April 26, 2009
Last night, after watching a two-year-old Barbra Streisand concert on CBS, we switched to American Movie Classics to catch most of “Funny Girl,” the 1968 film starring Streisand and Omar Sharif. This is still an entertaining film in its way, but it seems interminable. Like it or not, it’s a shame that this film is responsible for the impressions most people today have of Fanny Brice and “Nicky” Arnstein, because the story line might as well be about two other people entirely. The characterization of Fanny Brice – her upbringing, her personality, her love life, her relationship with Florenz Ziegfeld – none of it is true.
What’s even farther afield is the portrayal of “Nicky” Arnstein, who is presented in the film as a handsome, cultured, lovable rascal whose pride wouldn’t allow him to accept his wife’s financial help when his gambling luck ran out. In actual fact, Arnstein was a louse who shamelessly sponged off Brice for years. Brice – who had two other marriages – lived with Arnstein for six or seven years before they married, and he took full advantage of her resources and her status. He did time in Sing Sing before they married – this is not mentioned in the film – and he did 13 months in Leavenworth during their marriage after he was caught trying to transport stolen securities into Washington, D.C. Brice spent a lot of her money trying to defend him from the federal charge, and then he dropped her cold when he got out of stir. Why someone with Fanny Brice’s talent wanted to associate in any way with Arnstein I am not aware.
Apparently there were at least two reasons why the movie – and the Broadway show that inspired it – departed so far from the facts of Brice’s life. One was that the writers were trying to create good entertainment, not a documentary. The other was that Arnstein was still alive when this material was written and was known to be prepared to litigate anything derogatory said about him.