Yentl remains one of late 20th century Hollywood's unlikeliest hits: an adaptation of the Isaac Bashevis Singer tale set in the orthodox Jewish communities of the East before the Wars, and concerning the peregrinations of a brilliant young woman who defies convention, upon her father's death, by disguising herself as a boy and setting off to study at yeshiva. She's played, of course, by Barbra Streisand. There are, inevitably, songs. It was released in that small window of opportunity between the first and second Rambo movies. Marvel it was ever greenlit at all, let alone that audiences flocked to it. That it was, and that they did, makes Yentl the decade's foremost cinematic manifestation of force of will, sheer star power, demonstrating the ability of a particularly cussed personality to get something made and seen, however improbable. Where does Yentl come from? Well, perhaps it was born of the women's movement of the 1970s, Streisand flexing some muscle as co-writer-producer-director-star while playing a young woman who refuses to accept the strictures she's born into, and who sets out on a new path to make a better life for herself. Yet the setting and once-upon-a-time framing suggests the material also had to be couched as a fairytale: put-upon princess runs away from her kingdom to the Jewish equivalent of Cinderella's ball. There are Michel Legrand numbers (actually not dissimilar to the sung commentary of the composer's Jacques Demy collabs), disguises, horsedrawn carriages; a ready Prince Charming in the young Mandy Patinkin as a fellow scholar who doesn't realise the effect his roughhousing is having on our crossdressed heroine; and a number of beardy old men who seem so in touch with the secrets of the universe that they may as well be wizards. (Show your kids the image of Streisand in her little round specs, and you could sell the movie as a kosher Harry Potter predecessor.)
As in a lot of co-opted fairy tales, the feminism only goes so far: on some level, Yentl is a film about an impressionable girl who loses her father and strikes out to win over a replacement father figure. (The closing dedication is "to my father, and all our fathers".) Yet Yentl now presents as naughtier and more perverse than most period Oscar bait, a matter of appetites altogether enthusiastically explored. Babs not only wants the songs and the close-ups, the world and its wisdom, she wants to win the man away from model-of-domestication Amy Irving, and then to win Irving, too: the character's need for knowledge, rabbinical and carnal, is as all-consuming as the star's need for affirmation and affection. As the Irving development suggests, Streisand sensed the identity battles looming as one century gave way to the next - the inner conflicts that might keep a costume drama relevant - and she's funny with it, too, reminding us she's a scholar, a Hollywood player and a supremely gifted comedienne: clock her timid flinches as Patinkin emerges bare-arsed from a lake, or the way Yentl turns his/her wedding night (the film juggles pronouns) into a girlie sleepover, complete with pillow-throwing. (We might wonder how much the movie is Streisand's response to fellow songbird Julie Andrews' work in the previous year's no less gender fluid Victor/Victoria.) It can't have been fashionable even at the time, and has been open to spoofing and mockery ever since, but watch it on your own, with the sobriety appropriate to a rabbinical scholar, and you should still find the film's essential sincerity working on you. Streisand isn't even the most convincing boy (she'd be buried under layers of latex nowadays, and coached to lower her voice), but when she stops Patinkin in his tracks with the line "nothing is impossible" - as much a declaration of love as it is a mission statement for this career - you'll believe her, absolutely.
Yentl screens on BBC2 this Thursday at 3.05pm, and will then be available to stream via the iPlayer here.