Debunking Hollywood’s ‘Funny Girl’: The real story of Fanny Brice

Fanny Brice, the real 'Funny Girl'
Fanny Brice, the real ‘Funny Girl’

“Being a funny person does an awful lot of things to you. You feel that you mustn’t get serious with people. They don’t expect it from you, and they don’t want to see it. You’re not entitled to be serious, you’re a clown, and they only want you to make them laugh.” — Fanny Brice

Hollywood filmmaking is an industry that subordinates truth to glamour. Director William Wyler’s 1968 success, Funny Girl, is a typical studio film in this respect. Although Barbra Streisand’s dazzling talent, Omar Sharif’s dashing good looks, and Isobel Lennart’s charming screenplay combine to make an entertaining story, Funny Girl hardly tells the complete tale of Fanny Brice. An equally riveting, factual account of this Jewish comedian’s life can be found in Herbert G. Goldman’s biography “Fanny Brice: The Original Funny Girl”. This paper examines the distinctions between Barbara Streisand’s Fanny Brice and the real Fanny Brice. In doing so, the freedoms and limitations of these two mediums, ‘loosely-biographical’ film and non-fiction writing, are made apparent.

Within the first few scenes of Wyler’s Funny Girl the audience is introduced to Fanny Brice’s low-income home on Henry Street. Fanny’s financial and social obstacles to fame instantly endear viewers to her character. Spectators sympathize with Fanny’s frustration and admire her determination to fulfill her goals, especially in light of her need to continually defend her dreams to her less ambitious, card addict mother and neighbors.

Goldman’s factual account of Fanny’s upbringing in “Fanny Brice: The Original Funny Girl” repudiates the film’s portrayal of her pre-fame days. Indeed, Fanny’s name was initially Borach and she was the only member of her family to change titles, believing that Brice was more conducive to her success as a vaudeville actress. Her mother, Rosie Borach, was hardly a homebody and set a remarkable example for her headstrong daughter by single handedly supporting four children and an alcoholic husband. Rosie was so prosperous buying and selling real estate in New Jersey that she soon divorced her spouse and took her children to New York where they lived in a fancy apartment on Beekman Place, one of the ritziest blocks in Manhattan.

Similarly, Streisand’s famous roller skate scene in Funny Girl is complete fiction. In fact, Goldman testifies that Fanny Brice got her break as a solo singer for Frank Keeney’s popular Brooklyn vaudeville theatre and never appeared in front of an audience as a chorus member. Her one attempt to be a chorus girl in the Broadway production of Talk of the Town was quickly nixed by legend George M. Cohan because of her weak dance skills.

Fanny Brice
Fanny Brice

Yet the most surprising discrepancy between Fanny Brice’s true career as a comedian and Hollywood’s version is the famous pregnant bride routine Streisand’s Fanny performs as a new inductee to the Ziegfeld Follies. Goldman reveals that, like the roller skate scene, this event never actually occurred and that, had Fanny done such a number without permission, she would have undoubtedly been fired by entertainment giant Florenz Ziegfeld. Indeed, Fanny made every effort to ingratiate herself to Ziegfeld and there are no accounts of her ever having disputed with him; they enjoyed a professional working relationship based on mutual respect.

Even more discordant than the film’s and the biography’s disparate versions of Fanny’s career, is the distinction between the Hollywood myth and factual account of her love affairs. Indeed, Fanny Brice was hardly the sexual innocent portrayed by Streisand in Funny Girl at the time of her first physical experience with Nicky Arnstein. She had already been married to and divorced from Frank White, a barber notorious for his unscrupulous attraction to teenage women in show business (Goldman 39).

Additionally, Nicky Arnstein was certainly not the upright, sophisticated gambler whose pride couldn’t bear a public image as “Mrs. Brice”. The movie romanticizes Arnstein’s character to a shocking degree. For example, Sharif’s Arnstein artfully strings Fanny along, disappearing and then orchestrating a romantic reunion during which he excuses his absence with the passionate proclamation “I wanted to stay away from you. You were heading for something you couldn’t possibly have known how to handle… it’s time you learned.” Sharif’s sex appeal coupled with the rampant rumors in the late 1960s about his “real life escapades as a bridge player” and playboy establish his interpretation of Arnstein’s character very convincingly in audiences’ minds (Thomas & Lofting 909).

