Secondhand Rose

Streisand's fun-house Mirror warps her strengths into rare weaknesses

Greg wants to put into action the ideal of courtly love that Rose talked up in her classroom rap. (He sat in on her lecture to check her out, but left before she gave thumbs up to the not-so-courtly alternative.) Minus the sex, Greg and Rose go through the standard falling-in-love paces--the evening concerts and snowball fights--and then they marry. Because lust, with all its virulence, is off limits in their relationship, Greg thinks the union will last forever. He's tickled pink with this arrangement--with this theorem of his played out on a human scale. Rose, for a while, is tickled, too. She's enraptured with the idea of being wanted--for anything. But the arrangement can't hold for her: She wants to feel completely alive; she wants love and lust.

Even though Greg and Rose are presented as brainy types, the movie doesn't try to make much of a case for the life of the mind. (That would just confuse the film's romantic agenda.) We're supposed to think that both of them--especially Greg--are too bollixed by book learning to appreciate the affairs of the heart. Pre-Greg, Rose spends her spare hours sneaking sweets and cheering baseball games on TV; her meals with her imperious mother are like the Upper West Side equivalent of Cinderella before the ball.

Hannah is in the business of making women eternally beautiful, and here is her daughter draped in drabness. (No flesh peeks through the drabness.) Rose asks her mother, "How did it feel being beautiful?" and the woman isn't modest: She tells her. "Was I a pretty baby?" Rose asks her. "What's pretty, anyway?" her mother responds. This sort of deep-dish masochism hasn't been seen in a mother-daughter act since Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann went at it in Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata. (Bacall makes an imposing scourge.) Hannah comes around, of course, but these earlier moments stay with you; they have a punishing, Grimm's fairy-tale quality and an unseemly self-justifying quality. Rose is a trouper, but she is also, we are made to feel, a victim--of her mother's neglect and society's false, conventional standards of beauty.

The beauty trap is ever-present in The Mirror Has Two Faces. Just about every pretty girl or handsome guy in Rose and Greg's orbit is presented as the enemy. Macpherson's character is a praying mantis in a tight skirt. When Rose hails a taxi, the cabby driving it swerves to pick up a bodacious bimbo instead. The sexy student in Greg's class is a vapid temptress. The girlfriends of Greg's buddy Henry are all chicklets. Pierce Brosnan's Alex is a waxy Romeo. Rose's curvy sister is a predator. And so on.

You can see why the deck is stacked. If anybody in this movie were, at least in the conventional sense, gorgeous and a great human being, it would mess up the movie's meaning. Picture-book looks don't count for much in The Mirror Has Two Faces. They place you with the pod people. So it should come as no surprise that the film's unbeautiful people--such as Austin Pendleton's Barry and the woman he ends up marrying, or the phone-sex girl whom Greg calls in desperation--are glimpsed as drippy, decent homebodies. They have no illusions about their allure; their drippiness has moral weight.

Streisand tries to have it both ways with Rose. She plays her for much of the movie as a sheltered schlump--a female Marty with a Ph.D. As a director, in her choice of unflattering camera angles, she purposely doesn't protect herself. Later, after Rose has bombed out trying to get Greg in the hay, she undergoes a makeover that turns her into a regal glamourpuss. (The camera announces Rose's new look as if she were the Statue of Liberty.) Rose rejects Greg; she has a chance for a tryst with Alex and rejects him. There's a wish-fulfillment fantasia built into scenes like these; Streisand is letting us know that, even though she doesn't need to be glamorous to be beautiful, she can go the glamour-queen route anyway and still knock our socks off. Take that, Elle Macpherson!

Streisand knocks down the false gods of Hollywood glamour while piling on the hearts and flowers. Early on she lets us know that Rose hears Puccini when she's in love so, of course, we brace ourselves for the moment when all's right with the world and Puccini fills our ears. She has Rose and Greg dancing at dawn in the New York streets backed on the soundtrack by the Streisand-Bryan Adams duet, "I Finally Found Someone." (Streisand co-wrote the song.) Rose likes extra dressing on her salad--it's a running gag--and so does Barbra Streisand.

The slight unease we may feel at The Mirror Has Two Faces connects with the miscasting at its core. Jeff Bridges and Barbra Streisand, two of the most sophisticated and sensual performers in film, are deliberately playing down their strengths. The miscasting is, in a sense, intentional: It's part of the film's looks-can-be-deceptive polemic. But it's tough to take Bridges as a bow-tied supernerd who has chosen to forget where his groin is located. The no-sex arrangement Greg works up with Rose could be viewed as the ploy of an unacknowledged gay man--a notion the film clearly does not intend. (Just to be on the safe side, the screenwriter has one of Greg's students remark that Greg is "too boring to be gay.")

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