Barbra Streisand’s career as a director has been spotty, at best. Her criminally underrated debut, Yentl (1983) as a director, was a wonderful and challenging treatise on how society squanders much of its resources by denying certain folks an education. She followed up, almost a decade later, with the mystifyingly warmly-received dreck, The Prince of Tides, where all of Streisand’s worst insticts as a director shown through — namely her almost pathological need to prove herself. She cannabalized Pat Conroy’s source material, plumping up a supporting character, so that she had a juicy role opposite a (then) hunky Nick Nolte.
The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996) falls somewhere in the middle. Not as satisfying as Yentl, though no where near as appalling as The Priance of Tides, the film is a case of Streisand trying to make a whole lot of nothing. Streisand cast herself as Rose Morgan, a supposedly brilliant Columbia college professor who still lives with her mother, Hannah (Lauren Bacall). Rose’s attractive sister Claire (Mimi Rogers) places a singles ad for Rose in the paper, which is duly answered by Rose’s handsome colleague, Greg Larkin (Jeff Bridges). The two educators, who are supposed to be highly intelligent, decide to marry, despite the lack of sexual chemistry – the marriage essentially starts off as some sort of social experiment where the researchers try to see if a marriage can succeed without sex.
The romance between Rose and Greg in the first half of the movie is handled well. The movie moves at a break-neck pace, peppered with wonderful asides and one-liners supplied by Richard LaGravenese. When asked why doesn’t she wear makeup, Rose quips, “What’s the point? I’d still look like me, only in color. ” It’s only when the melodrama seeps into the script that he film grounds to a halt. Then, while the film never turns bad, it does become rather tedious, as we watch as the supposedly “frumpy” Rose transforms in the obligatory transformation into a sexy vixen.
Streisand is a good director, capable of pulling good-to-excellent performances from her cast. She herself puts in a great comic turn, reminding audiences what a brilliant comedienne she was before she climbed atop a Hollywood pedestal and began to take herself too seriously. Her way with the self-deprecating cracks is wonderful, and she does some nifty physical humor, as well (her bit with a hair piece is golden). She is ably supporting by a fine supporting cast: Bridges is meant to be a bit bland — kind of like Streisand’s former costars Ryan O’Neal or Robert Redford — and he does so admirably. Rogers also is good, though a bit underutilized, as is Brenda Vaccaro as Streisand’s punch-line of a best friend. The laurels belong to Bacall, who gives the film’s most memorable performance as the still-beautiful, but hideously acerbic fire-breathing mother. Streisand and Bacall have great moments together, most notably a sincere heart-to-heart where the two women speak with unflinching candor about youth and beauty. It’s a nugget of social revelence and intelligence that gives the audience a glimpse of just how smart this movie could’ve been.
It’s interesting that Streisand decided to surround herself with such lookers like Bridges, Rogers, Bacall and Pierce Brosnan (Rogers’ onscreen husband). In Yentl, to successfully pass off as a boy, she surrounded herself with effeminite boys. In Mirror, she doesn’t go to those lengths, which is admirable. However, she also doesn’t allow herself to look all that bad. In the scenes before her transformation, when she was supposed to be dowdy, frankly she looked kind of fabulous. Then after the montage of exercise, diets and wardrobe changes set to a Richard Marx power ballad, she emerges with cleavage-revealing cocktail dresses that show off her famously fab gams. The sexpot Streisand looks great, of course, but it can’t help be noticed that the schlubby Streisand wasn’t too hard to look at either.
Streisand’s unwillingness to look bad also highlights a rather sad aspect of her public persona. Despite the famous ego and steely will, she still feels it necessary to remind her public just how attractive she’s become, despite her less-than conventional looks. When she debuted in the 1960’s, as a young 20-something performer, this sort of complex was understandable. Streisand is middle-aged, and her quest to be validated by her audience at this point is rather disturbing.