Musical 52

Watch 52 musicals, one every week, in 2015.

YENTL (1983)

Holy shit, it’s Yentl! For years I’d heard jokes about how it’s an unwatchable ego project from the mind and throat of Barbra Streisand (save for the story, which she borrowed and changed), but just because she wrote it, directed it, produced it, acted in it, and slapped nothing but her big damn face on the poster for it, does that make Yentl a film to avoid? Come along as our titular Yentl (Barbra Streisand) disguises herself as a boy named Anshel (Barbra Streisand) in order to study the Talmud (Barbra Streisand), exploring themes of feminism, gender identity, sexuality, inequality under religious law, and Mandy Patinkin’s naked butt (Barbra Streisand).

So this isn’t a terrible idea for a movie. You’ve got a female disguised as a male going up against Jewish teachings in order to learn more about just what exactly those teachings are. Fight the power, right? Unfortunately, most of Yentl‘s runtime focuses less on her shaking up traditions and more on somebody discovering that she has boobs.

How can you read holy texts if your boobs are in the way???

Secret identity plots can be fun, though; I like Mrs. Doubtfire as much as the next guy that won’t admit he likes Mrs. Doubtfire. Still, each scene of almost being discovered goes on for about three minutes longer than it needs to. For example, Yentl gets all the way to Talmud 101 without realizing she’ll need to think of a boy name, and then stammers for what feels like an eternity before farting out “Anshel,” at which point everybody congratulates this fine young scholar on his name awareness and we’re supposed to pretend like this isn’t fucking weird? If that’s not unrealistic enough, her friend Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin) is constantly trying to pull “Anshel” into bed or make him whip out his dick at the lake, as all best buds do.

“Come on, make with the schlong, you weirdo.”

I’ll admit, there are some interesting twists, but all in all, it’s mostly a series of “How Will Yentl Get Out of This One?” scenarios, and usually the answer is staunch refusal, maybe a religious quote, and then on to the next predicament. It stretches believability after a while, to be honest, and it doesn’t help matters that pretty much everybody wants a piece of Yentl’s man goodies.

Yentl Dam

Spoiler alert: you’re gonna want a Yentl dam.

For the record, I watched the theatrical version; I don’t know how Barbra possibly dragged out these gender secrecy gags any longer in the director’s cut that I’ll never watch.

Barbra’s performance as Yentl is enjoyable, but a bit shaky. I guess it struck me as odd that Yentl is so confident when it comes to equality for women regarding religious study, but when somebody wants to see her dong, suddenly she’s a stammering wreck. I guess it helps the comedy, but it seems out of character for her wit and determination to vanish when she suspects somebody is curious to see her junk. Great pipes, though.

This Barbra lady can really sing!

I love the shit out of Mandy Patinkin, but his character Avigdor is bizarrely forceful and aggressive. I get there are scenes where the plot requires him to wrestle Yentl out of her boy clothes, but do they need to feel so… assaulty? There’s a difference between suggesting to your friend that it would be a real hoot to go skinny dipping and dragging him toward the lake shouting, “Take your clothes off!” I can’t tell if Avigdor is supposed to be conflicted about his perceived attraction to a man or if he’s just a huge asshole.

Yentl Avigdor

“Snuggle with me, you fucker!”

Amy Irving plays Avigdor’s housewifey fiancée Hadass, whose obedient nature makes her a perfect foil to Yentl. She’s sweet and domestic without being ditzy, but is also excited by the opportunities Yentl wants to open her up for her.

Yentl Hadass

Intense religious study, of course. What were you thinking?

And Nehemiah Persoff is great in his small role as Yentl’s firm but supportive Papa, who lets her read the non-girl books as long as the curtains are closed.

Yentl Papa

“They’ve been God-proofed.”

So hey, I know I like to go through the songs one by one around these parts, but I need to point out some bizarre things that almost every tune in Yentl has in common first.

