True Story: I Spent My Childhood Obsessed With “Funny Girl”

Actor Omar Sharif died today, and the first thing I noticed about all the headlines about his death were the fact that they all mentioned “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago” and that none of them mentioned “Funny Girl.” Having not had much coffee yet, this kind of bothered me. Sure, those movies are OK and all — I mean, “Doctor Zhivago” hats forever — but none of them are “Funny Girl.”

Yes, Barbra Streisand was the obvious star of “Funny Girl.” But isn’t the high point of anyone’s career being even sort of associated with the best musical of all time? I certainly think so.

As a kid, I was admittedly a little over obsessed with that movie. While most kids were singing along with “Cold-Hearted Snake” and “Hangin’ Tough” and “Electric Youth,” I was waltzing around in whatever schmattas I could reasonably fashion into something that looked vaguely like an evening gown, singing “I’m The Greatest Star” and “Second Hand Rose.” As you might imagine, I was very popular.

I watched the movie constantly. I knew every line by heart. Which was a feat given the fact that my mom wouldn’t let me own the movie. She did not believe in owning movies, or watching movies more than once. So every time we went to the video store, I would insist on renting “Funny Girl” again and again, and she would try to convince me to watch anything else, and usually I would not have it. “Funny Girl,” “Gypsy,” or bust.

I had dreams, you guys. I planned — quite firmly — on growing up to be either just like Fanny Brice or the daughter Mama Rose would have always wanted. I was going to be a Ziegfeld Girl, or a vaudeville star on the Orpheum Circuit. I was going to wear white fur stoles and have many ex-husbands.

To this day, probably the biggest fight I’ve ever had with my mother is when she finally told me that I could not, in fact, grow up to be in vaudeville, because vaudeville was not around anymore. I cried hysterically, and yelled,”VAUDEVILLE WILL NEVER DIE!” at the top of my lungs before storming out of the kitchen. In a huff. I was probably about eight or nine years old at the time.

My obsession continued. I considered converting to Judaism. I would speak very authoritatively about how Fanny Brice was the greatest star and greatest singer to ever live. I was madly in love with Nicky Arnstein. Eventually, my mom had to point out that Fanny Brice, in real life, sounded nothing like Barbra Streisand.

Which is true. I mean, this is Barbra singing “My Man” (try not to cry, it is very emotional):

And this is Fanny Brice. Who is good, but not like, Streisand-level good.

As the internet was not so much a thing back then and I had no way of actually listening to the real Fanny Brice, I most certainly did not believe my mom’s claim. I also didn’t believe her when she casually mentioned that, in real life, Nicky Arnstein was nowhere near as handsome and dashing as Omar Sharif (for real though–who is?), and was also a huge douchebag criminal who had basically no problem at all living off of Brice.

nicky arnstein

Now, my mom assures me that she did not dislike “Funny Girl.” In fact, it was one of the few musicals she actually enjoyed. Generally speaking, she’d always found it disconcerting when people broke out into song and has never much cared for any movies or TV shows about things that could not really happen. She maintains to this day that she simply didn’t want me walking around being poorly informed and thinking vaudeville was still around. Which is fair.

She also says she didn’t much care for the fact that Fanny Brice was so obsessed with Nicky Arnstein, because he was terrible, and she didn’t want me thinking that was OK or anything to be admiring. And that’s fair too.

In retrospect though, my obsession with “Funny Girl” actually did serve a purpose in my life. As you may have guessed, my remark about having been fabulously popular was a joke and not at all the actual case. But part of the thing that kept me going and really not giving a fuck about that was how incredibly convinced I was that I would grow up to be just like Fanny Brice. That I would get through that crappy time, and I would come out of it a star.

Even just swanning around the living room singing “I’m The Greatest Star” in my cousin’s first communion dress was a thing that, as weird as it sounds, gave me a pretty solid boost of self-confidence. Because when I sang it, I believed it.

“Funny Girl,” specifically, was just very comforting. It was the story of a woman who got where she was on sheer talent, and not as much relying on whether or not people thought she was “beautiful.” I didn’t think I was ugly, but I liked not having to worry about that either. I cared about being talented, I cared about being funny, and I could focus on those things without having to be concerned that future me might not measure up to some Hollywood ideal.

I gave up on my whole life plan to be an actress and singer when I was around 18 or 19. It wasn’t because I wasn’t good, it wasn’t because I had lost hope, it was because — by then — my life was OK and I didn’t need to promise myself glorious future stardom in order to get through the day. I’m glad I don’t need that anymore, but I’m glad I had it when it mattered.

And hey, on my worst days, I still know all the lyrics.