Yentl' is a movie with a great middle", "the middle 100 minutes of the movie are charming and moving and surprisingly interesting.". In her review in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael review : "it has a distinctive and surprising spirit. It's funny, delicate, and intense--all at the same time"." Jonathan Rosenbaum from Chicago Reader praised Streisand's direction and Michel Legrand's music: "The results may be a little protracted, but Streisand gives it her best shot, and the music by Michel Legrand is memorable." Isaac Bashevis Singer, writer of "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy", the short story which was first published in English in 1983, said of Barbra Streisand's film adaptation of the story, "I did not find artistic merit neither in the adaptation, nor in the directing." In their 1985 Film Quarterly review, Allison Fernley and Paula Maloof lauded Streisand for departing from genre expectations, namely upholding Yentl as a strong female and therefore potential feminist role model rather than an accomplice in a male-dominated romance, for defying the expectations of the genre of musical by choosing to give all musical parts to Yentl alone, and the "subversion of the cross-dressing genre" by refusing to end the film with a "comfortable reassuring heterosexual union" between Yentl and Avigdor, demanding the audience consider more serious questions about the role of societal conventions. In 1983 Jack Kroll of Newsweek called Streisand's control over the aesthetics of the film "a delight and at times an astonishment." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post observed an "uninspired score and other shortcomings" of the film, but saw its "exceptional charm and sentimental potency" as its saving grace. While she granted Streisand a sincere effort in creating Yentl, Janet Maslin's New York Times review in 1983 criticized Streisand's carelessness with certain aesthetic elements of the film as well as the ending, which she described as a "relatively harsh resolution", comparable to that of the original by I.B. Singer, for the film not meeting standards. Streisand responded publicly to Maslin, saying "I spent more than ten years researching the material; how long did she spend on it?"
Yentl was successful at the box office, opening at #5 at the US box office upon its limited release weekend and stayed in the top 10 for 9 weeks, peaking at number 3, in its 3rd week. The film went on to gross more than $40,218,899 at the box office on a budget of $12 million. It's among the top 20 highest grossing films of the year at the box office. In rentals it also grossed $19,680,130. In Australia, the film grossed $1.7 million and $2.3 million in Sweden.
Yentl was released on home video in August 1984 on CBS/FOX Home Video (under license from MGM/UA). Another VHS was released by MGM in 1989. It was released on DVD by MGM (under 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) on February 3, 2009 as a two-disc "Director's Extended Cut" in the widescreen format. The DVD includes the theatrical cut, a director's extended cut with added scenes from Streisand's archives, an introduction by Streisand, an audio commentary with Streisand and Rusty Lemorande, deleted scenes including a storyboard sequence for a cut song, pre-rehearsal concepts and feature comparisons, stills galleries, and cast and crew info. A Blu-ray edition is being released by Twilight Time.
Yentl won an Academy Award in 1984 for Best Adaptation Score, the award going to Michel Legrand (music), Alan Bergman (lyrics), and Marilyn Bergman (lyrics). Amy Irving was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, and the film was also nominated for Best Art Direction/Set Decoration (Roy Walker, Leslie Tomkins, Tessa Davies).
Barbra Streisand became the first woman to receive a Golden Globe for Best Director for the film, and Yentl was nominated for four other Golden Globes, also winning the award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy.
Irving was also nominated for the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actress, making her one of two actors to be nominated for an Oscar and a Razzie for the same performance (the other is James Coco for Only When I Laugh). The film also earned Razzie nominations for Barbra Streisand as Worst Actor (because Yentl appeared as a man throughout the film) and for Worst Musical Score.
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