  1. Not a single song has stuck with me. I’m struggling to sing one line from any number in Yentl, or even hum the chorus. All I’ve got is “Papa, can you hear me?” from the song of the same name, and that’s only because I think I’ve heard it before and it just so happened to be in a Daily Show bit the same week. I have not had this problem with any other musical I’ve watched thus far; I can recall at least one song from each film, and even though I despised 1776 with a fiery eagle-shaped hatred, I can sing a bit of “The Egg” and that one about opening up a window. So what’s with your lack of catchy melodies and interesting choruses, Yentl?
  2. Barbra Streisand is the only person who sings in the entire movie. This is the first musical I’ve ever seen where that happens, and it’s a bit off-putting. At best, it makes Barbra look egotistical, and at worst, it make Yentl look crazy.
  3. Many of the songs have distracting echo effects that make them sound too modern and yank me out of the time period.
  4. Half of the songs happen in Yentl’s head. Sometimes while people are talking over them, herself included. That sucks. I get she’s supposed to be hiding her identity, but it’s an odd choice. Feels like somebody in the background popped in a cassette tape rather than an all-out musical. In fairness, the poster says, “A film with music,” and it certainly is that.

So, yeah, that’s what I recall without notes. Do you want me to recap a bunch of songs I can’t remember? Yeah? The full… thing? Okay. Speed run.

“Where Is It Written?” is Yentl’s big “fuck you” to keeping women out of studying Jewish tradition. She wants much more than this provincial life, up where they walk, up where they run, up where they read the Talmud in the sun, that whole deal.

Yentl Written

It’s not very memorable!

In “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” Yentl sings at a candle while seeking guidance from her father.

Yentl Candle

I remember the candle, I forget the lyrics!

“This is One of Those Moments” is a montage of Yentl being super pumped about all the things she’s learning at religion school.

Yentl Moments

This is technically an ’80s montage, but there isn’t a single drum machine!

“No Wonder” is performed three times, and each time in the direction of Hadass. The first time it’s about how she’s so stupidly subservient, the second time focuses on how it might be nice to have a wife like her, and the third time seems to be Yentl struggling with her own femininity. Wish I could tell you how it goes after hearing it three times.

Yentl No Wonder

The fact that everyone’s talking over it certainly doesn’t help!

“The Way He Makes Me Feel” features Yentl stripping down and singing about how Avigdor gets her all aquiver as she gives her tits a squeeze.

Yentl Feel

Can’t remember a word, but you know she’s totally about to masturbate!
5 out of 5 stars, best song!

“Tomorrow Night” has Yentl getting fitted for a suit and wondering just how much longer she can keep up the “I totes have a scrote” act.

Yentl Tomorrow Night

Far beyond the point the audience could reasonably expect.

“Will Someone Ever Look at Me That Way?” is exactly what it sounds like, a jealousy song, but it is sort of neat that the words in Yentl’s head are accompanied by Hadass humming.

Yentl Jealous

Avignor loves him some humming, I bet.

Yentl decides to finally spill the beans in “No Matter What Happens”…

Yentl Beans

Nice beans.

…and the film wraps with her craving even more than the more she already craved while belting out “A Piece of Sky” on a boat, and yes, I said, “Hey, she’s ripping off Funny Girl!” and I haven’t even seen Funny Girl.

I might. This is the year for it.


  • Ending spoiler. So how fucking mind-blowing is it that Yentl reveals to Avigdor that she’s not male… but leaves it up to him to go tell Hadass that she unknowingly married a woman? And that moment happens offscreen. The next time we see Hadass, she’s all smiles. Guess it went well??
  • The DVD annoyingly opens with Barbra Streisand introducing you to the movie as though you’ve seen it a thousand times and I skipped the fuck out of it.
  • One of the few things I knew going into this movie was that Steven Spielberg once compared it to Citizen Kane, and that’s almost exactly as funny as I expected it to be.

I’d like to call out all the iterations of “No Wonder” for being bad feminism (a subject I am clearly qualified to speak on), since Yentl, champion of gender equality that she is, spends each one basically judging another woman in catty ways, but the only crime worse than knocking your fellow females down is doing it with this shitty forced food rhyme…

Yentl Bad Line

“When she gets up, her biggest decision is figuring out what to wear,
To pick a blouse, a skirt, and then there’s the problem
Of what should she do with her hair?
And later as she stands and studies a chicken,
the question’s to roast or to not roast,
or better yet, maybe a pot roast…”

Phew, made it through the whole article without making an unfair comparison to Fiddler on the Roof—DAMMIT. Really, though, they’re both musicals about the rights of Jewish women, but while Yentl might have a more interesting and female-centric story, Fiddler has the stronger performances and more lasting songs, which makes it pull ahead for me. Still, Yentl isn’t bad. Mediocre, maybe, but not bad.

Also, how old is Yentl supposed to be??

A Chorus Line (1985)