Film Reviews

The Fairest of Them All

In The Mirror Has Two Faces, Barbra Streisand plays Rose Morgan, a Columbia University Romantic literature professor who endures a drab, romanceless life. She lives with her imperious, fault-finding mother, Hannah (Lauren Bacall)--a beautician, no less--and wards off the attentions of a nebbishy suitor (Austin Pendleton) while pining for the debonair handsomeness of her sister's fiance (Pierce Brosnan).

Rose--get the significance of the name--is an unbloomed bouquet. In a fairer, less confused world, she would be recognized as a great gift of a woman, if only men--if only people--weren't so hung up on packaging. At least in the beginning, Rose may seem frumpy and unalluring, but there's a crusade built into her pizzazzless look--Streisand's crusade. This unbloomed Rose is a standard-bearer for all the women of the world who don't look like Elle Macpherson. Rose represents real beauty.

Streisand has wanted to direct this movie for many years; when she first read the script by the talented Richard LaGravenese (Unstrung Heroes, A Little Princess), it must have set off alarm bells in her head. (And that was even before it was considerably reworked from a premise based on a 1954 French film, Le Miroir a Deux Visages.) Framed as a knockabout romantic comedy, the movie is so completely an emanation of its co-producer-director-star that, in a way, reviewing it is a bit like reviewing a marathon therapy session. (Streisand has remarked in interviews on the film's real-life connections to her childhood.)

I can't think of another major movie icon--not even Chaplin in Limelight or Bob Fosse in All That Jazz or Woody Allen in anything--who has so extensively laid bare his or her fears and fantasies. The film is a startlingly brave folly, and even after you acknowledge the healthy dollop of narcissism mixed in with the bravery, it still leaves you swacked, uplifted, bewildered. It's as if Streisand wanted to pull us all inside her head.

A recurring theme in the films Streisand has directed is how romance can transform you and move you beyond your fears. In both Yentl and The Prince of Tides, she worked up a hero or heroine who ended up wiser, happier even, for having loved. This is a species of show-biz therapeutic sentimentality, but Streisand has made it work because she brings to it such fullness of spirit. (No one ever said Streisand can't put over a number.) These films, as well as The Mirror Has Two Faces, are about a commitment to passion.

When Rose is lecturing her students about Romance literature, she's like a standup comic or a rowdy daytime talk-show host; she comes alive in this setting because she's sanctioned to talk about what matters most to her. Why, she asks her class rhetorically, do we buy into the mythic love of Hollywood movies? Why do we put up with the indignities of love when it rarely lasts? Because, she says, "while it does last, it feels fucking great." Ba-dum-bum.

Rose's reference to the movies is, of course, double-edged. We are, after all, watching a Hollywood romance, and one with a particularly high caloric intake of old-fashioned schmaltz. (By comparison, The Way We Were seems like stark realism.) This doubleness is a bit like one of those films in which somebody in it remarks on how much like a movie the movie is. It's a pre-emptive strike against the charge of frivolity--while still championing the fruits of frivolousness.

There's another romantic besides Rose in The Mirror Has Two Faces--though it takes him most of the movie to realize it. (We, of course, are supposed to realize it right away.) Gregory Larkin (Jeff Bridges) is an unmarried math professor at Columbia who has taken 14 years to write his book--Absolute Truth? Studies in Number Theory--because presumably he's too addled by the pleasures of the flesh. (It might have been a wittier touch if Greg had been an expert in chaos theory.) We first see him in action at a book signing where he gets an anxiety attack when his most recent fling shows up. She is played by--you guessed it--Elle Macpherson.

Greg begs his best friend, fellow Columbia prof Henry Fine (George Segal), to keep him away from this tootsie, but he ends up in the sack anyway. Afterward she walks out on him with a wink. It's a switcheroo of a scene--Greg gets to feel like a seduced and abandoned maiden--and it strengthens his resolve to connect with a soul mate who lacks the dread, complicating element of erotic attraction.

