Generally speaking, I’m not terribly fond of musicals. But the handful I love, I really love. The 1970 film On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is one of them, and a big reason is Barbra Streisand’s tour de force in a dual role, as the same woman in two different lives.
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever was based on the Broadway musical of the same name, written by Alan Jay Lerner, who also wrote the screenplay for the movie. Burton Lane composed the music.
Initially, the movie was not one of Streisand’s (or director Vincent Minelli’s) most highly regarded films, but it seems to have grown in reputation over the decades. Perhaps its ESP/past lives/New Age-ish themes were a little too advanced for the time. Also, the movie adaptation pared down many of the musical numbers from the Broadway version. (This, I have to admit, is another reason why I probably really like this film. It doesn’t feel like a musical–it’s more like a movie with some music in it.)
The story follows adorkable Daisy Gamble, a chain smoker who is engaged to an ambitious young man named Warren (Larry Blyden). He thinks her habit is not “normal” and may repel the recruiters of a huge conglomerate he wants to work for. Daisy seeks out Dr. Mark Chabot (Yves Montand), a psychiatrist who teaches at a medical school. Because he uses hypnosis to help his patients, she hopes he can help her stop smoking in time for her meeting with the recruiters.
Annoyed by Daisy’s ditzy personality, Chabot wants to palm her off on another doctor until he realizes she may have some psychic ability. Skeptical of such things, he hypnotizes her to discover how she finds missing items and makes flowers grow faster than usual. During their session, he accidentally regresses Daisy back to the Regency era in England, where she had a previous life as a woman named Melinda Tentrees, who was also a psychic.
Unlike Daisy, Melinda seems at first a cultured woman, but it turns out she was the child of a scullery maid who used many devious methods to rise in society, including blackmail. Over several sessions, as he learns more details of her life, Chabot begins to fall in love with Melinda. Daisy, misunderstanding his interest in her, thinks he’s falling for her.
When the school administration and Daisy find out what’s really going on during the sessions, all hell breaks loose. Chabot almost loses his job and Daisy is devastated that Chabot is in love with her–but only the person she was in a previous life. Chabot desperately tries to convince Daisy to continue the sessions and his research, now approved by a rich man who wants to come back in his next life and get his money from this one. After he hounds her psychically, she returns to see him one last time.
Their final session is bittersweet, as Chabot regresses her again to find out if they ever knew each other in another life. Daisy tells him they were married–in the year 2038. They part on good terms, each having learned a lot about themselves from the experience.
On A Clear Day You Can See Forever has one of my favorite themes: two disparate people who meet by chance and cause significant changes in each other’s lives. The story uses another theme, one enhanced by the dual roles played by Streisand: how we are never quite as we seem to the rest of the world. Melinda uses both duplicity and psychic ability to gain what she wants: money and advancement in her society. She also tries to use it to keep her husband Robert (John Richardson) a handsome, lazy cad who doesn’t deserve her or her love. In the modern section, Daisy is also with a man not worthy of her and lies keep him. She hides her psychic gifts from Warren because she desperately wants to fit other people’s idea of what constitutes “normal.”
Both Melinda and Daisy are drawn to Chabot, even though they are supposedly in love with other men. In the musical number “Go to Sleep” duality is emphasized again as Daisy has a duet–with herself. In the number “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have,” Daisy realizes she is her own rival for Chabot’s affections.
It’s hard not notice that there’s a definite feminist vibe to the story. Melinda is a driven woman whose downfall is brought about by her ambition for herself and her husband. (She is hanged for treason because she used her psychic ability to help her husband’s business). Daisy’s attempts to become perfect marriage material for Warren are often comical. Warren tells her the company he wants to work for doesn’t like women to have opinions–actually, they don’t like women, only wives and mothers. Even Daisy’s ex-stepbrother Tad (Jack Nicholson, in a fun cameo bit), a kook who accepts her unique gifts, thinks marriage–to him–is the best solution for her.
For much of the story Chabot is contemptuous of Daisy (indeed, Montand plays Chabot as a French man contemptuous of pretty much everyone and everything American). At the end, he understands her value as an individual person who is as remarkable in her own way as Melinda. At one point, fed up with Melinda’s loyalty to her rotten husband, he goes on a rant about how God should have created women first, when he was fresh. So in a sense he had some contempt for Melinda, as well, but by the end of their final “meeting” he also sees her value as a person.
I like that the story concludes with Daisy not ending up with Chabot (he decides to return to his estranged–and up-to-that-point unmentioned–wife), but facing life no longer afraid to be her true self. It’s also refreshing that Chabot–a pedantic, almost smug man–faces his own shortcomings and opens his mind to the idea that he was wrong, both about Daisy and himself.
The movie contains some delicious satire of the tumultuous times–for instance, students start demonstrating when they find out about Chabot’s research–because, you know, they liked to demonstrate. Bob Newhart is perfection as a university administrator appalled by the concept of reincarnation. (“It kills ambition!”)
The costumes must be mentioned, because they, along with Streisand’s performance, do a great deal to bring the two characters to life. Cecil Beaton created the Regency-era costumes. Arnold Scaasi, who created the famous sparkly bell-bottomed pantsuit Streisand wore when she won the Academy Award for Funny Girl, did the contemporary outfits. (Interestingly, Beaton was quoted as calling the mod clothes in the film “dreadful,” but I love them!).
Some of the songs that were cut were filmed, along with a few other scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor. The Barbra Streisand Archives does a great job of reconstructing some of these scenes, and also has some terrific set photographs.
I like the spare feeling of the movie and how it focuses mostly on the Chabot/Daisy and Chabot/Melinda relationships. Montand is no singer, but he does do a fine job with the title song. Streisand, of course, is sublime during the musical moments. She has been complimented many times for Melinda’s authentic-sounding British accent (actually, accents, as she does both a Cockney and upper class version), which are hilarious counterpoints to Daisy’s exaggerated “New Yawk” accent.
If you’ve skipped over this movie because it’s usually considered at the lower end of Streisand’s filmography, I would recommend giving it another chance. This is a great example of diva times two.