OTI Online
Spring 1997

The Mirror Has Two Faces
Movie Review by Kathy Maio


The Diva in the Mirror



The diva behind the camera;
Barbra Streisand directs Jeff Bridges.


Photo: David James
© 1996 TriStar Pictures Inc.

It's not easy being a diva, and I don't mean an opera singer. (Although that's no walk in the park, either.) No, I'm referring to the Hollywood female superstar: iconic women performers whose show biz personas could fill a screen, eclipse any script and overshadow any co-star. Back in the golden days of Hollywood, the town was full of them. Joan Crawford. Bette Davis. Even Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor. They were bigger, much bigger, than the films they appeared in. And that's the way we liked them.

But, gradually, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the role of women in feature films deteriorated, and the Hollywood diva all but disappeared. Oh, we still have female stars today, but look at them. Headliners like Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock (and even slightly older performers like Meg Ryan and Michele Pfeiffer) are girlish, sweet and, sad to say, almost interchangeable. They hardly strike us as women of power, and they never truly dominate their material, or their leading men. In fact, compared to the hypermasculine male stars of today (Stallone, Mel Gibson, Schwarzenegger, etc.), they practically fade into the woodwork.

So, is the diva dead? Not as long as Barbra Streisand still lives and breathes -- and produces, directs, writes music for, sings over the closing credits of, and stars in -- the occasional film.The problem is, much of the movie-going public -- that is, many audience members and almost all critics -- no longer want to watch a woman be a STAR. They want a woman who takes up less space on the screen, someone who is young and pretty and more docile, on and off the set. That's why there was such backlash against Streisand's latest movie, The Mirror Has Two Faces. Most of the reviews were pans, and most of the pans were intensely personal attacks, charging her with "control-freak" perfectionism and excessive vanity. Many gleefully pointed out that she fired some technical workers during her shoot. Others berated her for lighting herself in a flattering manner. It's as if they were saying, "How dare she call the shots on her own film set?" "How dare she be the star of the movie wherein she plays the protagonist?" (Take a moment to consider that when Mel Gibson directed himself as the title character of "Braveheart," no one busted his chops for being a take-charge kinda guy, or for filling the screen with his own manly, mythically heroic countenance. Heck, they even gave him a couple of Oscars for his self-glorifying epic.)

As with her previous (Oscar-snubbed) directorial projects, much of the sniping against The Mirror Has Two Faces was leveled against La Barbra for having the audacity to be an (unrepentantly) powerful woman in today's Hollywood. It's sexist.

Unhappily, however, so is Ms. Streisand's entertaining romantic comedy.

In the film, Streisand plays Rose Morgan, a popular professor of romantic literature at Columbia University. Rose still lives in the shadow of her beautiful, vain mother, Hannah (Lauren Bacall), who belittles her constantly, and her beautiful, vain sister, Claire (Mimi Rogers), who steals and marries Rose's equally shallow boyfriend (Pierce Brosnan), simply because she can.

This is fairytale family dysfunction. Only the wicked stepsister and stepmother are actually flesh and blood. Since this isn't the eighteenth century, you might wonder why a middle-aged professor at a major university is still living at home with her able-bodied and emotionally sadistic mother. All the better to show, presumably, that this is one Cinderella that needs a rescuing prince, pronto.

But princes seem in short supply, until Rose meets another Columbia prof, a handsome but awkward mathematician named Gregory Larkin (Jeff Bridges). Gregory, who has had many failed relationships with la belle dames sans merci, decides to try another approach to a contented and productive existence. Since beautiful women wreck his life, he'll seek out a homely one with mutual interests; since sexual preoccupations keep him from his work, he'll build a meaningful celibate relationship.

When Gregory sits in on one of Rose's lectures and hears the frumpy but dynamic teacher expound upon the "courtly love" ideal of a pure union of the souls, he thinks he's found the perfect woman. Later, both agree that the media-induced obsession with beauty and romance is a harmful force in gender relations. And so, Rose, who is attracted to Greg's intelligence and kindness (as well as his good looks) is happy to give celibate marriage a try.

The brave -- and interesting -- thing would have been to have these two form a loving, supportive primary relationship without sex. But Hollywood has never been that courageous, even with a woman director at the helm. Movies (as "Mirror" itself admits) are designed to sell sexual intercourse. So, before you know it, Richard LaGravenese's screenplay has Rose throwing on a black negligee and lighting up candles in an attempt to seduce her husband. When the seduction fails, Rose is crushed and Greg is confused -- and the two are temporarily separated.

This is when the movie really falls apart. These two, who clearly already care for one another deeply, don't simply work out their relationship. No, that would be too civilized and too self-respecting. Instead, Rose opts for a total beauty makeover. While Greg lectures in Europe, she exercises and starves herself down a couple of dress sizes, paints her toenails, bleaches her hair, paints her face, dons black sheath dresses, bares her cleavage and teeters around on four-inch heels. In short, she becomes Barbra Streisand at her most glamorous -- a manifestation of every Cosmo cover you've ever seen, a personification of every Jenny Craig, Lancome and Clairol ad that has ever promised you love and acceptance if you can only achieve the right "look."

In having Rose heal her life through a beauty regimen, The Mirror Has Two Faces embraces the very superficial, misogynist trappings that Rose and Greg disparaged earlier in the film. It is especially troubling to watch Rose put her makeover in the hands of her mother -- the very woman who, the story goes, kept Rose from developing a healthy sense of self.

Barbra Streisand has said that the mother-daughter angst of the film is more than a little autobiographical. (She even fed bits of her conversations with her own mother to LaGravenese to insert in the script.) But, in real life, Streisand worked on her self-esteem issues in much different ways than she allows Rose to do. Babs got some distance from the toxic relationship she had with her mother. She went into therapy and learned to love herself for who she was. And, as we all know, she accomplished great things in her professional life. Too bad poor Rose couldn't do the same thing. Instead, she is redeemed by cosmetics and hair dye...and a good-looking man admitting that, yes, he does want to sleep with her.

Oh Barbra, Barbra, Diva mine! Couldn't you find a project more worthy of your prodigious talents? It's really hard for me to come to the defense of the last of the female superstars when you put your power behind a retrograde fairytale like The Mirror Has Two Faces.


Kathy Maio is the film critic for On The Issues.


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