As she nears her 80th birthday (April 24), Barbra Streisand remains a singular figure in American entertainment. By the age of 28, this brassy Brooklyn girl had already done the unthinkable, winning the EGOT—Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards—and she was just getting started. Even to those who might think otherwise, Barbra Streisand matters—she stands out from the cookie-cutter crowd, as an entertainer, person and subject of speculation and satire. But, as Tom Santopietro, author of The Importance of Being Barbra, reminds us, her ongoing battle to do things her way is also an epic American success story. And the key is THAT VOICE. Like buttah…
When 18-year-old Barbra Streisand burst onto the scene in July 1960, to a surprisingly large extent (even in her native New York City), everyone was trying to be the same American. Such attempts were doomed to failure, of course, but the effort was being made, even by those who didn’t particularly want to do so. Barbra Streisand couldn’t conceive of even making the effort, which was a startling frame of mind for an unknown, strange-looking 18-year-old Brooklyn girl, especially in 1960.
An appearance on The Garry Moore Show, 1962:
This individualistic frame of mind would soon endear Barbra to American outcasts of all stripes. Why, Barbra seemed to reason, should she try to fit in? She wanted to stand out, not live like everyone else. It was, in the Barbra lexicon, not only impossible for her to blend in, but a waste of time to even try, and this was one girl who had no time to spare. Barbra Streisand thought fast, she walked fast, and boy oh boy did she ever talk fast, with a thick Brooklyn accent and machine-gun-rapid patter.
She looked different and sounded different, and even her name—born Barbara, she changed the spelling to Barbra to further stand out—was different. But even at 18 she was highly sensual. The slender frame, the mixture of steel and vulnerability, the willowy hands and all-enveloping voice—indeed, like any real star, Barbra Streisand carried a sexual charge. It just came in a package unlike any other previously glimpsed. She was zany, off the wall and, in her own words, “I’m so far out, I’m in.”
Without Barbra, there would be no Cyndi Lauper. No Madonna. It was, in fact, no accident that on a Saturday Night Live “Coffee Talk” skit, in which Roseanne Barr, Mike Myers, and Madonna all discussed the endless virtues of one Barbra Joan Streisand, the actual star’s hilariously unexpected appearance in the middle of the sketch found the Material Girl herself bowing to Barbra in a “we are not worthy gesture.”
Yes, Madonna and Cyndi Lauper may have pursued decidedly different musical visions, but in her take-no-prisoners approach and determination to control all aspects of her career, Barbra led the way with dignity as the original show business feminist.
She wore thrift shop clothes when no one in show business wore such outre garb. The early 60s may have represented the apex of glamorous, sequined-gowned, bouffant-coiffed female nightclub singers, but Barbra wore a white lace Victorian-era combing jacket she found in a thrift shop. Her mother took one look and told her daughter that it looked like she was singing in her underwear. Why, she asked, couldn’t Barbra become a secretary in the school system—she’d even receive paid vacations! Barbra responded by growing her fingernails long enough to make typing impossible.
Rebellious in clothes, rebellious in attitude, and rebellious in repertoire- in the era of Doris Day and Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand was standing on stage in sophisticated nightclubs and singing “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf.” That kookiness, the breaking of rules, came naturally. She had been testing boundaries from the time she was a toddler. As she recalled, “When the rabbi would go out of the room at the Brooklyn Yeshiva I attended until third grade I’d yell ‘Christmas! Christmas!’ A bad word for Hebrew school.” She’s the epitome of the establishment now, of course, but then again, time does that to every rebel.
The start of the Streisand legend began in a New York City gay bar, The Lion, where she won a talent contest as an 18 year old still so naïve that she didn’t even realize her all-male audience meant she was singing in a gay bar. She had drive, she had chutzpah, and she had THAT VOICE—and it was always THAT VOICE in capital letters. A multi-octave range, crystal-clear diction, and an actress’s ability to turn each song into a three-act play. Infusing her songs with uber drama, she sang of lost love while still holding out hope of finding happiness and Prince Charming in her own over the rainbow, technicolored, happily-ever-after ending. Thanks to the mysterious pull and yearning of that voice, she instantly formed a connection with the core audience that would follow her every move over the next sixty years because every outsider in the audience, everyone who ever felt like “the other”, intuited that Barbra was one of them. Barbra understood.
Crowds began flocking to see the city’s new dreamgirl, and her shows at The Lion led to a fancier uptown joint, the Bon Soir, which in turn led to a show-stopping, Tony Award-nominated gig as the lovelorn secretary Yetta Marmelstein in I Can Get It For You Wholesale.
