Poland in 1904, and in this small village, teenage Yentl (Barbra Streisand) stays with her widowed father (Nehemiah Persoff), cooking and cleaning for him, and fetching his groceries. On one such trip to the market, she exhibits a rebellious streak that has been simmering in her consciousness for years now, and tries to buy a book from the bookseller's cart, but he insists women must read picture books, while men are only allowed to study the Talmud and other holy texts. Yentl believes this is utterly unfair, and as she has been sneaking reading sessions on her father's tomes for some time, wonders if it is not time for a change? When Papa dies, she has an unusual solution...
At the time Yentl was released back in the mid-nineteen-eighties, the reception was predictably glowing from Streisand's legions of fans who shared her famously high opinion of herself, but everyone else could barely muster a "Maybe you have to be Jewish to appreciate it" by way of mild praise, and others actively detested it. Unfortunately for Babs, one of those who were so offended was Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was the esteemed author of the original short story this was based on; she was captivated by its potential and pro-female stance, which to be fair was assuredly present in the end result, but it did have more problems than that to counter, especially for a musical.
Michel Legrand had been recruited to compose the music (Alan and Marilyn Bergman wrote the lyrics), and he was no slouch with a catchy tune, only catchy tunes seemed to be anathema to Yentl, who warbled samey melodies without one hit to their name (though crying "Papa, can you hear me?" has become a running joke in some corners of pop culture). Another choice that served to confirm the detractors' conviction the production was one massive ego trip was that Streisand did not allow anyone else to sing: this was a cast featuring Mandy Patinkin and Amy Irving, both accomplished musically, but mysteriously not called upon to show off their pipes at any moment.
The issues mounted up: Barbra was playing seventeen-year-old Yentl while over the age of forty, under a lot of makeup and flattering lighting, and she was also playing her pretending to be a man so she could study the Talmud. Sometimes a recipient of unkind remarks about her looks, the fact remained she did not resemble a man, and that made the reactions - or lack of them - of the characters around her come across as if they all needed their eyes tested. In the twenty-first century, maybe Yentl would have gotten away with no searching remarks aimed at her if people accepted she was making a lifestyle choice geared to her sexuality, but back in 1904, there would have been more of an interrogation and scoffing for her to endure: basically, she would be rumbled within minutes.
But wait, this was a musical, therefore an element of fantasy was inherent in the arrangement, yet that did not help the severe lack of spirituality. Given Yentl was so obsessed with her religious education, the film was a lot less enraptured, so we never find out what this is doing for our heroine's soul when learning the scripture is akin to men memorising football statistics, and mainly what we see is the effect it has on her social embarrassment when in a bizarre twist, she must marry Irving when Patinkin is not allowed to, and to make sure he hangs around because she now crushes on him, Yentl must agree to the wedding. This could have brought up intriguing gender relationship musings, to say the least, but Streisand ignored them, preferring a more fairy tale tone as she expounded on her lead's inner life in extended sequences of her singing while nobody notices. That she chose to shoot this all in various shades of brown was not much of a help, and yet, for all those flaws, she did have star quality, and she just about keeps you watching and justifying her interest in herself. But you had to be Richard E. Grant to get the most out of Yentl.
[Yentl is released by the BFI on Blu-ray with a wealth of extras, perfect for Streisand fans:
Presented in High Definition
Includes both Theatrical Version and Ms. Streisand's Extended Cut of the film
Audio commentary with Barbra Streisand and co-producer Rusty Lemorande
Two introductions by Barbra Streisand (5 mins)
Deleted Scenes (16 mins)
The Director's Reel (7 mins): Barbra Streisand demonstrates her approach as both an actor and director
The Rehearsal Process (32 mins): during pre-production Streisand enlisted the help of family, friends and colleagues to act out key scenes. These clips were then used as valuable points of reference when it came to filming in Europe
Deleted Songs and Storyboard Sequences (8 mins): two songs were cut from the final film, presented here with their storyboards
Barbra's 8mm Concept Film (9 mins): footage assemble by Ms. Streisand to help crystalise her vision for Yentl and help find finance for its production
My Wonderful Cast and Crew (7 mins): a montage of behind-the-scenes footage of the production team
**FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Fully illustrated booklet with writing on the film and full film credits.]