Yet, however exciting it is to draw parallels between the real life Arnstein and Omar Sharif, Goldman’s biography reveals that the sensual wooing period shown in Funny Girl where Sharif’s Arnstein is depicted as charming and romantic for his efforts to include Fanny in his exciting, spontaneous ventures is merely a false Hollywood construction. In reality, the cunning Arnstein saw that Fanny would make an excellent bread ticket and made a point of never leaving her side. He accompanied her on the Whirl of Society tour, followed her to New York, and even moved in with Fanny and her mother uninvited. Especially telling was Rosie Borach’s intense dislike for her daughter’s suitor. Rosie instantly sensed that Arnstein had his own agenda and, in an attempt to help her daughter, she cautioned Fanny many times against marrying him and told Arnstein to his face that she despised him and wanted him out of Fanny’s life. Her intense hatred for Arnstein was not unfounded. Indeed, one shocking account of Arnstein’s behavior in the Borach’s home is as follows:

— “Nick put his knowledge of good furnishing to use as soon as he moved in with Fanny. Declaring the apartment tasteless, vulgar, and depressing, he went to Gimbel’s department store, ordered ten thousand dollars’ worth of furnishings, and asked that everything be sent C.O.D. He then told Fanny to say she wanted to pay in monthly installments when the furniture arrived. That way, Nick explained, she’d save the cost for credit Gimbel’s would have charged. Rosie fumed. Fanny paid. And Nick remained composed, the classic gentleman (Goldman 63).”

Rosie’s relationship with her son-in-law is distorted in Funny Girl. In the film, she chastises her daughter saying “Fanny, are you so wrapped up in the show you can’t see anything else? Darling, you’re his wife, you’ve got to sit down with him, talk to him, think together what he should do”. With this advice, it seems as though Rosie is helping Fanny to preserve a union to which, in reality, she was entirely opposed.

Funny Girl glamorizes and romanticizes the character of Nicky Arnstein further by failing to mention significant problems that existed in his early relationship with Fanny. For one thing, Arnstein was already a noteworthy criminal who had been jailed several times between 1909 and 1912 for swindling and embezzlement in London, Paris, and Monte Carlo when he met her (Goldman 61). Shortly after making Fanny’s acquaintance, he was imprisoned in Sing Sing for wiretapping. According to Goldman, “Fanny made at least one trip to Sing Sing weekly, bringing Nick her home-cooked food and spending all the time with him the prison would allow” (Goldman 81). Fanny’s attachment to an unlawful con man invited rumors and unfavorable press reports which negatively impacted her professional image.

Barbara Streisand in 'Funny Girl'
Barbara Streisand in ‘Funny Girl’

Additionally, Fanny did not feel secure in her relationship with Arnstein, suspecting that he was unfaithful to her in between his prison terms. She hired a private detective to conduct an investigation into his private life. Soon thereafter, Fanny was confronted with a pernicious piece of evidence. Arnstein actually had a wife named Carrie Greenthal to whom he was still legally married (Goldman 61). This is never addressed in Funny Girl, where Streisand’s Fanny suggests that they get married and Sharif’s Arnstein instantly acquiesces after the victorious night of gambling necessary to sufficiently provide for his new lady love. The real Fanny suffered a great deal of heartbreak and was too hopelessly in love with Arnstein to listen to her mother’s “damning accusations” against him (Goldman 62). After supporting him in high style for over a year out of wedlock, news of Arnstein’s divorce from Greenthal came and an overjoyed Fanny married him in 1918. She was ready to put her career on the back burner and focus on becoming the ideal, domestic wife — not an unusual goal for women in the early twentieth century.

However, marriage did not reform Arnstein’s gambling addiction and self-centeredness, and Fanny’s relationship with him became increasingly painful and tumultuous. This is not clear in Funny Girl, where the two are shown living happily together for a number of years before the public humiliation becomes too much for the proud sophisticate Arnstein to bear. There is a montage of Arnstein and Fanny happily moving into a home together, entertaining mutual friends, and expecting the birth of a child. Moreover, this segment is accompanied by Streisand’s poignant rendition of “Sadie, Sadie Married Lady”, in which she blissfully sings “I swear I’ll do my wifely job, just sit at home and be a slob/ A husband, a house and a beautiful reflection of my love’s affection/ Sadie, Sadie, married lady, that’s me”. In accentuating Fanny’s attempt to transform from a career woman into a docile housewife, Wyler’s aim is, arguably, to poke fun at the early 1900s emphasis on female domesticity rather than to idealize the relationship between Fanny and Arnstein. After all, Funny Girl was released in 1968 when the women’s liberation movement was gaining momentum and women were first being allowed “permanent jobs in the public sector” (Williams). Regardless of Wyler’s directorial intentions or audiences’ interpretations of the couple’s married life, the real Arnstein never provided the financial security necessary for Fanny to take a break from her hectic work schedule and fulfill her dream of being an exemplary wife and mother.

Fanny and Arnstein had their first child, Frances, two months after their wedding, but the maid Adele Moon spent more time with her than her parents did. Fanny had to work constantly to pay for living expenses and to provide the funds for Arnstein’s various, universally disastrous business ventures. She certainly couldn’t afford the luxury of raising her child under the circumstances. Nick was an absentee father and husband, disappearing for months at a time without explanation. This negligent family situation is not shown in Wyler’s Funny Girl, where Sharif’s Arnstein is depicted lovingly holding his infant daughter and showering her with attention. Indeed, Hollywood glosses over Fanny’s and Arnstein’s family life by only showing Frances in passing and by never even mentioning the birth of their second child, William.

