When asked what my favorite film of all time is, the answer is quite simple…The Empire Strikes Back. As a kid, of course, I didn’t realize that Empire was not directed by George Lucas. He turned the reigns over to Irvin Kershner, a seasoned director but not exactly a big name. Despite being such a fan of his most famous work, I haven’t seen that many of his other films. Today we remedy that with a movie that couldn’t be more different than Empire…1972’s Up the Sandbox.
The film, based on a novel by Anne Roiphe, centers on a woman named Margaret Reynolds (Barbra Streisand). She has two small children, a college professor husband who is consumed with his work, and an annoying mother who wants her get out of New York and settle in Jersey. When she gets news of a third child on the way, she has trouble dealing with it and gradually starts to slip into a series of strange fantasies.
How strange, you may ask. Well, it starts with her joining a former professor of hers at a speech being given by Fidel Castro. After challenging el presidente during his speech, she is invited to his hotel suite where he dances around before revealing that he is, in fact, a woman. The truth comes out in Just One of the Guys style (you 80’s folks will know what I mean). Thank you Mr. Kershner, that image will be burned on my brain for some time. But moving on…she also imagines herself joining a bunch of radicals in a plan to blow up the Statue of Liberty, as well as going on an adventure in Africa to learn the secrets of painless childbirth from a tribe of warrior women.
Supposedly the film is all about exploring women’s changing roles during the 70’s sexual revolution. Okay…if you say so. I can’t really say that came through loud and clear for me. I guess I saw it more as a look at one woman’s unique way of dealing with the stresses in her life. Or, maybe it’s not all that unique. I think all of us retreat to imaginary situations we act out in our minds from time to time. Even though the intended themes may not have come through as strong for me, I still found the story to be very intriguing. I enjoyed how Kershner blurred the lines between reality and fantasy. Once you think you’ve figured out what is real and what isn’t, he throws you a curveball. Yet the film didn’t come across as gimmicky or pretentious.
A lot of the responsibility for whether the film works or not ultimately falls on Streisand. She rises to the occasion with a very impressive performance. She is required to cover a very wide range of tones here. She pulls off funny, forceful and touching with flawless precision. I admit to having never paid much attention to Streisand the actress in the past. The Streisand films of my formative film years were things like Yentl, The Prince of Tides, and The Mirror has Two Faces…all of which looked to be a bit pretentious to this 80’s teen. But having seen some of her earlier works in recent years, I’m really starting to gain a new appreciation for her acting abilities.
I think were it not for the strength of Kershner’s direction paired with Streisand’s performances, that this film could’ve very easily fallen apart. It’s very much a stream of consciousness story. In a short space of time it’ll jump from a slapstick scene where an old woman gets her face shoved into a cake to a more tense and serious moment, and then a few minutes later Babs’ breasts expand like balloons in the middle of a cocktail party. Strangely, it works.
I don’t know that I can tell you what about a film like Up the Sandbox made George Lucas decide that Kershner was the man to handle things like Tauntauns and Jedi Masters. Perhaps it’s the emphasis on characters, which is certainly one of the strengths that Empire has over its predecessor. It could just be that Kershner was a creative director capable of taking something very unusual and making it quite engrossing. In that department he certainly succeeds with this film.