A record contract was signed with the legendary Goddard Lieberson at Columbia Records, where the still unknown Barbra insisted upon total control over what she would or would not record. The result? An Album of the Year Grammy for The Barbra Streisand Album. Which led to Funny Girl on Broadway and the cover of Time, Life and for all anyone knew, Golf Digest, because Barbra Streisand was now everywhere. She represented that show business rarity, a dynamo whose talent matched the drive. In her own words: “I want to be famous. I don’t care whether it’s by singing or acting or what, I want everybody to know my name, even the cowboys!”
By now most everyone did know her name, cowboys included, and she won the Emmy for Best Television Special of the Year before signing to star in three multi-million dollar movie musicals. Because Barbra Streisand, who had inhaled larger-than-life movie dreams while watching from the balcony of Brooklyn’s Lowes King theater, was not content with conquering Broadway; she had her sights set on Hollywood. Starring on her own terms and arriving in tinsel town as herself- no nose job, no name change. In the words of her Wholesale director Arthur Laurents, “Not flaunting, not defying, just simply declaring at Hollywood Customs: Here is a Jewish movie star.”
The rumors immediately started—she was temperamental, a know-it-all who tried to tell her Oscar-winning director William Wyler how to do his job. Her response to this was simply to win the Oscar as Best Actress for her very first film, Funny Girl. Which is how and where Barbra Streisand became a global cultural figure, not only as the enormous once-in-a-generation talent she was, but because by succeeding in Hollywood she had changed the playing field for every overlooked, overweight, non-cookie cutter girl—or gay boy—who dreamed of a bigger and better life. As the Funny Girl librettist Isobel Lennart said, “She’s made life a lot better for a helluva lot of homely girls.” Barbra as lodestar—if she could do it, the reasoning ran, then so could they. She was, by now, not just an inspirational figure, but one aspirational in nature as well.
The hit albums followed one after the other, more Grammys, more Emmys, a special Tony Award, and a Hollywood stardom that alternated big musicals like Hello, Dolly! with smaller comedies. And then came the final piece solidifying her status as queen of the box office, a generational defining romantic swoon of a movie, The Way We Were, in which she starred opposite heartthrob Robert Redford. Streisand’s Katie Morosky set her sights on golden boy Hubbell Gardner and won him—only to lose him in that famous finale outside of the Plaza Hotel. Audiences cried—everyone who had ever wholeheartedly loved the wrong person cried—as Barbra’s Grammy-winning worldwide #1 title tune hit floated by on the soundtrack.
And yet it was still not enough, because Barbra’s engine never stopped. While the awards proliferated in unprecedented fashion—she’d won the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards) by the age of 28—the controversy continued to mount. She was difficult. She was opinionated. All true, but it was also all in pursuit of her own decidedly perfectionist vision. In her acute self-assessment: “I’m blunt. It saves me a lot of time but loses me a lot of friends.”
And now the controversy mounted offscreen as well, because Barbra Streisand remained an outspoken, defiantly proud liberal Democrat, who raised the hackles of those on the right as she raised millions of dollars for political candidates with her 1986 “One Voice” concert: filmed for television, released on record, and oh yes, performed in the special ampitheatre she had built in her backyard… By now she had become the far right’s favorite Hollywood punching bag, a state of affairs which bothered her not a bit: “I’m a liberal, opinionated, Jewish feminist. I press a lot of buttons.”
By the time of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, she had sung for every president since Kennedy, excepting only Richard Nixon, on whose enemies list she was prominently and proudly listed. She was at ease with power, her own and that of others, and shortly after Kennedy’s inauguration, when asked by the new President how long she had been singing, she immediately quipped: “About as long as you’ve been President.” A funny girl, onstage and off.
She would, in fact, go on to even greater recording and box office success with 1976’s A Star Is Born, but the film was reviled by critics, a fact partially mitigated by her winning a second Oscar, this time as the composer of the number one hit “Evergreen.” She had a box office hit with the forgettable comedy The Main Event (1979) but stumbled badly with the wildly uneven All Night Long (1981). She kept knocking down the walls and glass ceilings in Hollywood that no one else had dared to breach- and she did it her own way by writing, directing, producing, and starring in Yentl, the first woman to have ever done so with a mainstream Hollywood movie.
About Yentl, her Academy Award-winning Way We Were director Sydney Pollack said, “Usually when a new director starts directing, you can see the wheels turning, so to speak… Oftentimes you are giving something credit for being well-executed but not particularly polished in its execution. Yentl was seamless. It would be polished for a 20th film, but particularly so for a first film. I was terribly impressed with it.”
That beautiful 1983 movie musical proved a hit, yet never received its full due because by now critics seemed determined to review Streisand herself rather than the movie. The winner of a Golden Globe for Best Director on Yentl, she was not even nominated for an Oscar as Best Director. It was the price she paid for being successful on her own terms, engendering resentment by refusing all interview requests and still demanding total control of her recordings and films. In the smart, long-ago words of a pre-disgraced Bill Cosby: “It must be tough for her to be in the Hall of Fame at 28.”
