Welcome to "Reel Women," a new column highlighting important women in the world of cinema, from on-screen characters to real-life filmmakers.
In Barbra Streisand’s directorial debut Yentl, the multi-talented star (who wrote, directed, and produced the film) plays the bright, headstrong title character, a Jewish woman living in early 1900s Poland whose ambitions are only stunted by one thing: the fact that she’s a woman. Early on, Yentl is told that only men can study the Talmud, an ancient text of Judaism. She’s questioned when she tries to buy a book that doesn’t pertain to women’s interests (and ends up lying, saying that she’s buying it for her father) and one of her father’s pupils even says Yentl might be a demon because of her knowledge of the Talmud—something she’s picked up from her quietly progressive father.
It’s impossible not to see the meta nature of the film in the wake of the sobering Golden Globe Awards this past Sunday, during which Streisand pointed out that she was the last woman to win the Best Director award, for Yentl. That was 34 years ago. Despite Lady Bird winning Best Musical/Comedy and its star Saoirse Ronan winning Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy, the film’s director Greta Gerwig was not even nominated in the Best Director category. Natalie Portman, in one of the realest moments of the ceremony, announced the candidates with a biting preface: "and here are the all-male nominees."
A full century after Yentl’s time, women might as well be told that only men are allowed to direct, that only men can study filmmaking, that only men are deserving of recognition. Off-screen, Streisand also had to fight her own battles to make Yentl a reality. After buying the rights to Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story, it took her another decade to turn this film into a reality—she was told the movie was too Jewish, not commercial enough, and that she was too old and too famous to play the lead. (It’s reminiscent of Natalie Portman’s plight with the Ruth Bader Ginsberg movie, which was in development for a long time because she insisted a woman director helm it; Felicity Jones has since replaced Portman in the lead role with Mimi Leder set to direct.)
The existence of Yentl may be called a miracle, but it’s not—the film lives because of Streisand’s persistence. Streisand was the first woman in Hollywood history to write, direct, produce, and star in a film. And if that wasn’t enough, Streisand turned Yentl into a musical (with music by Umbrellas of Cherbourg composer Michel Legrand and lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman) and offered up one of her greatest assets: her voice. Streisand dramatically breaks out into song at major plot points—in the first song, "Where Is It Written," she sings about having grand dreams she should be able to pursue. "If I were only meant to tend the nest, then why does my imagination sail across the mountains and the seas?"
After her father’s death, Yentl does what she must in order to continue her education: She enrolls in yeshiva (Jewish school) under a male guise. She chops off her hair and goes by the name Anshel. She befriends a fellow student named Avigdor (played by a young and hunky Mandy Patinkin) and She’s the Man-style develops a major crush on him. Of course, Avigdor assumes Anshel is just a guy friend—and treats him as such—but later admits to having had unexplained feelings for him/her, a surprisingly refreshing admission of sexual identity. Also refreshing is that the film doesn’t force the two together in some sort of "we always belonged together" moment, as most Hollywood movies might. Yentl can get cheesy, especially with its musical numbers, but it remarkably eschews cheesy narrative choices.
While Yentl’s feelings for Avigdor develop, another woman enters the picture: Hadass Vishkower (Amy Irving). She and Avigdor fall for each other and intend to marry but when her family opposes the match, Hadass ends up marrying Anshel/Yentl, who does her best to postpone private marital activities in order to keep up her appearance. Though Yentl could have easily sabotaged what had developed between Hadass and Avigdor, she actually helps the two rekindle their love and always acts compassionately towards Hadass, even offering to relay her knowledge of the Talmud and encouraging Hadass that she is as deserving of an education as a man. By diverting from Yentl’s potential romance with Avigdor, the film doesn’t let us consider the option that Yentl would end up simply being someone’s wife, as all her peers had expected.
Yentl was a success: Not only did it earn Streisand her Golden Globe, it also made over $40 million at the box office—and on a $12 million budget (it ended up costing about $16 million). Still, Streisand recalls all the obstacles she met in the process of making the film. "I constantly had to give up everything," she said in an interview in a 1984 issue of Playgirl. "I didn't get paid for writing, I got paid [Directors Guild] scale for directing, which I think is something like $80,000, and I got paid much less as an actress than I did in my last film, All Night Long (for which she was paid a reported $4 million). And then I had to give back half my salary if we went over budget. But it didn't matter to me. Nothing mattered to me except getting this movie made."
"I thought that this kind of work would either kill me or make me stronger," Streisand said. "And it has made me stronger because I survived." Even for that alone, Yentl is an incredible cinematic feat.