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The Mirror Has Two Faces is the latest eruption in Barbra Streisand’s half-century love-hate relationship with her nose. Beneath a thin veneer of comedy lurks a Gogolian psychodrama in which the actress-director once again struggles to figure out whether she’s beautiful, “interesting”-looking, or a meeskite. If her pal Bill Clinton were to call for a national referendum on the issue and the electorate united to pull the lever marked “Gorgeous,” the resulting mandate might finally resolve the question, freeing her to devote her considerable energies to less egocentric concerns.
Streisand and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese loosely base their film on French lawyer-filmmaker Andre Cayette’s 1958 drama, Le Miroir A Deux Faces, a somber drama in which a schoolmaster’s marriage to a plain woman is drastically altered when a plastic surgeon transforms the dowdy wife into a beauty. Previously indifferent to her, the husband grows wildly jealous and ends up murdering the surgeon.
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LaGravenese uses this frumpy-to-fetching Cinderella gimmick as the mainspring for a romantic comedy uncomfortably reminiscent of the vintage Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy movie Without Love. Streisand plays plain-Jane Rose Morgan, a Columbia University literature professor who lectures about romance, a subject with which she has little real-life experience. Despite the goading of her once-glamorous widowed mother Hannah (Lauren Bacall) and thrice-married hot-chick sister Claire (Mimi Rogers), she’s careless about her appearance and has abandoned hope of ever finding a mate. Using Rose’s name, Claire responds to a personals ad placed by handsome math professor Gregory Larkin (Jeff Bridges), a flustered survivor of erotically volatile but unhappy affairs with young women (among them, statuesque Elle Macpherson), who seeks a stress-free, entirely platonic relationship with an educated, 35-plus companion. The lonely academics meet, share enthusiasms, become friends, and ultimately marry without altering the no-sex clause in their compact. When Rose’s irrepressible libidinous impulses subsequently surface and Gregory fails to satisfy them, the marriage falters. Only after Hannah subjects her drab daughter to a head-to-toe makeover can fellowship and passion fuse in a giddy, interminable dancing-in-the-streets finale.
Hardly a second of this bloated 126-minute vanity production rings true. From previous Streisand vehicles we know that the narcissistic, control-freak actress is incapable of facing a camera without looking her best, particularly when she’s also behind that camera. Unlike Cayette’s exquisite leading lady (Michele Morgan, who allowed her face to be disfigured by prosthetic makeup), Streisand is too insecure to risk deglamorization. Beneath her slapdash hairdo and professorial glasses, she’s radiant; no wrinkle, crow’s foot, or yawning pore is permitted to blemish her Vermeer complexion, which is lovingly lit until it glows like the frosted shade of a hurricane lamp. You’d think that having successfully achieved the illusion of youth—she looks barely half her true age—director Streisand might have paid a bit of sisterly attention to how Bacall was photographed. In her close-ups, the veteran actress resembles an Etruscan mummy.
Other details feel equally bogus. Rose conducts her overflowing literature classes, held in a vast lecture hall, as though she were auditioning for a comedy club and, improbably, addresses each of her fawning students by name. Her metamorphosis from ugly duckling to swan is similarly unconvincing. With her teased, streaked hair, laminated makeup, aerobicized body, and clinging wardrobe, the renovated, allegedly pulchritudinous New Rose resembles a New Jersey hooker and behaves like Jerry Lewis in drag. The movie’s nadir comes in the scene where the horny professor attempts to force sex upon her bewildered, reticent husband. I can’t recall witnessing anything so cringe-inducingly degrading since the notorious wedding-night sequence in Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers, when the effete, terrified Tchaikovsky is molested by his nymphomaniacal bride. Faint-hearted viewers are advised to avert their eyes.
As in most Streisand projects, the supporting cast is restricted to functioning as a chorus assembled to celebrate the star’s putative wit, intelligence, and magnetism. Cast as a bow-tied, bespectacled dolt, the amiable Bridges struggles manfully, albeit ineffectively, to stand up to his powerhouse, know-it-all co-star. As the acerbic but loving Hannah, Bacall mugs like a hyperthyroidal mime. Sharp-faced Rogers spouts a few refreshingly nasty lines, but Pierce Brosnan, playing her unrequitedly adoring spouse, is as animated as an 8-by-10 glossy. Porcine Brenda Vaccaro, as Rose’s best friend Doris, waddles into a few scenes to make Streisand look slender. The biggest mistake was hiring George Segal to play Gregory’s rakish colleague-confidant, Henry. Not because of his performance—he’s more than adequate in a throwaway role—but because his presence conjures up memories of his work opposite Streisand in 1970’s The Owl and the Pussycat, a sharp, funny Manhattan comedy shot before the actress had grandiosely decided to become an Institution.
For a movie decrying society’s superficial judgment of people based on externals, The Mirror Has Two Faces is peculiarly obsessed with appearances. Streisand and Bacall spend inordinate amounts of time gazing into the titular looking glass. Bridges is shown doing sit-ups and, at Rose’s encouragement, undergoes a minimetamorphosis of his own, changing his classroom attire from unhip suits to torso-hugging jerseys and bulging jeans. While the screenplay exhorts us to look beyond surfaces, director Streisand undermines its point by fixating her camera on Rogers’ skin tight gowns and Brosnan’s matinee-idol profile. As it unfolds, the film grows so fraught with mixed messages that its meaning becomes increasingly inscrutable. Streisand obviously intends to dazzle us with New Rose’s post-transformation allure, but leaves herself an escape clause. If we still don’t think she’s a knockout, then we’re guilty of shallowness for failing to perceive her inner beauty. Either way, she wins and the audience loses.
Early on, Rose defends her self-centered mother by observing, “You can’t have someone committed for excessive vanity.” Maybe not, but at least you can issue a warning citation. At 54, it’s time that Streisand—a superb singer, an expressive actress and, based on Yentl, a sensitive filmmaker—reached some rapprochement with her honker and turned away from the mirror to set her sights on more substantial matters. If she doesn’t, and continues grinding out solipsistic embarrassments like The Mirror Has Two Faces, even her most passionate fans are bound to grow exasperated, and her production company of sycophantic enablers will be queuing up for unemployment checks.