Hollywood alters the truth further in its portrayal of Arnstein’s downfall and the irreparable disintegration of his relationship with Fanny thereafter. Wyler paints a picture of Arnstein as a harmless gambler who is driven to crime because he perceives it to be his only opportunity to prove that he is capable of providing for his family. However, this is entirely untrue. As has already been mentioned, Arnstein was a criminal prior to his marriage with Fanny. Moreover, his decisive fault was not selling phony bonds, as Wyler’s Funny Girl suggests, but rather his participation in a gang that stole five million dollars worth of Wall Street securities. Once accused of this crime, the real Arnstein did not gallantly turn himself in as Sharif’s Arnstein does, declaring “Your Honor, there’s no need for a postponement. I understand the charge. I knew exactly what I was doing. So I wish to plead guilty”. In fact, he went into hiding for four months, forcing Fanny to face vicious press and police harassment on her own while she was pregnant with their second child, William. When he was finally caught, Arnstein contested the charge on myriad technicalities for four years until a federal court sentenced him to fourteen months in Leavenworth prison.

There is also a noteworthy discrepancy between the way Wyler’s Funny Girl and Goldman’s biography end Fanny’s and Arnstein’s marriage. In the film, Arnstein starts to announce his decision to leave, saying “Fanny I, I’ve had eighteen months to think about this…” only to be cut off by Fanny’s remark “I’ve had the same eighteen months and I’ve never thought about it. I mean I simmered, I stewed, I cried my eyes out… but I never really thought. Not until today. And I saw that you were right. You did me a lot for me Nicky and that’s what I’m gonna remember”. In verbally ending the relationship, Streisand’s Fanny maintains her self-respect and obtains a degree of closure.

The reality exposed in “Fanny Brice: The Original Funny Girl” is that the end for Fanny and Arnstein didn’t occur until 1927, over a year after he was released from prison, and it was certainly not the clean-cut goodbye scene delivered by Sharif and Streisand. The real Arnstein hurt and embarrassed Fanny terribly during the final months of their marriage by openly having an affair with another woman. Fanny “saw his frequent absences as signs of his unfaithfulness, a cynical and selfish stab in the back… she felt laughed at and, above all ‘used’ — the one humiliation her ego could not take” (Goldman 110). Although her love for Arnstein never faltered, her life with him had toughened her and renewed her desire to be independent. In the end, Fanny’s self-respect did conquer her unhealthy emotional attachment, and she divorced Arnstein, declaring that he “would never see the kids” or her again (Goldman 130). He never did. Both Arnstein and Fanny remarried, to Irene Matlack McCullough and Billy Rose respectively, but both unions were “really two parts marriage of convenience, one part marriage of revenge” (Goldman 144).

In comparing the biography to the film, it is important to ask why Funny Girl deviates so greatly from true accounts of Fanny’s life. The answer lies in show business connections: Ray Stark, Fanny Brice’s son-in-law, produced both the Broadway show and the film Funny Girl. In doing so, he had a familial responsibility to appease the memories and pride of Fanny’s surviving family and friends. Frances Brice, who adored her mother, would never have permitted Stark to flaunt all of Fanny’s dirty laundry. Under the circumstances, Stark specifically instructed librettist Isobel Lennart to take creative liberties with history when writing the screenplay for Funny Girl.

Whatever the film version lacks in educational worth, however, it more than compensates for with its entertainment value. Although “Fanny Brice: The Original Funny Girl” is a pleasurable and informative read that doesn’t glamorize Fanny’s largely unhappy life or condone Arnstein’s debaucheries, it lacks the sentimentality that Wyler’s Funny Girl artfully captures with close-ups, camera movement, and casting. Even though the real Fanny Brice never made a surprise appearance as a pregnant bride, this Hollywood image certainly epitomizes the spirit of this enigmatic woman. Similarly, while the biography briefly notes that Fanny’s rendition of “My Man” was especially poignant since it mirrored the devastation of her personal life, Wyler’s close-up of Streisand singing the piece provides a visual image of Fanny’s emotional token song which is more moving and memorable for audiences.

Thus, though Hollywood’s Fanny is largely a fictional character, Barbra Streisand’s remarkable performance, Isobel Lennart’s touching lyrics, William Wyler’s careful direction, and Ray Stark’s familial influence combine to create a film that celebrates and immortalizes the spirit of the real performer and individual Fanny Brice. Conversely, Herbert G. Goldman’s biography is a factual, fascinating resource for avid readers, truth seekers, and Fanny Brice fans. Ultimately, both Funny Girl and “Fanny Brice: The Original Funny Girl” are advantageous resources for individuals trying to piece together a complete account of Fanny Brice’s life; one provides touching visual images and brilliant acting while the other reveals painful truths and unadorned facts. Both are necessary to gain a comprehensive understanding of Fanny Brice’s character, career, and legacy.

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