Stellar eclipse

FILM; The Mirror Has Two Faces Barbra Streisand (15) By Adam Mars-Jones
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The Independent Culture
With The Mirror Has Two Faces, Barbra Streisand returns to the matrix-myth of her career, the Ugly Duckling. Directing herself, she plays Rose Morgan, an English professor at the University of Columbia whose lecture technique seems borrowed from stand-up comedy. Rose's lovely sister Claire answers an ad on her behalf, and sets her up with another professor, this time of Math (played by Jeff Bridges), who wants intellectual intimacy without complications. Rose hopes he will grow to love her, but even when he proposes marriage, he is thinking strictly separate beds. He considers them to be less a couple than a pair of prime numbers - subject of his research. He wouldn't want her to be sexy, since desire gives him vertigo. But she has other ideas.

The Ugly Duckling story underlies many of Streisand's films, often in bizarre versions: I'm Too Politically Aware to Swim with the Flock (The Way We Were), The Drake of My Dreams Thinks I'm a Rabbi (Yentl). The twist in The Mirror Has Two Faces is only that the transformation into swan takes places in a heroine, or at least an actress, of mature years. This is the duckling as late developer, since 1998 will see the 30th anniversary of Funny Girl.

In fact, Streisand has successfully projected herself as a performer who transcends the established categories. She has embodied the self-description of a rather less grand actress, Nichola McAuliffe: I would like to be pretty but have settled for being merely beautiful. Still, The Mirror Has Two Faces is no exception to the rule that Hollywood is at its most hypocritical when talking about inner beauty.

At their first sight of Rose Morgan, before the swan make-over, audiences are meant to think, "Poor thing, no wonder she can't get a date," but when they first see Streisand they are required to marvel at how well she is holding up, or murmur "54? Impossible!" When it's Streisand on both sides of the camera, the character will always lose out to the star.

So Rose sometimes wears glasses and even a woolly hat, just as Jeff Bridges wears glasses and a bow tie. She hides snacks in her bedroom, though she is more of a furtive nibbler than a true secret eater. Everyone keeps saying that she wears no make-up, but her face glows, and in her boyfriend's lecture-room it receives radiance from a supernatural light source. Her wardrobe isn't dowdy, it's a diva's idea of dressing down. When we first see her lecturing, she's wearing an integral jacket-and-braces number that is hardly convincing as workday wear for a woman who knows nothing about clothes.

It's desirable and necessary that women should resist the ageism of the movies, and it's certainly droll to watch George Segal, relegated to an avuncular role, wondering that the years should ratchet him up a generation, while Streisand, cast opposite him in the Owl and the Pussycat (1970), remains where she was. But denying age is not the same thing as considering it unimportant.

The best single line in The Mirror Has Two Faces, after all, comes when Rose's hateful mother, splendidly played by Lauren Bacall, has been talking about her day at work as a beautician, and a customer who couldn't believe how old she was. Rose asks, with deadly dryness: "How old were you?" A killer question, but also one that explodes in her face.

It's not simply that the press kit, recounting the life of this "astoundingly multi-faceted and richly successful entertainer, film-maker, social activist and philanthropist", can bring itself to mention only the day of her birth - as if Streisand, like Christ, were born again every year, and 24 April were celebrated as a public holiday (Barbramas?) - but that the press kit's attitude invades the picture.

In a crucial scene, Rose blames her mother for not making her feel pretty as a child, and a certain amount of healing takes place between the women. Yet the film can't quite face admitting that Rose is the older sister. It's hardly possible that she's the younger, but the healing comes when Rose's mother remembers her husband's preference for Rose as a baby. He'd never held a baby before, but he never wanted to let her go - which would only be a tribute if he had previously failed to bond with Claire. The sisters in the film, bizarrely, are twins of different ages.

The Mirror Has Two Faces, based on a French original, is a romantic comedy whose comedy is more effective than its romance. It would work better with a different actress, but Streisand seems to see her directing as a complement to her own performing, not a substitute for it. As it is, the eclipse of the character by the director-star sabotages any number of moments. When Rose, flirting with her brother-in-law (Pierce Brosnan) accepts a cigarette from him, we're likely to think "Hold on, isn't this the same Barbra Streisand who recently made the great gesture of relaxing the no-smoking zone around her for the benefit of Vaclav Havel?" Turns out it's not just Presidents of the Czech Republic who are allowed to smoke around Streisand. It's also astoundingly multi-faceted and richly successful entertainers, film-makers, social activists and philanthropists - provided they were born on Barbramasn