It was a good year for musicals and comedies, but Barbra triumphed. Yentl was a singular work that only Barbra Streisand could have pulled off, not only as star but as director as well. And when she won the Golden Globe for Best Director, she defied the Directors’ Guild that didn’t nominate her by earning an Academy Award nomination and almost pulling off an upset (James L. Brooks was the eventual winner.)
Yentl was an unlikely Hollywood project and, in fact, it took ten years of her perseverance for it to reach the screen; Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote in Yiddish, based it on a short story. It was set in a Yeshiva and told the story of a young girl, denied opportunities because of her gender, who passes as a boy in order to study Talmudic law and then attracts the ardor of a young girl. Hardly a commercial prospect.
It would be told through song, and Barbra’s favorite lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman collaborated with Michel Legrand on a complex score. When MGM agreed to make the movie the budget was bare bones. They couldn’t afford her first choice of cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro; so she had to settle for David Watkin, who filled in admirably.
Then Broadway actor Mandy Patinkin and Amy Irving were cast as her classmates, Nehemiah Persoff as her rabbi, Steven Hill as her father, Alan Cordiner and Miriam Margolyes in lesser roles. It was unique that a Jewish actor played every part. Armed with numerous Golden Globe nominations the film did surprisingly well at the box office. It won the Oscar for best scoring of a musical but none of its songs were nominated. The Hollywood Foreign Press singled out two, “Papa Can You Hear Me?” and “The Way He Makes Me Feel” but “Flashdance What a Feeling” was the winner.
Also up for Best Musical or Comedy that year were The Big Chill, Flashdance, Trading Places, and Zelig. The Golden Globes for Best Actor and Actress in a Musical or Comedy went to Michael Caine and Julie Walters, both for Educating Rita. Barbra was content to pick up her other Globes as Producer and Director of Yentl.
Other nominees for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy that year were Woody Allen for Zelig, Tom Cruise for Risky Business, Eddie Murphy for Trading Places, and Mandy Patinkin for Yentl. The other best actress nominees were Anne Bancroft for To Be or Not To Be, Jennifer Beals for Flashdance, Linda Ronstadt for The Pirates of Penzance, and of course Barbra for Yentl. Barbra shared the Best Musical or Comedy Golden Globe with her then partner Jon Peters. They split up soon after, and he went on to bigger things, like running Sony Pictures with Peter Guber.