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Film / Yentl

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Barbra Streisand directed, co-wrote, co-produced, and starred in this 1983 musical drama film, adapted from a 1975 play of the same name (based in turn off the short story "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy" by Isaac Bashevis Singer), about a Jewish girl in Poland who becomes a Wholesome Crossdresser so she can receive an education. The movie is set in the early 20th Century and was partially filmed in Prague. As the lead character, Streisand got to belt out several memorable songs.

Yentl secretly is instructed in Talmudic Law by her father, a path that is disallowed to women of the time. When her father dies, Yentl makes the decision to cut her hair, take the name of her dead brother Anshel and disguise herself as a boy so she can enter a yeshiva (Jewish religious school). There she becomes friends with her roommate Avigdor, who is engaged to marry a sweet, gentle, and beautiful woman named Hadass.

Complications arise: One day while many of the men are gone swimming, Yentl realizes she is falling hard for Avigdor and can't act on it without blowing her cover. Then suddenly, Hadass's family breaks off Avigdor's engagement. Avigdor had lied about his brother dying of consumption where in truth his brother had gone insane and committed suicide, and the family feared the sickness might run in the family. Distraught, Avigdor comes up with what he thinks is an excellent idea - as his best friend, Anshel should take his place as the groom, and as a result he won't be cut off from Hadass completely. Yentl balks, but she doesn't want to lose Avigdor (who almost leaves the town in disgrace) and Hadass is a nice enough woman. In the ensuing scenes filled with her terror and a few close calls, she ultimately goes through with the marriage.

Since Hadass is nervous about the arrangement, still attached to Avigdor and and in no more hurry to consummate the marriage than Yentl is, things settle down for a bit. However, when the three of them are together, Yentl watches Avigdor staring longingly at Hadass and starts to realize that he's too deeply attached to her to ever reciprocate what Yentl feels for him. Meanwhile, inspired by Yentl's wit and brains, the innocent Hadass starts to express an interest in academic study, which Yentl, recognizing the thirst, is all too glad to indulge. What she didn't intend was for Hadass to start to love her because of it, and when Hadass starts to come on to her, Yentl realizes she can't keep up the charade. She reveals the truth to Avigdor, who is initially furious, then accepting, and even admits he was hiding some feelings for her too. Avigdor and Hadass get back together and Yentl leaves for America where she might have a chance at pursuing her opportunities more openly.

This film contains examples of:

  • All Love Is Unrequited: Both Yentil for Avigdor and Avigdor for Hadass (though she loves him, they're prevented from consummating it).
  • And I'm the Queen of Sheba: Avigdor's initial reaction when Yentl reveals her true identity:
    Avigdor: Now my secret: I'm the Tsar of Russia.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Yentl delivers one to Avigdor after revealing her true identity to him.
    Yentl: I...I was afraid. I wanted to be near you. I didn't want to lose you. I loved you!
  • As the Good Book Says...: Part of how Yentl gets out of consummating her marriage: it's apparently very clear in the Talmud that a woman can't consummate a marriage while she's thinking of another.
  • Bittersweet Ending: In the book the film was based upon, the marriage between Avigdor and Hadass was held in a way that was customary for a virgin - banquet for the poor, the canopy, musicians, the jester, and so on. The only thing lacking was joy. But as a consolation for the joyless wedding, the boy from the marriage was named Anshel.
  • Character Title
  • Chick Flick: of the drama variety
  • Consummation Counterfeit: Yentl gets trapped into an arranged marriage with a woman who doesn't particularly want to marry "him" either. On their wedding night they play around non-seuxally in their bedroom and Yentl "accidentally" spills some red wine on the bed, which is taken by the others at the wedding night party as proof of consummation.
  • Deceased Parents Are the Best: Yentl’s papa was a very loving man who was not afraid to teach her the ways of the Talmud, but he did have his stern moments, such as pressuring Yentl to marry and have children.
  • Defiant Strip: When Yentl tells Avigdor about her true gender and he doesn't believe her, she removes her upper clothing until she is able to open her shirt as proof of her true gender.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: There would be no story without the notion of early 20th century Polish Orthodox Judaism being misogynistic (to the point where even a someone who interprets things progressively like Agvidor would be disgusted at the idea of women learning at first).
  • Dont Touch Me: Avigdor says this to Yentl after she reveals she is truly a woman and he is angry.
  • Eye Take: Avigdor's facial expressions change to this as he learns of Yentl's true gender.
  • Hidden Buxom: Yentl binds herself down in order to pass as a man.
  • "I Am Becoming" Song: "No Matter What Happens", "A Piece of Sky"
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Avigdor for Hadass when his engagement to her is broken off by her parents and proposes that Yentl marry her. Yentl for Avigdor when she decides to reveal herself and leave Hadass to him while she leaves for America.
  • "I Want" Song: "Where is it Written?"
  • Incredibly Long Note: Barbra Streisand's final number (Papa Can You Hear Me/A Piece of Sky); her last note clocks in at over 20 seconds. Babs in general is famous for these.
  • The Ingenue: Hadass
  • Love Triangle: A slightly unconventional one. As Yentl puts it:
    He loves her, she loves him, he likes me, I like her, and I've reason to think she likes me.
    She keeps him, he keeps her, I keep things as they were, it's a perfect arrangement for three!
    • It gets more complicated later when Hadass starts to fall in love with Yentl/Anshel.
  • Meaningful Echo: There are two: "Nothing's impossible!", first uttered to the titular character by her study partner Avigdor after he asks her/him to marry his ex-fiancee, later uttered by her when Avigdor almost leaves town after she refuses the favor. The other is "God will understand. I'm not so sure about the neighbors," first said by Yentl's father when asked why he is closing the windows if God will understand that his teaching her Talmudic law, which was forbidden to women at the time, is not with ill intent. It is said again by her to Avigdor's ex-fiancee (now her legal wife) in the same context.
  • Setting Update: The original play took place in 1873. As per the opening titles, the film is set in 1904 instead.
  • Shoulders-Up Nudity: When Yentl opens her shirt to flash her breasts at Avigdor as proof of her true gender, the scene is shot from the shoulders up.
  • Sweet on Polly Oliver: After the heroine reveals her, ahem, "self" to her love interest, he bitches her out for a while, and then reveals the following to her:
    "I didn't want to touch you. I didn't know why. I thought there was something wrong with me. I loved you... "
    • Justified. Yentl's disguise is pretty crappy (much worse than the equivalent in Tootsie or Mrs. Doubtfire, for example.) The miracle is that anyone thought she was a man, not that a straight man was attracted to her. It more makes you wonder about Avigdor's fiancee.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: The main character became a man in order to attend a school in Jewish Talmudic Law, which was forbidden for women at the time. It made for some really weird love triangles.
  • Translation Convention: English stands in for Yiddish and Russian. Appropriate, since the original story was written in English before being translated back into Yiddish.
  • Twelfth Night Adventure: The film was set during a time when women were not allowed to become educated.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: Yentl cuts her hair shirt and disguises herself as a young man named Anshel.