In Last Tango in Paris, Brando's Paul sought eroticism without love--he wanted a sexual arrangement without any names, personal histories, encumbrances. And, of course, it didn't hold; he couldn't divide himself up in that way. In The Mirror Has Two Faces, Streisand is doing a kind of slapstick flip-flop on that theme. Greg the reformed skirt chaser wants love without eroticism. He thinks the only way for a man and woman to stay together is through a meeting of spirits, not loins. He places a personal ad for a woman with a Ph.D. and emphasizes "looks not important." Reading the ad, Rose's shrill sister Claire (Mimi Rogers), playing matchmaker, finagles a connection between the two profs. And the love match is on.

Greg wants to put into action the ideal of courtly love that Rose talked up in her classroom rap. (He sat in on her lecture to check her out but left before she gave thumbs up to the not-so-courtly alternative.) Minus the sex, Greg and Rose go through the standard falling-in-love paces--the evening concerts and snowball fights--and then they marry. Because lust, with all its virulence, is off-limits in their relationship, Greg thinks the union will last forever. He's tickled pink with this arrangement--with this theorem of his played out on a human scale. Rose, for a while, is tickled, too. She's enraptured with the idea of being wanted--for anything. But the arrangement can't hold for her--she wants to feel completely alive. She wants love and lust.

Even though Greg and Rose are presented as brainy types, the movie doesn't try to make much of a case for the life of the mind. (That would just confuse the film's romantic agenda.) We're supposed to think that both of them--especially Greg--are too bollixed by book-learning to appreciate the affairs of the heart. Pre-Greg, Rose spends her spare hours sneaking sweets and cheering baseball games on TV; her meals with her mother are like the Upper West Side equivalent of Cinderella before the ball.

Hannah is in the business of making women beautiful, and here is her daughter draped in drabness. (No flesh peeks through the drabness.) Rose asks her mother, "How did it feel being beautiful?" and the woman isn't modest: She tells her. "Was I a pretty baby?" Rose asks her. "What's pretty, anyway?" her mother responds. This sort of deep-dish masochism hasn't been seen in a mother-daughter act since Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann went at it in Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata. (Bacall makes an imposing scourge.) Hannah comes around, of course, but these earlier moments stay with you; they have a punishing, Grimm's fairy tale quality and an unseemly self-justifying quality. Rose is a trouper, but she is also, we are made to feel, a victim--of her mother's neglect and society's false, conventional standards of beauty.

The beauty trap is ever-present in The Mirror Has Two Faces. Just about every pretty girl or handsome guy in Rose and Greg's orbit is presented as the enemy. Elle Macpherson's character is a praying mantis in a tight skirt. When Rose hails a taxi, the cabbie swerves to pick up a bodacious bimbo instead. The sexy student in Greg's class is a vapid temptress; the girlfriends of Greg's buddy Henry are all chicklettes; Pierce Brosnan's Alex is a waxy Romeo; Rose's curvy sister is a predator; and so on.

You can see why the deck is stacked. If anybody in this movie was, at least in the conventional sense, gorgeous and a great human being, it would mess up the movie's meaning. Picture-book looks don't count for much in The Mirror Has Two Faces. They place you with the pod people. So it should come as no surprise that the film's unbeautiful people--such as Austin Pendleton's Barry and the woman he ends up marrying, or the phone-sex girl Greg calls in desperation--are glimpsed as drippy, decent homebodies. They have no illusions about their allure; their drippiness has moral weight.

Streisand tries to have it both ways with Rose. She plays her for much of the movie as a sheltered schlump--a female Marty with a Ph.D. As a director, in her choice of unflattering camera angles, she purposely doesn't protect herself. Later, after Rose has bombed out trying to get Greg in the hay, she undergoes a makeover that turns her into a regal glamour puss. (The camera announces Rose's new look as if she were the Statue of Liberty.) Rose rejects Greg; she has a chance for a tryst with Alex and rejects him. There's a wish-fulfillment fantasia built into scenes like these--Streisand is letting us know that even though she doesn't need to be glamorous to be beautiful, she can go the glamour-queen route anyway and still knock our socks off. Take that, Elle Macpherson!

