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.