I grew up a faithful patron of the Liberty Theater and the Queen Cinema in Eunice, Louisiana where I saw almost every movie shown from 1960 through 1972 (beginning of ratings system). But I did not become an obsessive film fan until I saw Funny Girl in 1968.
Barbra Streisand’s unique voice and dramatic delivery made me want to stay for the 8:30 feature that followed the 6:00 p.m. one I’d just seen. At first “The Greatest Star” and “Don’t Rain on my Parade” were my favorite songs. My sisters and I pantomimed these tunes at home while Momma’s hi-fi in the den blasted through the ceiling speakers in the living room. After fourteen viewings, “My Man” (the one song filmed before a live audience) became my favorite. Barbra’s cool short haircut that framed her anguished face and her long drop pearl earrings were spotlit. All but her fabulous face, sleek hands and long fingernails seemed to disappear into the blackness of the stage. She began the torch song fighting back tears with a halting delivery. But her strength grew as her voice got steadier and louder until she threw out both arms and belted the last line with a power that made me hold my breath while my thirteen-year-old heart ached for reasons it could not yet comprehend.
The movie earned eight Oscar nominations and Barbra got the film’s one Best Actress win for her portrayal of the incredible Fanny Brice. Her self-deprecating humor and durable-as-rubber-tubing ambition spoke to my wallflower teen angst, and her rise to stardom despite her nontraditional beauty gave me hope.
I was an extra shy girl with a limping left leg and a skinny, spastic left arm. I hid my mild cerebral palsy from most folks until a situation required the use of two healthy limbs. In my mind, I clapped with a hand and a claw. If I had to hold two paper cups at the same time, I’d touch the sides together in hopes my steady right hand could keep my shaky left from spilling the cups’ contents. Yet even if luck shone on me and very little water splashed over the rim, my CP hand could involuntarily squeeze the stupid flimsy cup and dump half its contents onto the floor.
Watching Funny Girl gave me hope of reaching my life goal of being the first big movie star to emerge from Eunice, Louisiana or become Barbra Streisand’s new best friend – two equally worthy aspirations.
So I spent nights at Grandma’s house where I could walk to the Queen Cinema three blocks away, and no adult needed to drop me off or pick me up. In the dark theater with my long-lasting Toostsie Roll, I could watch Barbra sing and roller skate her way to fame and later have Omar Sharif kiss her neck while he seduced her with dinner and song.
My naive self believed that I (like my movie idol) could conquer all challenges. My small Cajun existence could tell me I was weak and awkward and invisible to the boys I had crushes on. But in my mind I’d be wearing a red and black sailor top with black bloomers and stockings, and I’d have two long graceful arms of the same length extended while I threw my head back and twirled on an empty stage and sang, “Have you guessed yet/ Who’s the best yet/ If you ain’t I’ll tell you one more time/ you bet your last dime./ I am the greatest, the greatest star!”
The Liberty and Queen were like my second home, and Funny Girl made that home a portal of possibilities. Barbra inspired me to be braver. Maybe I had a crooked left side and I wore uncool corrective shoes. Maybe my hair frizzed out and my pimples surprised me on the most inconvenient days. My parents misunderstood me, my sisters ganged up against me, and the boys at school made me wish I could crawfish my way into a mud home whenever they were near. But Barbra had not listened to critics or let rejection stop her from conquering Broadway and Hollywood in her early twenties. She faced off with anyone who tried to rain on her parade. Her talent astounded me, but more importantly her confidence and tenacity made the teenage me feel less like a loser. Barbra Streisand’s movies and albums made me believe I was one of those “luckiest people in the world.”