Indestructibly feminine

Oct 31, 2001 at 12:00 am

What could a lavish Hollywood musical and a modest film about a gay Thai volleyball team possibly have in common? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Funny Girl and The Iron Ladies are part of a long tradition of movies about misfits who triumph against the odds, and both films utilize real-life stories to further other agendas.

Watching Funny Girl 33 years after its initial release, several things are shockingly clear. The first is that incredibly versatile director William Wyler injected a surprising vigor into an old-fashioned musical by applying the same clear-eyed confidence he used for dramas (The Best Years of Our Lives), comedies (Roman Holiday) and epics (Ben-Hur) alike. But Funny Girl is even more striking for the way Barbra Streisand, in her portrayal of vaudeville-era comedienne and chanteuse Fanny Brice, so effectively created her own mythology.

Now an established icon (and a director who credits the demanding, meticulous Wyler as a role model), Streisand was then a red-hot pop star making her big-screen debut, and Funny Girl is the ultimate coming-out party. The character of Fanny Brice was tailor-made for her, but this alone (see Mariah Carey in Glitter for comparison) doesn’t account for the fusion that took place between performer and role.

Streisand’s Fanny is the ugly duckling who blossoms into a swan, the unconventional beauty who wins adoration for her undeniable talent and the sheer force of her personality. She gets not just the handsome prince (Omar Sharif as gambler Nick Arnstein) but becomes a star of the Ziegfeld Follies, more adored than the famed showgirls.

Amid the film’s triumphs (Streisand’s heartfelt rendering of “People,” the famous aerial shot of a tugboat passing the Statue of Liberty), Funny Girl can’t quite get beyond the obvious conflict: Brice was laughing on the outside (her irreverent stage persona) while crying on the inside (her marriage collapses under the weight of her immense fame). But the complex performances from both Streisand and Sharif ground the film in the kind of emotional reality that distinguishes a great musical from merely an entertaining one.

The Iron Ladies, on the other hand, uses entertainment as a vehicle for social change. In a film that’s alternately daring and frivolous, director Yongyoot Thongkongtoon re-creates the 1996 winning season of a volleyball team composed primarily of gay men who became media darlings in Thailand. The Iron Ladies, as they christen themselves, are wildly flamboyant on the court and off, flying in the face of Asian expectations of proper manhood.

Director Thongkongtoon has fused an exciting sports story line with a call for tolerance, and he succeeds in portraying the team members as athletes who want to make a point as much as they want to play. The quiet dignity of Coach Bee (Siridhana Hongsophon), a soft-spoken lesbian who believes in sportsmanship as the great equalizer, anchors the team. Yet what Iron Ladies fails to do (as is so often the case in movies about team sports) is to effectively portray the individual players as more than archetypes: Wit (Ekachai Buranapanit) is deep in the closet; cabaret performer Pia (Gokgorn Benjathikul) has a conflicted bisexual lover; blissfully feminine Jung (Chaichan Nimpoonsawas) is an eternal optimist; and taciturn Mon (Sahaparp Virakamin) can’t believe he’ll be accepted as both a gay man and an athlete.

Yet there’s an infectious enthusiasm to Thongkongtoon’s film, a desire for the underdog to win which propels it over the rough spots (such as a supremely silly barroom brawl), and shows how these Iron Ladies gather strength from what others perceive as weakness.

Funny Girl opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180. The Iron Ladies opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].