Movie musicals are not the money-making machines they used to be (look no further than the notorious failure of Tom Hooper’s first foray into horror with 2019’s Cats). But there was a point in history where they were reliable audience-drawing blockbusters that also garnered critical praise. The undoubted success of these films in the 1960s and early 1970s is at least partly due to the unforgettable female performances. Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli and Rita Moreno, with their respective acting decisions and collective passion, humour and earnestness, shaped how we continue to approach this genre as movie-goers.
Any genre is multi-faceted and riddled with potential pitfalls, but the movie musical is a particularly tricky style to master. The creative team is tasked with balancing two visual mediums that are inherently different. The emotion that musical theatre relies on can feel embarrassing or cloying when conveyed through a traditional close-up, (this is aimed at you, Russell Crowe in Les Mis.) Most Broadway ballads are designed to be bellowed across a theatre, so it is particularly important to hire performers that can measure out their emotions. They still need to tap into musical melodrama but they cannot perform their numbers for the cheap seats anymore. It is a balancing act, and a tough one at that.
But Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli and Rita Moreno deliver thoughtful, pointed performances in their respective Oscar-winning roles. Obviously, I wasn’t privy to the conversations between these three actresses and their directors, (William Wyler for Funny Girl, Bob Fosse for Cabaret, Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise for West Side Story,) but I imagine it came down to an element of trust. The camera simply rests on them while they sing – no gimmicks – just trusting that they have the right blend of confidence and knowledge to wield the lyrics of each show tune deftly.
Since we are to try and unpick what makes these performances great, independent of one another, we should start at the beginning – chronologically speaking. West Side Story (1961) was the first movie musical to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and with it Rita Moreno took the crown for Best Supporting Actress. While certain elements of West Side Story really do not age well, (several of the Puerto Rican characters are played by white actors in brown face), Rita Moreno’s depiction of Anita holds up. This is mostly because she is a formidable actress, and it helps that she is Puerto Rican.
Anita is a version of the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, with slightly more to do. She is a companion for Maria, a foil to this Juliet’s innocence and youth. But Rita Moreno shifts the focus of whatever scene she is in. She shimmies and cackles with such eye-catching, reckless abandon. Her standout performance comes in the musical number ‘A Boy Like That’ where she shifts between earnest pleading and wide-eyed rage effortlessly, visibly shaking as she sings “he’ll murder your love, he murdered mine!” She cleverly offers nuance to a famously simple story of young love.
In 1969, Barbra Streisand won an Oscar for her first ever onscreen performance. It is impossible to overstate how brilliant her performance is in Funny Girl (1968); she is witty and sly and open-hearted all at the same time. ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ is the most beloved song from Funny Girl, and rightfully so, but the defining number for Streisand is ‘I’m The Greatest Star’. She propels her body around with such a careful balance of precision and force, throwing her arms up to the air as she belts the final note before unexpectedly dropping down to her knees. There is something jarring and earned in the way she flings her body across an empty stage. But this intensity is matched with Barbra Streisand’s sarcasm and self-deprecation. She is earnest and self-reflexive, touching and dismissive.
Liza Minnelli was well acquainted with stage and screen when she starred in Cabaret (1972). This sense of worldliness is naturally imbued in the character; Minnelli allows Sally Bowles to carry an erratic confidence through the whole film. She frantically wanders in and out of scenes, determinedly occupying as much space as possible. But there is an urgency in the moments when she settles; when she cries to Brian after having an abortion, when she says goodbye to him as he leaves for England, when she sings ‘Maybe This Time’. She expertly balances energy and stillness, holding the audience at arm’s length and drawing them in at strategic moments in the film.
Besides winning Oscars and being great, these performances seem to have very little in common, so what draws them together? They were all delivered by actresses whose depictions are so memorable in part because they are so memorable. I can picture what each of these women were wearing to the Oscars as well as I can remember their performances. These divas (that term is used with all due respect), harnessed the confidence which would make them beloved personalities to offer portrayals that movie musical actresses would be studying for years to come.
by Anna McKibbin
Anna (she/ her) is a journalism student based in London. She is deeply invested in celebrity culture and is nostalgic for the era of movie stars and musical divas. She also has a soft spot for the movie musical (yes, even the bad ones!). Her favourite films include Moulin Rouge, The Sound of Music and The Incredibles. Twitter: @annarosemary Letterboxd: @anna_rosemary