Last weekend during my ever growing quarantine movie watchlist, I revisited a film I hadn’t seen or really thought about since I first watched it as a teen: Barbara Streisand’s Yentl (1983). This was Streisand’s first movie as a director after becoming a superstar on Broadway and in Hollywood musicals, as well as in romantic comedies like Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972).
Streisand already had her legacy firmly in place after winning Best Actress at the Oscars with William Wyler’s Funny Girl (1968), but she still felt she had potential to expand her career even further with a traditional Jewish tale like Yentl. At the time, the film got a lot of attention and publicity, not only because Streisand starred in and directed the story, but also because of the sexual politics that run through the themes.
The movie takes place in 1904 Eastern Europe, where a bookworm named Yentl (Streisand) decides to dress as a man and take her younger brother’s name—Anshel—to be able to attend a prestigious Jewish college in Poland. Once she gets there, she not only fools the whole school, but quickly develops an attraction to her charming roommate, Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin).
But things get complicated when the girl Avigdor is in love with, Hadass (Amy Irving), grows a crush on “Anshel.” If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s basically the Hebrew equivalent of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1602), which would also inspire such famous cross-dressing features as the teen comedy She’s the Man (2006) and the Disney Channel original movie Motocrossed (2001). Even Disney’s Mulan (1998) has familiar themes.
As mentioned in Roger Ebert’s original 1983 review of Yentl, something that works in the film’s favor and makes it more unique than the other cross-dressing themed movies, is that the gender disguise isn’t used as a comedic gag. Everyone in the story’s universe believes “Anshel” is a legitimate male, so Streisand chooses to spend the rest of the film focusing on the love triangle and Yentl experiencing independence while wearing a suit. Though the picture is very much a product of its time (bisexuality doesn’t appear to exist and they constantly remind viewers Yentl is straight), Streisand, Patinkin and Irving take the material seriously enough for it to still be intriguing.
The one thing that is a bit off are the musical cues throughout the movie. Because musicals are Streisand’s forte, we get a handful of songs sung by the performer, including the classic “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” Two songs are performed during the first act as traditional musical sequences, along with a third song performed in the final scene. The rest of the songs are edited in as voiceover, as if we’re hearing Yentl’s thoughts sung to us. This is an interesting gimmick that I think would have advanced the quality even more if they had stuck with just this structure throughout the whole film.
Groundbreaking in its time, Yentl still holds up with entertainment value and as a change of pace in modern times.
Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.