Streisand knocks down the false gods of Hollywood glamour while piling on the hearts and flowers. Early on she lets us know that Rose hears Puccini when she's in love so, of course, we brace ourselves for the moment when all's right with the world and Puccini fills our ears. She has Rose and Greg dancing at dawn in the New York streets backed on the soundtrack by her duet with Bryan Adams, "I Finally Found Someone" (she co-wrote the song). Rose likes extra dressing on her salad--it's a running gag--and so does Barbra Streisand.

The slight unease we may feel at The Mirror Has Two Faces connects with the miscasting at its core. Jeff Bridges and Barbra Streisand, two of the most sophisticated and sensual performers in film, are deliberately playing down their strengths. The miscasting is, in a sense, intentional: It's part of the film's looks-can-be-deceptive polemic. But it's tough to take Bridges as a bow-tied supernerd who has chosen to forget where his groin is located. The no-sex arrangement Greg works up with Rose could be viewed as the ploy of an unacknowledged gay man--a notion the film clearly does not intend. (Just to be on the safe side, the screenwriter has one of Greg's students remark that he's "too boring to be gay.")

Bridges tries hard to fit into the scheme of things, and he's endearingly game, but his actor's instincts are too sharp for what he's called upon to do. There's a whiff of cruelty in the way Greg keeps putting Rose off, pretending their arrangement is heaven-sent, and Bridges must sense it. He just can't act on it; the film won't let him. The notion that this blithe, romanceless romancer might be punishing Rose for loving him is too psychologically dark for this film's enforced cheeriness. And yet the notion is there anyway: It's not the phony-sleek Pierce Brosnans of the world women need to beware of; it's the smiley, heartfelt Jeff Bridges-with-a-bow-tie types.

The miscasting we may sense with Streisand relates to something deeper: It relates to what the movie is about. She is playing an unloved Plain Jane who finally recognizes her own lovableness. Now, no one should be so naive as to presume that the famous and the beautiful who walk among us are not without their vast pockets of insecurity. For artists--and Streisand is overpoweringly an artist--that insecurity could well be the engine of their art. Still, Streisand grossly underestimates our estimation of her. We've grown beyond the ugly-duckling notions in The Mirror Has Two Faces because Streisand, in her best films, has helped us to grow beyond them.

In such films as Funny Girl, The Owl and the Pussycat, The Way We Were, Up the Sandbox and Yentl, she is so much more beautiful than the conventionally glamorous types because she is so much more phenomenally, and unapologetically, talented. Streisand has made a movie about the transformative powers of love, but as a performer, she has forgotten the self-transforming powers of her own great gifts. She smothers those gifts in the service of a conception that is contradicted by her very presence. When, in her misery at being cast off, Rose gazes mournfully into her mirror, some of us may have the same uneasy feeling we had when such actresses as Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, in their later movies, started misting over and quenching the fire we loved them for. As actresses grow older, they need to be tougher--for their sakes as well as ours.

The Mirror Has Two Faces could turn out to be a big hit; it's jam-packed with entertaining bits, and it pulls on the heartstrings. Also--witness the success of Waiting to Exhale and The First Wives Club--there seems to be a commercial niche now for movies in which wronged women rise up and turn the tables on male pigglywigglies. It's payback time. Women especially may be flattered by the notion that Streisand is speaking to--and maybe sharing in--their own romantic hang-ups.

But Streisand mousy and mock-glamorous is Streisand partially wasted. Maybe The Mirror Has Two Faces will serve the same function for her that The Last Temptation of Christ did for Martin Scorsese. Maybe it's the long-held project she had to get out of her system in order to finally move beyond it.

Streisand's long-term absences from the screen are deprivations for us far crueler than anything Greg perpetrates with Rose. Her infrequent movie appearances are made to carry more weight than they can bear; they become instant Events. They should become regular events. Our movies need the brass and the lyricism and the low-slung humor that Streisand can bring--as performer and director. There are two faces in Streisand's Mirror, and they are not among her best. She has many more, and she's so ecstatically gifted that no one mirror could ever contain them all.

The Mirror Has Two Faces:
Directed by Barbra Streisand; with Barbra Streisand, Jeff Bridges, Lauren Bacall, Mimi Rogers, Pierce Brosnan, George Segal and Brenda Vaccaro.


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Peter Rainer