Being Barbra Streisand

Being Barbra Streisand

woman of substance

Being Barbra Streisand

Barbra Streisand — whose coming album of duets, ‘Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway’, features a stellar supporting cast that includes Melissa McCarthy and Jamie Foxx — is talking about another duet with another celebrated singer, now long dead.

That would be Judy Garland, whose television show Streisand visited in 1963 in what feels like a watershed moment in the history of fabled American vocalists. In the course of my recent afternoon-long visit with Streisand at her cloistered estate here, she says several times that she doesn’t like revisiting her past.

But since she’s been researching a memoir, she’s in a more retrospective state of mind than usual. And before the afternoon is over, she will take me on a circuitous tour of her long life in the spotlight, with frequent side trips into the persistent problems of being Barbra.

Gritty realism

Streisand, you see, has always been in charge — of her image, of her career and, whenever possible, of her immediate environment — ever since she started singing in Greenwich Village nightclubs as a gawky teenager in thrift-shop clothes in the early 1960s. It is determination that has made her one of the most enduring — and adored and disliked — of all American stars. It is also why she seems unlikely to retreat entirely behind the iron gates of the estate she says is the one place she is entirely comfortable. She needs to make sure that the version of Barbra that the world knows is the version she sees, as exactly as possible. Unlike many female stars of her generation and stature, she has rarely ceded control to any manager, or mate, or Svengali.

Which brings us back to the subject of Garland, a singer with whom Streisand has been tellingly compared and contrasted over the years.

Streisand was barely into her 20s when they met, but already on the cusp of astronomical stardom; Garland, 41, would be dead six years later, one of Hollywood’s most notorious casualties of devouring fame. Yet when they sang two American standards in counterpoint — Happy Days Are Here Again (Streisand) and Get Happy (Garland) — they seemed like a matched set. “Afterward, she used to visit me and give me advice,” Streisand says. “She came to my apartment in New York, and she said to me, ‘Don’t let them do to you what they did to me.’ I didn’t know what she meant then. I was just getting started.”

Whoever ‘they’ were — studio moguls, a voyeuristic press, parasitic hangers-on, cannibalistic fans — it was never likely that they could do to Streisand what they did to Garland. From the earliest days of her career, Streisand exuded a Garlandesque fragility and emotional openness. But her long nails and close-set eyes, both quizzical and confrontational, spoke of the toughness of someone singularly capable of protecting herself.

Both sides of that dichotomy are still very much in evidence when I visit Streisand at her estate in Malibu, a compound of three main buildings that evoke a fantasy New England, incongruously situated above the glittering expanse of the Pacific Ocean. To step behind its gates after experiencing the brown and smoke shades of the adjoining highway on a hazy summer’s day is to feel like Garland’s Dorothy stepping from sepia-toned Kansas into the Technicolor of Oz.

Streisand is waiting at the open door of the house she lives in. That’s as opposed to the one she works in — called Grandma’s House — or the Barn, which she describes as “an art project.”  That’s the one with a subterranean mall of old-time shops, a jaw-dropping marvel of themed décor and room after room of impeccably arranged artefacts.

Laurels & love

At 74, she looks like, well, Barbra Streisand, albeit a softer, more subdued version than the one you know from six decades of movies, from her Oscar winning-debut in the musical Funny Girl (1968), in which she recreated her Broadway performance as the Ziegfeld entertainer Fanny Brice, to the comedy The Guilt Trip (2012), with Seth Rogen. 

Streisand says she hates to leave her Malibu property, the place where she can be in control. Almost as soon as she set foot onstage, during rehearsals for her first Broadway show, I Can Get It for You Wholesale, she has known, she says, that she was born to be a director, in all senses of that word.

She has become one behind the camera, as the pioneering female director, star and producer of Yentl, The Prince of Tides and The Mirror Has Two Faces. Being that kind of director, though, means waiting for green-lights and money and rights to material. Though it had been announced a few weeks earlier that she would be making her long-anticipated version of the musical Gypsy — in which she would portray the ultimate stage mother, Mama Rose — that project is again in limbo.

The record is ‘Encore’, the 35th of Streisand’s studio albums. She says that working on the numbers with the other singers — performers known principally for film work, and including Antonio Banderas, Alec Baldwin, Anne Hathaway and Seth MacFarlane — was rather like producing a series of mini-movies. She added dialogue and, in some cases, altered lyrics from Broadway classics.

For someone like me, who came of age watching and listening to Streisand in the early years of her career, her forced focus on the way she was is a godsend.

It means that I get to see, in the screening room in the Barn, Streisand’s uncut sequence of herself as Fanny Brice performing Swan Lake in the film Funny Girl. I also get to hear about the Rialto of yore, where, as a young woman just a few years out of Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, Streisand became a star in two musicals, I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1962) and Funny Girl (1964), the first and last Broadway shows in which she has appeared.

There’s something, she says, about being judged that unnerves her, especially since her appearance in Central Park in 1967, when 1,50,000 people showed up and she forgot lyrics onstage. Since then, “I always got frightened when I had to perform live.” She was absent from commercial concert stages for the following 27 years. “I’m killing myself for this tour, because there’s a painting I want,” she says. She is a self-described “auction freak,” and the covetable paintings in her house include works by Munch and Modigliani, as well as a portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart.

She seems to look back on her younger self with a certain wonder. “I don’t know that I would have the chutzpah now,” she says.

Anchor to past

But where did that original immense confidence — and hunger — come from? Much has been written about Streisand’s Brooklyn childhood: the gap left by the death of her father, a scholar and schoolteacher, when she was a toddler; the mother who never complimented her and thought she should become a secretary. “She had talent,” she says of her mother, who worked as a secretary but who Streisand describes as also having had “a beautiful voice.”

“She didn’t have the drive. I said, ‘Why didn’t you do this, why didn’t you go after your dream?’ You can have a dream, but how do you manifest it, how do you make it happen? Hard work, heart, taking chances — that was always my philosophy.”

The Malibu residence, as tailored to her tastes and needs as a couture dress might be, would seem to offer a place where a person might shed her shell. I ask her if she feels serene here. She doesn’t answer immediately. So I ask: “Do you EVER feel serene?” “That’s a good question,” she says. So I ask it again. Her muttered response: “No, not really, sad to say.”

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