The same critics who had praised Streisand when she was the kooky young upstart from Brooklyn often now turned on her with a vengeance, and reviews of her films were often strikingly personal. If Woody Allen and Warren Beatty were praised for writing, directing, starring in, and producing their own films, in the late 1970s and early 1980s Streisand was often taken to task for the same actions, the words all but stating: “How dare she? A woman?!” Critics accused her of self-indulgence and egomania in her self-directed efforts, conveniently forgetting the fact that in all three feature films she directed, her co-stars were nominated for Oscars: Amy Irving in Yentl, Nick Nolte in The Prince of Tides, and Lauren Bacall in The Mirror Has Two Faces.
She scored a second directorial triumph with 1991’s The Prince of Tides, but remained eager for new mountains to climb, rarely satisfied with anything she had achieved. In an anecdote that speaks volumes, after a screening of The Prince of Tides, friends like Shirley MacLaine were praising the film, and yet, explained MacLaine, “the first words out of her mouth are: ‘Tell, what didn’t you like?’” The film was nominated for the Best Picture award, but when it came to the directing award, she was overlooked once again. The Academy, it seemed, just did not like Barbra Streisand.
That distrust had begun upon her arrival back in the late 1960s, and by now the newer generation of Hollywood power elites seemed to have inherited the same attitude. Were her feelings hurt? Yes. Underneath the steely façade she remained strikingly vulnerable, and that dichotomy remained an essential part of her appeal. But was she shattered? Hardly. Her attitude in fact seemed to run along the lines of “Fine, I’ll make up new rules myself.” Through sheer force of talent and willpower, she now seemed able to hold her own party, inviting only those she liked. Or, as it turned out, she’d invite those she wanted, set the table, cook the dinner, and provide the entertainment. She was, as ever, in control.
“Don’t Rain On My Parade”-from Funny Girl:
Analyzing the difficulty some had in dealing with Streisand, Sydney Pollack explained: “When you face that kind of talent, all of your own fears come to the surface. You’re measuring yourself against her. And that’s why people get into trouble with her. As long as you’re comfortable with yourself and you know what you know, then she’s not a threat to you and you have no problems with her.” To Pollack, she was like other supposedly difficult actors ranging from Jane Fonda to Robert Mitchum and Burt Lancaster: “The simple fact is that the people you’ve mentioned work harder than anybody I know. If you know as much as they know or more, you’re not going to have any trouble with them. God help you if you know less.”
She spoke openly of wanting to work less—there was a house to design, grounds of plantings to supervise—and happy in her marriage to actor James Brolin, she did in fact begin to work much less frequently. Although her 1994 return to live concerts after a 27-year absence due to stage fright had generated acclaim, awards, and millions of dollars, her onscreen appearances grew increasingly rare; in the 40 years after 1983’s Yentl, she appeared in only six feature films, ranging from Nuts (1987) and The Prince of Tides (1991) to the popular and juvenile Meet the Fockers (2004) and Little Fockers (2010). Her perfectionist instincts made it difficult for her to accept films she didn’t control, and each of the three films she directed took years out of her life, because Barbra Streisand was a director who worried about every element of the production, right down to whether her blouse would read properly against the background of a couch. There was, to be sure, also a monumental recording career to consider, with a new CD released nearly every year. In short, a multimedia empire needed to be maintained.
Her life took another turn with a $10 million grant to establish the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute. It was an act of startling generosity, fueled, as always, by her insatiable curiosity and blunt questioning of the status quo: “Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women. Fifteen years ago, I read a story in The New York Times about gender differences in heart health. I was shocked to learn that more women are dying from cardiovascular disease than from all cancers combined and aren’t receiving the same attention in diagnosis and treatment as men. It just never made sense to me that women and men weren’t treated equally.”
As she heads towards her 80th birthday on April 24, she remains, as always, sui generis. Singer. Actor. Director. Producer. Feminist. Social Activist. Philanthropist. The last genuinely unique show personality of the twentieth century, her legacy is best summed up in the final track of her 2003 Movie Album, “You’re Gonna Hear from Me.” In just that one song, everything that has made Barbra Streisand a force to be reckoned with is present: The drive, the ferocious ambition with the talent to back it up, a will of steel, and above all, THAT VOICE. Her vocals gaining in intensity as they soar over a full orchestra, Streisand definitely knows her way around these Dory Previn lyrics:
Make me some room, you people up there
On top of the world, I’ll meet you I swear
I’m staking my claim, remember my name!
You’re gonna hear from me
Belting it out for anyone who needed to leave their hick town, move to New York City or Hollywood, and be noticed. “Understand me. Watch me. Like it or not, you have no choice.”
There never has been anyone like her. There never will be again.