The audience of the 41st Academy Awards roared its approval when Ingrid Bergman announced that Hollywood newcomer Barbra Streisand had tied Katharine Hepburn for Best Actress in a Leading Role. But though Streisand has since achieved immense popularity and icon status, this win is still questioned by some. After all, Hepburn was a giant among giants, giving the performance of her career in The Lion in Winter alongside a stellar cast with a sizzling script. Barbra was certainly the best part of an otherwise unremarkable musical. As a highly fictionalized version of famous vaudevillian Fanny Brice, Stresiand packed a ton of charm, chatter, charisma, and chutzpah into one role. But is that enough to warrant an Academy Award?
Actually, yes it is...
The defining feature of Funny Girl--beyond the glamor, the laughs, the heartbreak, and the single greatest use of a tugboat in cinema history--is that the movie's success rests entirely on Streisand's petite shoulders. Without Babs, Funny Girl would be another Gigi: sweet, loveable, but not something that glues you to your seat. (To all the Gigi lovers out there: That's right. Come at me!)
With the exception of the underused-but-still-fabulous Kay Medford (more about her in the upcoming Supporting Actress Smackdown), most of the cast dims next to Streisand's electricity. This is largely the fault of the screenplay; the story is so focused on Fanny that nobody else gets much to do, director William Wyler included. It's rare for one performer alone to catapult a film to iconic status. The fact that Babs could do that singlehandedly made her Oscar-worthy.
Since Funny Girl is a musical, the most lauded part of Barbra's performance is her voice. Barbra is part brassy Ethel Merman, part classy Judy Garland. Her singing combines raw talent and technical prowess to rip through a song with emotion.
While much has been (justifiably) made of the star's voice, the rest of her performance is equally strong. As Nathaniel has pointed out before, early Babs was a very talented comedienne. In Funny Girl, Babs brings that emotive power behind her musical numbers to straight scenes as well. For instance, take this brief scene during the prologue when Fanny catches her reflection in the mirror. Streisand's first line, "Hello, gorgeous!", is one of AFI's 100 Best Movie Quotes for a reason. The quiet humor of her delivery contrasts with the unvoiced sadness in her eyes:
[Side note: I've had the worst time pulling video clips for this series. Apparently not even YouTube can contain the power of a diva in her prime.]
As career-defining as it was, Funny Girl was just the beginning for Streisand. But a great beginning is what all Oscar wins for breakouts are meant to foreshadow.
Admittedly, Babs probably didn't need the encouragement, since after 1968 she charged forward to four more nominations and another win, directing, producing, concerts, Grammy awards, and even a book on home decorating. But this first award was a sign of the good things to come.
These iconic tied performances represent two sides of the same golden statue. Streisand's star turn is a celebration; Hepburn's is a lament. Streisand's win was a "welcome"; Hepburn's was an encore. I don't mean to overstate the significance of this moment (too late?), but to me the tie between these two radically different actresses shows the range that the Academy can achieve. It can award tragedies and comedies, newcomers and veterans, and salute those performances which define a star, a film, or even a year. That is the reason why 1968 stands as my favorite year in Oscar history.