Barbra Streisand’s film career feels like transcripts from therapy sessions. In her films, she often is paired with handsome men who go out of their way to affirm just how beautiful she is. In her last directing effort, 1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces, Streisand stars as Rose Morgan, a popular Columbia University professor who still lives with her mother. Written by Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King), and based on Andre Cayatte’s 1958 film Le Miroir a deaux faces, the story has Streisand’s Rose go through an ugly duckling journey, finding confidence in herself, but only after being told by hunks like Jeff Bridges and Pierce Brosnan that she’s gorgeous. A middling hit for Streisand, it is the latest in a fascinating career of an incredibly successful performer who is still working out some self-esteem issues.
The Mirror Has Two Faces has lots of hits and misses and is often a frustrating viewing experience. In the film Rose is the plain sister of Claire (Mimi Rogers) who is getting married to the gorgeous Alex (Brosnan). Intent on getting her sister hitched as well, Claire finds an ad by a fellow Columbia professor, Gregory Larkin (Bridges). Greg’s ad highlights intellectual compatibility over sexual attraction, so Claire answers his ad on Rose’s behalf. The two hit it off after some initial awkwardness, despite the strange agreement the two have of maintaining a platonic relationship. Rose’s problems are exasperated by her meddling and intrusive mother, Hannah (Lauren Bacall), an aging beauty who constantly belittles and picks on her. She’s nonplussed by her daughter’s unconventional romance, and doesn’t hold back, taking every opportunity to make Rose feel insecure.
By 1996, Streisand was already an established movie director, having helmed the underrated Yentl (1983) and the hugely popular The Prince of Tides (1991). Unlike her previous efforts, The Mirror Has Two Faces is very conventional and revels in its lack of ambition. Instead of reinterpreting literary sources, she put out a mainstream romantic comedy. Unfortunately, she’s not as distinct as other romcom legends like Nora Ephron, Rob Reiner, or Woody Allen. It feels a bit as if she’s coasting (though in interviews, Streisand tried to paint a sheen of importance by insisting that the film is about society’s unfair standards of beauty).
But the film isn’t all bad – in fact the first half is a sparkling comedy. It was a great reminder to viewers that Streisand is one of film’s greatest screen comediennes. Unfortunately after her peak in the 1970s, she started to take her career and image very seriously, and worked in very serious dramas, mistaking dourness for social relevance. During the first half, LaGravenese gifts Streisand with some wonderful one-liners and moments to really have fun as an actress; unfortunately, the second half of the movie sags underneath the script’s convoluted twist, during which Rose is spurned for being a plain Jane, and therefore gets an obligatory makeover montage, complete with a Richard Marx song. Because this is a Barbra Streisand movie, she never really lets herself look schlubby – it’s just that when she’s not “hot Rose” she has brown hair, and is swaddled in fashionably boho chic outfits – the “after” Rose is squeezed into cocktail dresses with gratuitous shots of her long gams and cleavage.
But Streisand’s strength as a director is that because she’s an actress, she’s sympathetic towards her cast and gets some good-to-great performances from her company of attractive actors. In the film’s best performance, Bacall shines brightest, effortlessly stealing all of her lines. She’s great comic relief, puncturing some of the heavy puffery of the film with her withering timing. But Streisand and LaGravenese give the legendary actress two wonderfully candid scenes in which some of the blustery schtick is dropped and Bacall is allowed to be vulnerable. While Bacall is the high point of The Mirror Has Two Faces, Bridges is a close second – he’s an affable comic actor that will remind viewers of Cary Grant. And as Streisand’s frumpy best friend, Brenda Vaccaro, also is appealing. And though their roles aren’t all that memorable, Brosnan and Rogers both acquit themselves well.
The Mirror Has Two Faces won’t go down in film history as a classic. Some 15 years later, it’s primarily known as the film that finally got Lauren Bacall her first and only Oscar nomination. Still, it’s a nice film that seems to work as filler – a segue to her current film career return as a screen comedienne (she was bright, relaxed, and funny in the Meet the Fockers films and The Guilt Trip).